The Transportation Security Administration, once the flagship agency in the nation's $20 billion effort to protect air travelers, is now targeted for sharp cuts in its high-profile mission.
The latest sign came yesterday when the Bush administration asked David M. Stone, the TSA's director, to step down in June, according to aviation and government sources. Stone is the third top administrator to leave the three-year-old agency, which was created in the chaos and patriotism following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The TSA absorbed divisions of other agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, only to find itself the subject of a massive Department of Homeland Security reorganization.
The TSA has been plagued by operational missteps, public relations blunders and criticism of its performance from the public and legislators. Its "No Fly" list has mistakenly snared senators. Its security screeners have been arrested for stealing from luggage, and its passenger pat-downs have set off an outcry from women.
Under provisions of President Bush's 2006 budget proposal favored by Congress, the TSA will lose its signature programs in the reorganization of Homeland Security. The agency will probably become just a manager of airport security screeners -- a responsibility that itself could diminish as private screening companies increasingly seek a comeback at U.S. airports. The agency's very existence, in fact, remains an open question, given that the legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security contains a clause permitting the elimination of the TSA as a "distinct entity" after November 2004.
"TSA, at the end of the day, is going to look more like the Postal Service," said Paul C. Light, a public service professor at New York University and a Brookings Institution scholar who has tracked the agency since its birth in February 2002. Light calls the TSA "one of the federal government's greatest successes of the past half-century" and likens it to the creation in the late 1950s of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which was also born during great public excitement to serve an urgent national need.
But the TSA's time in the spotlight is over, and it should now step back to serve a more narrow role, Light said. "It's a labor-intensive delivery organization that is not going to be making many public policy decisions. Its basic job is to train and deploy screeners," he said.
Bush administration officials say they do not expect the demise of the TSA, adding they will know little about the future of the agency until new Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff completes his review of the department, which will probably prompt major changes.
"TSA has taken significant steps to enhance the nation's transportation and aviation security over the course of the past two years, and TSA continues to have the confidence, not only of nation's air travelers, but of departmental leadership, to continue in this important mission," said Brian Roehrkasse, a Homeland Security spokesman. "Secretary Chertoff is open to adjustments in the way that DHS does business but will not advocate for or against any change until a thorough review of the changes is complete." The review is expected to be completed in May or June.
The government has pumped more money into airline security than any other Homeland Security effort. Much of it goes toward salaries for more than 45,000 security screeners at over 400 airports.
Travelers know the TSA mostly by its operations at the airport security checkpoint, a highly public role that magnifies the agency's smallest blunders and often forces it to defend itself.