By Melanie Zanona
This article appeared on The Hill on Sept. 11, 2016
The Transportation Security Administration has completely transformed airport security since its creation following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But 15 years later, the agency credited with making the traveling public more safe has also grown to become one of the most unpopular agencies in the federal government.
Even lawmakers who helped create the agency have become some of TSA’s toughest critics, blasting the agency for massive checkpoint lines, invasive pat downs, failed security tests and employee misconduct.
Yet as Congress continues to bash the beleaguered agency and haul in officials to grill them in hearings, members are far from giving up on the TSA.
Indeed, appropriators have proposed giving the agency a funding bump in the latest spending bills, and most see TSA’s role in securing the nation as getting bigger, not smaller.
“Given the heightened sense of security that we have, I can only see TSA’s role increasing,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, told The Hill.
Transforming air travel
Prior to 9/11, airports were in charge of their own security operations and would outsource screening to private companies.
In the aftermath of the attacks — and the realization that the nation’s airport security wasn’t up to snuff — Congress and the George W. Bush administration quickly sprang into action with a series of reforms designed to deter terrorism.
A cornerstone of that effort was establishing the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA to oversee the security of airports and other modes of transportation.
Over time, the agency introduced new procedures such as removing shoes and banning liquids; deployed advanced screening technology; put federal air marshals on flights overseas; created behavior detection programs; and used bomb-sniffing dog teams.
“As we commemorate the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is a time for remembrance and resolve,” the agency said in a statement to The Hill. “We remember and honor those who lost their lives, and their families and friends whose lives are forever changed. We resolve to remain vigilant and prevent such an attack from ever happening again."
The TSA says it continues to test new technologies that can speed up screening efficiency and effectiveness, as well as coordinate with airlines, airports, lawmakers and travelers to help accomplish its counterterrorism mission.
There’s “no question” we are safer today than before 9/11, Thompson says.
But in its effort to protect travelers, the agency also has become a lightning rod for criticism. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), a chief sponsor of the legislation that formed the TSA, says the agency has become a bloated bureaucracy that puts too much stock in administrative staff.
He criticized the agency for employing 46,000 security officers — up from 16,500 when TSA first started — and another 10,000 administrative employees.
When asked whether this is how he envisioned the TSA would look today, Mica was unabashed: “Never.”
String of Missteps
The TSA has most recently come under fire for long checkpoint lines that led to three-hour wait times in some cases and thousands of missed flights around the country.
Part of the problem was that the agency overestimated how many passengers would sign up for the expedited PreCheck program and cut its staff in anticipation of enrollment.
But the massive lines were also the product of a security crackdown at the agency, following an explosive report last summer that found TSA screeners were failing to detect fake bombs and weapons in nearly 96 percent of security tests.
The laundry list of missteps has led to a contentious relationship with Congress.
“The monster continues to grow,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told The Hill. “I want them to be adequately resourced, but I’m not convinced they know how to evaluate and implement new technology.”
Chaffetz acknowledged, however, that TSA’s job is “a very difficult task. They have to be right 100 percent of the time.”
Under new leadership from TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger — a generally well-liked figure on Capitol Hill — the agency has taken steps to correct course.
Neffenger retrained the workforce, established the first ever TSA Academy and significantly improved checkpoint lines — even in the face of historically high travel volumes and heightened security.
But not everyone is convinced.
“TSA is a huge bureaucracy. It has melted down many times in the past, and I think that the changes are only temporary,” Mica said. “It will melt down again.”
The TSA is here to stay
Some critics have called to abolish the agency, while more airports have considered privatizing their screening operations through TSA’s screening partnership program.
But completely getting rid of the TSA is a highly unlikely scenario — no matter how unpopular the agency is.
Airports that have privatized their screening since 9/11 still operate under TSA oversight and comply with all its standards.
House and Senate appropriation committees proposed a funding boost for the agency in their fiscal 2017 Homeland Security spending bills.
And Thompson, who acknowledged that the TSA is still the “new kid on the block” and has progress to make, just doesn’t see members of Congress who fly regularly doing away with the secure system already in place.
“Despite the perceived inconvenience of how you get to your flight, I believe the public now understands that that’s a necessary inconvenience,” Thompson said.