TSA Update: Still Failin’

parody TSA logo

Well, bad news for those very few people (currently 14 out of 1,135 voters; see below) who think the TSA is more like a panther than, say, an elderly orangutan or the mythical skunk ape. John Roth, DHS’s hard-working but continually frustrated inspector general, is back in front of Congress today to talk about why the department’s least-popular child keeps coming home with big red Fs on its report card.

When we last left our heroes back in July, they had more or less shut down the Houston airport because they were worried it might be under attack by several hundred sorority members, an attack that came just one day after it allegedly caught Morrissey trying to smuggle his junk onto a plane in San Francisco. Granted, at the time the agency had just come under new management (see New TSA Administrator to Explain Why Agency Will Fail Differently From Now On,” and this followup), so there was at least some reason to believe that it might at least, well, fail differently in the future.

This belief was unjustified.

The IG’s office itself last appeared here in June when it released a report entitled “TSA Can Improve Aviation Worker Vetting,” which I thought was something of an understatement given the finding that TSA had in fact cleared 73 people who were on the terrorist watchlist at the time. Roth’s prepared statement today is entitled “TSA: Security Gaps,” so I’m betting Mr. Picky is going to be all critical again. Let’s see if I’m right.

Roth begins by mentioning his “unusually blunt testimony” before Congress in the past, when he has mentioned not only that TSA sucks but that it had developed a culture “that resisted oversight and was unwilling to accept the need for change.” Trying to be optimistic, Roth notes that there is a new administrator now, and so he is “hopeful that the days of TSA sweeping its problems under the rug and simply ignoring the findings and recommendations of the [IG] and [Government Accountability Office] are coming to an end.”

Hm. Okay, so how have things been going lately?

“In September 2015, we completed and distributed our report on our most recent round of covert testing.” This is where undercover DHS inspectors do stuff like try to smuggle bomb parts through checkpoints, and succeed … let’s see … 96% of the time. Or at least that’s how it’s gone in the past. How about now?

“While I cannot talk about the specifics in this setting [it’s classified, y’all], I am able to say that … the test results were disappointing and troubling,” and were “consistent across every airport” tested. Roth also noted that the tests were conducted by personnel “without any special knowledge or training,” which might seem odd unless you know that the TSA reacted to the earlier 96-percent-failure-rate findings partly by complaining that the IG had used personnel who were specially trained to defeat TSA’s efforts. (You know, sort of like an actual terrorist might be.) So this time, the IG deliberately chose people with no special knowledge or training to carry out its audits. I interpret this to mean that people who basically had no real idea what they were doing consistently and successfully breached security at every airport tested.

What exactly were the failures? Well, again, the details are classified until someone leaks them, but Roth was able to say that they included “failures in the technology, failures in TSA procedures, and human error.” So just those three areas.

The TSA administrator is also testifying today, and to be fair I took a look at his prepared statement as well. There we learn, for example, that the agency is doing fine in the three areas above but could do better, has taken steps “to ensure a laser-focus on mission,” and has made a “commitment to right-sizing and resourcing TSA to effectively secure the aviation enterprise,” guided by a “principled, strategic approach.” Also, they have prototypes of lots more screening machines, apparently, “which hold great promise for the traveling public.” Or at least those members of the traveling public who have stock in the relevant companies, at least.