The TSA has never kept you safe: here’s why

June 2, 2015, 4:30 PM UTC
TSA Officers Work As Homeland Security Shutdown Nears Amid Immigration Impasse
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers check passenger's identification at a security checkpoint at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. Financing for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is set to lapse after Friday and the agency would face a partial shutdown unless Congress provides new money. More than 200,000 government employees deemed essential at DHS, including TSA officers, would still have to report to their posts, even though their pay would stop unless Congress finds a solution. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Transportation Security Administration’s timing couldn’t have been any worse. Just a few days after the busy summer travel season started — a time when inexperienced and nervous air travelers clog the nation’s airports — word leaked that the TSA screeners missed 95 percent of mock explosives and banned weapons smuggled through checkpoints by screeners testing the system.

And the reaction was swift. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson “reassigned” the TSA administrator, Melvin Carraway, and the president nominated Coast Guard Vice Admiral Pete Neffenger to the post. Meanwhile, critics called for the agency to be reformed or disbanded, which is a familiar refrain to anyone who watches the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems.

The larger question is: What’s wrong with airport security?

And the surprise answer is, absolutely nothing. TSA defenders will tell you that there hasn’t been a single successful terrorist attack on America’s airports since the creation of the agency in 2001. What’s more, they’d point out that the recent assessments were conducted by the TSA’s “red team,” which routinely conducts covert tests at domestic airports, evaluating security systems, personnel, equipment, and procedures. The point isn’t to embarrass the agency, but to get a snapshot of the effectiveness of airport passenger security checkpoint screening, among other things.

Put differently, members of the red team knew where to hide the dummy explosives, because they’re aware of the places screeners are less likely to look for them. Terrorists aren’t.

But agency critics say the lack of a new terrorist attack doesn’t mean the TSA is doing its job. It simply means there hasn’t been another successful terrorist attack. They point out that the agency is corrupt, inefficient and constantly in the news for violating the civil rights of passengers. Even the most level-headed and patient detractors now believe the time for reform is long past and that the agency needs to be re-imagined from the bottom up. In other words, those calls for eliminating the TSA aren’t as fringe as they might have been a decade ago.

In a sense, the TSA was never meant to protect anyone from terrorism. Experts know that no aviation security procedure, no matter how airtight it seems, can repel a truly determined terrorist. As Bruce Schneier, a security technologist, explained to Vanity Fair, “The only useful airport security measures since 9/11 were locking and reinforcing the cockpit doors, so terrorists can’t break in, positive baggage matching and teaching the passengers to fight back. The rest is security theater.”

All the talk about the layers of aviation security is really just that: talk. It’s not meant to stop terrorists from attacking a plane or airport, and they aren’t even meant to make the bad guys think they can’t pull off another 9/11. No, the TSA and its so-called “security circus” — which seems so much more like a carnival in the bright glare of the red team revelations — is meant to make us feel safer. That’s the real job of the TSA. Next time you go to the airport and see the long lines and the full-body scanners, the screeners giving pregnant mothers and senior citizens “pat downs” and passengers being “swabbed” and having the samples submitted into a fancy explosive detection machine, remember that.

It’s a $7 billion-a-year show put on for you.

And remember that when a terrorist finally succeeds in blowing up another plane, too. There will be a similar reaction. Heads will roll at the agency. Maybe the president will ask for the Secretary of Homeland Security’s resignation this time, maybe not. Critics will say, “We told you so.” But in the end, we’ll decide that having an incompetent TSA is better than having no TSA at all.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

There’s nothing wrong with airport security, and there’s nothing wrong with the TSA. It’s doing exactly what we wanted it to.

Christopher Elliott is a journalist and an author. His most recent book is entitled, How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler (And Save Time, Money and Hassle).