Tuesday, March 21, 2006

TSA Stikes (Out) Again

Part four… this is getting to be like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe*…

I’ve written – disparagingly – about the TSA in the past. The Transportation Security Administration was formed after the 9-11 terrorist attacks to centralize airline passenger screening under Federal auspices, instead of the then-current system of having each airline contract out its screening operations.

At first, I was in favor of the concept. Having been in the security profession for 25 years, I was well-aware of the realities of airline security. With the much-publicized financial woes of many of the airlines, it was inevitable that “loss-centers” like security would be shorted in favor of federally-mandated programs like maintenance or “profit centers” like maintaining flight frequencies. For most airlines, the purchasing department, not security experts, were in charge of selecting a security contractor to provide screening services. Since the purchasing people usually had little or no knowledge of security (other than having to wear their ID badges at work), it wasn’t surprising that most bids were awarded solely on the basis of cost. The problem is that security services should not be purchased on the basis of the lowest bid: you get what you pay for. If an airline receives bids from two security contractors, one at $15.00 per man-hour and the other at $20.00, the airline would usually go for the $15-an-hour company. Usually, one-half of the per-man-hour cost is the salary for the employee, while the other half is corporate overhead (recruiting, uniforms, background checks, benefits administration, etc.) and profit. This means the winning company pays its employees about $7.50 per hour, while the losing company pays $10.00. Do you think maybe you might get a higher-caliber person for $10 than you would for $7.50?

One of the biggest problems with the contract security industry is that in order to maintain “reasonable” profits, the companies have to minimize expenses… and the expenses that tend to be minimized are salaries for the line officers, training, equipment, and benefits (corporate bigwigs, of course, get excellent salaries and bennies). This, in turn, leads to high employee turn-over. Industry figures I’ve seen indicate a 400% annual turnover in rank-and-file staff. Yes, 400% annually… that means a completely new work force every three months. Of course, it’s not quite that bad – some people leave company A to work for company B, move onto C and so on, but this constant turn-over increases the employer’s costs, which results in even less money available for salaries for the troops. The artificially-low pay scales resulted in two types of employees: part-timers (whose main loyalty, obviously, was to their full-time job, which was usually not security-related) and those who could not get better jobs (like flipping burgers at McDonalds). Either way, the public suffered, even if they didn’t realize it.

Additionally, the lack of standardized training requirements – hell, the lack of any training requirements in many states – led to tremendously unqualified people performing critical functions. Often, screeners would have – at most – an hour or two of training, with just the most basic rudiments of what they were seeing on the screen. The screeners – because of their insufficient training – often could not distinguish between objects that pose a legitimate threat and those that don’t.

That’s why I was so hopeful about TSA in the early days. A Federal takeover of screening would have relieved the airlines of one significant expense (thereby hopefully allowing them to devote that money to maintenance), while at the same time providing screeners with a living wage (originally, the annual wage for entry-level screeners was to be about $40k), and allowing realistic system-wide training standards.

Of course, as is always the case with BushCo initiatives, the idea didn’t quite work out that way. First, the feds cut the pay scales back, almost to the pittance the private-sector screeners were making (about $17K, and try living on that!). Then, the feds removed many employment safeguards, like Civil Service protections, the right to engage in collective bargaining, and so on.

As a result, we have seen several hundred TSA screeners arrested and charged with stealing from airline passengers, both in the security screening lines, and from checked baggage. We’ve seen complaints of other illegal behaviors, including alcohol and drug use at work, harassment, racial profiling, and so on. We’ve seen arrogance coupled with incompetence, and stupidity coupled with authority.

Now, the GAO – Government Accountability Office – has compiled a classified report showing that federal investigators were able to carry bomb-making materials past screeners at 21 airports. Even when investigators deliberately triggered extra screening precautions, no one discovered the materials.

Recipes for homemade bombs are readily available on the Internet, and the ingredients are all available over the counter, so it’s not like this is some far-fetched scenario.

With the advent of hardened cockpit doors, and (admittedly) half-assed screening at check-in, experts say that explosives are now the biggest threat from terrorists targeting airliners.

But the screeners can’t spot the materials, even in extra-scrutiny situations. Yet these are the same people who can find a pair of toenail clippers in a woman’s carry-on suitcase.

Security expert Bruce Schneier, whom I’ve quoted before, points out that TSA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, spend most of their time “preparing for the last attack”: after 9-11, all emphasis was on aircraft security; after the Madrid and London bombings, emphasis shifted to commuter transit.

For some bizarre reason, TSA and DHS seem to be unable to think outside the box; they’ve expressed little interest in securing segments of the critical infrastructure that have not yet been attacked, but that have obvious and well-publicized security short-comings, like chemical and power plants. Nor has there been a concerted effort to prepare for a possible (or, some say, inevitable) bird flu outbreak, other than the Department of Health and Human Services advising Americans to stockpile canned tuna and powdered milk (the “duct tape and plastic sheeting” school of emergency preparedness). And of course we all know how well another DHS component, FEMA, fared in responding to Hurricane Katrina.

Part of the problem with DHS is the tendency to concentrate on the “sexier” parts of their mandate, like terrorism, and neglect the more mundane aspects like disaster preparedness. It is this misplaced emphasis that eliminated FEMA as a separate Cabinet-level agency, that gutted the training and preparedness activities, and directly resulted in such fiascos as Katrina.

The same misplaced emphasis has resulted in allegedly professional screeners who needlessly risk our lives and who can’t successfully perform their job functions.


* For those who aren't familiar with the series, it is a five-volume comedic/science fiction trilogy by the late Douglas Adams.

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