Global Politics

Sure, we could fix long airport waits with more money. But TSA has a bigger problem.

Travelers make their way through a TSA checkpoint at Reagan National Airport in Washington

Travelers make their way through a TSA checkpoint at Reagan National Airport in Washington Dec. 23, 2015. Unseasonably warm and rainy weather has created foggy conditions that have created travel delays to many cities along the East Coast.

Credit:

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

After two weeks of massive lines at airport security checkpoints across the country, the Transportation Safety Administration has replaced Kelly Hoggan, the TSA's top security official.

This comes after passengers in Chicago waited for three hours to clear security, leading more than 400 American Airlines travelers to miss their flights in a single day. But Chicago has not been alone. In Minneapolis, a security meltdown in February led to howls of protest. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says wait times at JFK airport in March and April rose 80 percent from the same time last year. 

In response, Terminal 4 at JFK, which is run and operated by a private company, hired 35 new summer staffers, and other airports have told the TSA they will also hire outside help if lines don’t start moving.

Since 2013, the TSA has reduced its number of employees by 10 percent. That smaller staff has to deal with 12 percent more passengers. And as the first big travel weekend of the summer approaches, it looks like long waits are the new normal, according to Bruce Schneier, an American cryptographer and a computer security and privacy specialist.

Long waits for fake threats?

Schneier says replacing Hoggan might be more of a symbolic solution to the problem of long wait times. He argues that TSA’s whole approach to aviation security has not kept up with the pace of technology, the changing nature of threats, or the realistic probabilities that an airplane will be a target, even within the context of the recent EgyptAir disaster.

“My feeling is that the TSA hasn’t been doing the right things for a long time,” he says.

In many ways, Schneier says instead of preventing terrorism, the TSA is a reactionary security apparatus.

“There’s a shoe bomber so [now] we take off our shoes; a liquid bomber so we screen liquids; an underwear bomber [and now] we have full body scanners,” he says. “All of those things are reactive, and that’s why it doesn’t really work — the goal isn’t to prevent what the terrorists did last week, but to anticipate what they do next week.”

Airport security simply isn’t designed as a first line of defense, and Schneier says the 2006 liquid bomb plot proves it.

“They were caught in London in their apartments before they got to the airport,” he says. “They picked a plot designed to get through airport security, and they were caught through investigation intelligence that had nothing to do with airport security. And that’s really where we have our success in this country, too. We don’t catch stuff at airports — airport security is the last line of defense, and not a very good one.”

Back in March, the departure area inside the Brussels airport was attacked by two terrorists, something that shows that it’s not just planes that are vulnerable to terrorism, Schneier says.

“If you are a bomber, what you want is a lot of people packed tightly together, and they exist just as much inside the airport as outside the airport in the security lines,” he says.

Schneier says government intelligence professionals should be working to stop terrorists before they get to a location, instead of hoping they can detect something on the ground in the last minutes before an attack is carried out. But it’s easy to see the flaws in the TSA’s reactionary model when considering that it was born as a reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“While I won’t say, ‘Abolish the TSA,’ I think we should ratchet airport security back down to pre-9/11 levels,” Schneier says. “A lot of tests have shown that the TSA misses 70 percent of guns — crazy numbers. And you look at that, and you say, ‘Wow, the TSA isn’t really good at detecting these things.’ But then you have to ask, ‘Well, why aren’t planes falling out of the sky?’ And the reason is, there’s nothing to detect.”

He continues: “There aren’t these terrorists coming through with guns and bombs, and our only defense is the TSA. It turns out, there are almost no terrorists, most of them are kind of dumb, and they’re not doing these sorts of plots. So while we need airport security, I think we need to back off and look at what the actual threats are these days.”

Money, politics at heart of TSA lines

Changing the size and function of the TSA might help reduce wait times for travelers. But many lawmakers are simply afraid to take such action, Schneier says.

“This is actually hard, because [eliminating the TSA] is not just about the anxiety of the people, it’s the anxiety of elected officials,” he says. “If you are Congress, and you say, ‘We don’t need this, we’re going to reduce the security requirements and go back down to pre-9/11 levels of security,’ and you get it wrong, you’re out of a job. It is always in their best interests to exaggerate the threats. So we’re kind of stuck in a loop.”

In some ways, the government is working to slowly reduce the size and function of the TSA. With the TSA PreCheck program, Schneier says the government is providing travelers with something that’s similar to the “pre-9/11 security” experience. And other changes are also being quietly rolled out.

“We’re seeing fewer liquid detections — those rules are kind of backing off — and shoes are still being screened, but not as much,” he says. “Slowly it’s happening, but this is very difficult because people might get anxious, and elected officials are scared for their careers if they make the wrong guess.”

But it’s not just the attitudes of lawmakers that are complicating things at airports. TSA is funded by Congress, and in April, the House of Representatives failed to pass a budget.

“The lines at the airport, the delays, that is 100 percent caused by not enough money for agents and lines,” says Schneier. “We increase their budget, we will have fewer delays at the airport. It’s not going to solve [all of] what we’re talking about, but it will make all of our experiences better when we get to the airport.”

President Barack Obama has asked lawmakers to approve $7.6 billion in funding for the TSA, something Schneier says will help with long wait times. But at the end of the day, he says bigger changes are needed.

“Redesign airport security to catch the random nut jobs and then we’ll be doing well,” he says. “We need to actually tell people what the risks are. We’ve spent a decade and a half convincing people they need to be scared of terrorism, which kills so few people that if it wasn’t for all the hype, we would never think about worrying about it. And again, this is hard, because we’ve built domestic policies and foreign policies, and spent a lot of money hyping this threat.”

This story was first published as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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