ATLANTA — The stories are horrifying, they capture headlines and they spread like wildfire across social media channels.
At first blush, it seems like the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the agency formed in the wake of 9/11 to ensure travelers’ safety, is a rogue government agency.
While the TSA has seen a number of embarrassing public mishaps, experts seem to agree: The agency isn’t necessarily a troubled one. It suffers from many of the same problems large companies do.
“The recent arrests of TSA agents on everything from theft to drug smuggling is part of a problem in any large corporation,” said Jeff Price, an associate professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver and an aviation security author. “TSA has some 60,000 employees, and any 60,000-employee organization is going to have problems with employee pilferage and various types of illegal activity.
“The fact that it’s TSA, the agency created to take over transportation security, means there should likely be less of that kind of activity due to better background checks and oversight, but it will still occur to some level just as it does with the airlines,” Price said. “The response should be to punish the offenders and implement controls to minimize it from happening again.”
That’s been the tact TSA brass has taken in response to recent incidents.
“Any employee who willfully violates TSA rules will be held accountable for their conduct and appropriately disciplined,” Chris McLaughlin, assistant administrator for the TSA’s Office of Security Operations, said in a statement last month announcing the termination of seven TSA employees in Philadelphia.
“The basic cause of the problem is the normal disparity in talent, intelligence and behavioral disorder ... any large organization (experiences) in hiring blue collar workers,” said Alan Weiss, president of Summit Consulting Group. “Since TSA is mainly a giant employment agency and largely symbolic in its actual work content, there is a huge problem, because even five percent of poorly behaving TSA agents create huge problems for the organization and the public.”
Stewart Baker, a former Department of Homeland Security assistant policy secretary and former National Security Administration general counsel, said there is a “big appetite” for stories about TSA malfeasance — “some of those stories are false and some of them are true.” Regardless, they make for good fodder for social media channels.
“They are an emotional touchpoint for a lot of people,” said Baker, currently a partner at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington. “No one likes going through the experience, and if you’re inclined to personalize that, it’s easy to personalize it in hostility to the individuals or the policies. There’s a group of folks who are just outraged by almost anything the TSA does. They dislike them, they dislike the experience and they’re ready to believe the worst.”
Count U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., in that category. Last month, Broun offered to dismantle the TSA, a move he said would have saved taxpayers more than $5.5 billion.
His push fell short, and it wasn’t the first time the Congressman criticized the agency. In May, Broun asked John Pistole, administrator of the TSA, to resign, saying in a letter the federal agency “has become nothing more than a bloated, broken bureaucracy.”
“TSA has been an abject failure, as far as I am concerned,” Broun said in an interview this week. “We’ve spent almost $60 billion on an agency that is focusing upon objects; it does not focus upon those that want to harm us.
“We need to stop doing things in this government that make no sense and do something that’s different, that will make sense,” Broun added. “Patting down grandma and children is not the answer.”
Pistole, a 26-year FBI veteran, hasn’t stepped down.
“This isn't the way to go,” Price said. “TSA was created for a reason and the fact that they have had some very public faux pas over the years, doesn't invalidate their existence.”
But Weiss suggests TSA agents are “bored” and they “have little respect for their jobs or the public, since 99.9 percent of their job is rote, boring behavior.”
“They aren't going to find a terrorist, just a bottle of liquid that’s two ounces too large,” Weiss said.
“An analogy is the flight attendant trying to tell you that safety is her primary job, when 99 percent of the job is passenger comfort,” he added. “Making sure the doors are locked isn’t high on job satisfaction, which is why you have such variety in flight attendant performance on identical flights. The TSA agents have to create their own excitement. When people have no real power, they make it up. It's called bureaucracy (and bullying).”