Clarification to This Article
A previous version of this piece stated that The Post's editorial board does not support unionization of workers at the Transportation Security Administration. In fact, the board has not taken a position on the issue.

Washington Post editorial looks at trouble at the TSA

Saturday, December 12, 2009

THE TRANSPORTATION Security Administration (TSA) is the federal agency that everyone loves to hate. It makes us arrive hours before our plane flights and makes us jump through more hoops than circus seals do to board them. These sometimes invasive procedures are meant to give us confidence that the federal government is safeguarding the nation's skies. But something happened Sunday that shows why confidence in the TSA is in short supply.

In March, the TSA, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), issued a request for proposal for an agency screening partnership program. This called for an outdated and redacted version of an air passenger screening manual to be posted at the Federal Business Opportunities Web site. It wasn't until Sunday -- nine months later -- that it was revealed that the hidden information was recoverable. None of it was classified. But there was a trove of potentially useful tidbits for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

The 93-page document revealed the kind of wire that doesn't set off alarms on airport screening machines. It pointed out that only 20 percent of all checked bags are hand-searched for explosives. It showed sample identification cards for members of Congress and law enforcement officials. It highlighted the kinds of things that are optional for TSA screeners to inspect, such as wheelchairs and prosthetic devices. Five people have been put on administrative leave until the inspector general of DHS completes a review of what happened.

In the meantime, the TSA is working overtime to convince everyone that air travelers are in no danger. The manual in question has been revised six times and is constantly updated. Besides, agency officials say, there are many layers of security to protect passengers "from the curb to the cockpit." Good to know.

What would be even better would be having an agency leader. The confirmation of Erroll Southers, assistant Homeland Security chief at Los Angeles International Airport, as the new TSA administrator is being held up by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). He wants Mr. Southers to say whether he's in favor of unionizing TSA screeners. We understand his concern. But we're more opposed to senators using their power to hold bills or nominations that deserve to stand on their own merit. Mr. DeMint should release Mr. Southers's nomination. As this latest episode shows, TSA needs a permanent leader so that more mistakes aren't made.

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