Defining TSA


As the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) approaches its 15th birthday in November, the agency continues to search for an identity. A report from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general (IG) released last week is noteworthy because it highlights how the agency still struggles to accurately define its mission. This is not entirely the agency’s fault. Created in the aftermath of 9/11, TSA’s overwhelming focus has been on screening airline passengers and their baggage.

But what about airport perimeters, train stations and ocean cargo ports?

TSA’s mission as stated on its website: “Protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.” (emphasis added by me)

The DOT IG report took TSA to task for “publicizing [since 2011] that it uses an ‘intelligence-driven, risk-based approach’ across all transportation modes” when this approach was designed “chiefly for air passenger screening.” So, yes, after a decade of a “one-size one-size-fits-all approach to air passenger screening” (the IG’s words), TSA in 2011 moved in the direction of “risk-based” security, rolling out the Pre-Check expedited screening program, ending intrusive checks on those over 75 and under 12 and focusing much more on intelligence to guide its efforts.

But TSA, which devotes 80% of its budget to aviation security and still—according to administrator Peter Neffenger—has trouble properly staffing airport checkpoints, did not develop “a crosscutting risk-based strategy for all transportation modes,” the IG said. As a result, the IG concluded, “TSA cannot ensure it consistently prioritizes security and resource allocation decisions to protect the traveling public and the nation’s transportation systems.”

TSA needs to “establish a formal budget planning process that uses risk to help inform resource allocations,” the IG report said.

The agency responded that developing a “robust” planning and budget process is a “top priority” for Neffenger.

In essence, TSA is really the “Airline Passenger Security Administration.” Even with this intense, narrow focus, however, it continually has hick-ups—the long-line crisis of this past spring was the latest example. But, from a “risk-based” assessment, is this laser focus on airline passengers the best use of the agency’s resources?

Should some of the high level of attention focused on screening airline passengers be shifted to other areas of the airport in light of the Brussels and Istanbul bombings? Should more resources go to securing trains and train stations?

Or, perhaps, should TSA’s mission be redefined to precisely protecting airline flights, and it be made clear that other modes of transportation security are the province of local law enforcement and other federal agencies?

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