TSA Security Still Not Secure But Maybe We Can Keep Our Shoes on Soon

The Senate Appropriations Committee is holding a hearing to discuss results of a still secret IG audit of TSA screening, featuring testimony from both TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger (who was only confirmed in July) and DHS’s IG, John Roth.

While neither will explain the results of the audit, Roth’s testimony makes it clear the audit did not turn out very well.

Our testing was designed to test checkpoint operations in real world conditions. They were not designed to test specific, discrete segments of checkpoint operations, but rather the system as a whole. The failures included failures in the technology, in TSA procedures, and in human error. We found layers of security simply missing.

Neffenger’s testimony provided more details which make it clear TSA had been emphasizing screening speed over security, especially as passenger volume and the incentive to carry on luggage has gone up.

The team’s initial conclusion is that the screening effectiveness challenges noted by the Inspector General were not merely a performance problem to be solved solely by retraining our officers. Officer performance is but one among many of the challenges. TSA frontline officers have repeatedly demonstrated during their annual proficiency evaluations that they have the knowledge and the skill to perform the screening mission well. Nor was this principally a failure of the AIT technology. These systems have greatly enhanced TSA’s ability to detect and disrupt new and evolving threats to aviation. AIT technology continues to perform to specification standards when maintained and employed properly, and we continue to improve its detection capabilities.

The challenge can be succinctly described as a set of multi-dimensional factors that have influenced the conduct of screening operations, creating a disproportionate focus on efficiency and speed in screening operations rather than security effectiveness. These challenges range across six dimensions: leadership, technology, workforce performance, the environment, operating procedures, and system design. Of these six, strong drivers include leadership focus, environmental influences, and system design.

Pressures driven by increasing passenger volume, an increase in checkpoint screening of baggage due to fees charged for checked bags as well as inconsistent or limited enforcement of size requirements for hand-carried bags and the one bag plus one personal item (1+1) standard1 create a stressed screening environment at airport checkpoints. The challenges also include the range of complex procedures that we ask our officers to employ, resulting in cognitive overload and personnel not properly employing the technology or a specific procedure. The limitations of the technology, the systems detection standards, TSA officers’ lack of training on equipment limitations, and procedures that failed to resolve the alarms appropriately all undermined our ability to effectively screen, as noted by the Inspector General’s report.

There’s a lot in both that addresses leadership (and Roth’s testimony makes it clear he kept raising the alarm under former TSA Administrator John Pistole), so hopefully Neffenger will do better at this.

The great news is Neffenger is looking at technology that will both work more efficiently without sacrificing security. Of particular note, he says there is a way to scan for shoe explosives without forcing us to take our damn shoes off.

So maybe we’ll move away from security theater in upcoming months and years?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

9 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    “So maybe we’ll move away from security theater in upcoming months and years?” Well I haven’t been in a while, what with Netflix and all, but you mean I have to take my shoes off now to enter the theater? I had heard that they’re cracking down after the Aurora shooting, but still, those places must really reek after a couple hours of bare feet. Do they at least give you a little foot bathtub like in a nail salon? That would be cute. For the price you pay these days, they could even get a ____ lady in there to _____ your toes.

  2. RUKidding says:

    When I flew on Monday, I didn’t have the TSA Pre authorization on my boarding pass. Yet when I went through the regular line, I didn’t have to take off my shoes or remove stuff from my bags. Seems like they’re already testing out new procedures at least in certain airports. This was in San Diego. They did have a TSA dude with what I presume was a bomb sniffing dog that I had to walk past.
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    It’s all pretty worthless, imo. I don’t think they do much of anything to check our checked luggage, except once in a while my checked bag has been searched. It’s still unclear to me whether baggage handlers and other airport workers actually go through any type of really stringent security checks. Plus I just recently read that several TSA workers were busted (I think they may have worked in San Diego but too lazy to double check) for some kind of drug selling scheme. Why not running guns, as well? Could happen.
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    Aren’t there those random checks that have been made where all kinds of weapons are discovered after people go through the baggage screens & rape-o-scan machines?
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    As far as I’m concerned, TSA is the lock on your car door – I always lock my car bc it provides a *deterrent* but I hold my breath bc it’s pretty bloody easy to steal my car, if someone is really motivated to do so.
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    Just saying….
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    The only purpose I see to TSA is providing jobs to citizens who might not otherwise have job opportunities. When they’re pleasant and professional, I feel at least I got some value for my tax dollar$. Better than the drones I pay for to bomb brown-skinned folks in MENA.

  3. P J Evans says:

    A friend told me about going through one airport security setup which included walking down a corridor that was straight, without exits, and had a checkpoint at each end, within sight of each other. Then there was a point where there was a U-turn to go through another checkpoint.
    One of their former managers joined TSA after their company folded. He was a bureaucratic prick before joining TSA.

  4. orionATL says:

    there was never a security option more demeaning and more inappropriate for an american citizen than having to genuflect to the natsec god while disrobing of shoes. 100’s of millions of passengers per year.

    what for? to protect from ineffective shoe bombs. and had those two planes blown up ? still inappropriate. you don’t disrobe for terrorism.

  5. orionATL says:

    a report like this only incites a bureaucracy, especially an always fearful bureaucracy like tsa, to duck inside its shell and breath old means and methods.

    pity the flying public.

    pity those citizens and non-citizens who wil now join the many tens of thousands vindictively or manipulatively placed on America’s no-fly list by the fbi-doj natsec maffia.

    and worked over by america’s ICE patrol (customs and immigration enforcement) :

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/03/boujemaa-razgui-customs-destroy-instruments-flutes_n_4537957.html

  6. Tenor says:

    There is a most effective way to scan for explosives: beagles, mutts & sweet canines of various stock. Plus, they are a lot more fun to look at and probably would contribute to a happier atmosphere

  7. Tenor says:

    BTW, I departed the US from IAD 2x within last year without onerous screening. The first time, a sticker was attached to my boarding pass that required me to go to the easy security line screening set up for those willing to pay an annual fee to avoid screening hassle. Nothing had to be taken out of carry-ons & shoes were not removed. the second time, everyone was allowed to go through this type – though some disbelievers took off their shoes even though the TSA officers repeatedy announced not to do so. As long as you could walk through the metal detector without detonating it, no further screening was required. After this pleasant experience, I approached a non-uniformed gentleman who appeared supervisory and offered my praise & encouragement for this approach. He said we were subjects of an experimental testing regime undertaken as part of project to reform the system. He wanted to know why I would not join their paid opt-out program, and I said I opposed such a 2-tier policy. In any case, he was happy for the positive feedback. and maybe we can look forward to travelling back to the future, Upon entering IAD port this year, it appeared we were also beneficiaries of the expedited tech & procedures used for the opt-out program as we scanned passports and answered questions at kiosks before a much abbreviated encounter with an entry officer.

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