TSA Tries To Balance Security, Efficiency

TSA officer Larry Morgan, left, speaks with Mo Osman of the District and Khalil Osman, 9, at his father's left, at a security check at Dulles last week.
TSA officer Larry Morgan, left, speaks with Mo Osman of the District and Khalil Osman, 9, at his father's left, at a security check at Dulles last week. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006

U.S. security officials had long anticipated the kind of terror threat that threw global air traffic into an uproar last week -- they'd even stepped up training to head off terrorists trying to sneak improvised explosive devices onto airplanes.

But when British authorities announced they had foiled such a plot, the Transportation Security Administration had only one option in its playbook: a sharp crackdown at security gates, with new stringent rules restricting carry-on baggage. The move caused a recurrence of the long, slow security lines and massive inconvenience for passengers that have blackened the agency's reputation since its inception after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The response highlights the tough predicament that the TSA repeatedly faces as it attempts to become a more sophisticated security operation. The agency has the difficult task of ensuring airline security with a minimum of hassle for millions of travelers pouring through airports.

After analyzing intelligence reports and assessments of the alleged plot, TSA Administrator Edmund S. "Kip" Hawley said it did not take long for authorities to figure out what to do. "There wasn't any balancing on this one," Hawley said.

The TSA, which has a budget of $6.2 billion and has seen its number of screeners drop to 43,000 from 55,000 in 2002, is one of the last lines of defense in the country's efforts to battle terrorism, particularly attacks directed at airplanes.

Travelers and their advocates have long complained that lines are too long at many airports, that some security measures seem inconsistent and that security officers seem to be in short supply. Others say that TSA officers seem to be doing little but hanging out at checkpoints, even when the lines grow. A joke among pilots is that TSA stands for a "Thousand guys Standing Around."

Watchdogs have hammered the TSA from the other side -- contending that the agency has been slow to tackle the most serious security concerns. Critics and outside security experts say the TSA has been sluggish to grapple with not only carry-on security issues but also with a range of other threats that include cargo shipments and checked baggage on passenger jets.

The TSA should have banned liquids long ago or pushed more aggressively to develop technology to detect them because the threat from such explosives has been well-established for at least a decade, critics argue. They also wonder why the Department of Homeland Security, of which the TSA is a part, has seen its research and development budgets slashed from $110 billion in 2003 to $44 billion this year.

"This points out a much larger issue," said Clark Kent Ervin, a former inspector general at the department. "The terrorists are always one step ahead of us. They are adaptive and learning and proactive. We are always focused on the last war. We need to make sure we don't lose the next war."

TSA officials defend their approach, saying the agency was formed in direct response to the 2001 terror attacks and faced congressional mandates and other pressures to hire as many screeners as quickly as possible.

It was a tough task, they say, and consumed their focus for years. They also were receiving pressure from struggling airlines and airports hoping to ease passenger security burdens to boost travel. As they were monitoring intelligence for new terror threats, current and former TSA officials said they felt it would not have been prudent earlier to ban all liquids and gels from flights. Hawley says he is confident that his screeners, who receive training on how to detect liquid explosives, would have stopped bombers from boarding U.S. airlines at airports.

In their constant effort to balance risk and security, TSA officials announced yesterday that they were tweaking some of their restrictions. Revisiting a previous policy enacted after other terror threats, TSA officials said they are requiring all passengers to remove their shoes to be screened by X-ray machines. They are also banning all aerosol products but allowing small doses of nonprescription medications, solid lipstick and baby food. "This refinement affords the same level of security that has been in place since last Thursday, but is intended to minimize the impact on travelers," officials said in a news release.

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