As one of the youngest but largest bureaucracies in American government, the Transportation Security Administration has been an equal-opportunity target for politicians and pundits.
Following a spate of scandals in just over a decade of existence, Congress has opened several investigations into the agency, aimed at the TSA’s policies, effectiveness and efficiency. But despite pitfalls evolving into media frenzies, the agency — an outgrowth of the nation’s security push in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — remains able to do an at least passably effective job, though perhaps not for the most suspected reasons.
“There are a lot of people who say TSA just does security theater,” said George F. (Guy) McHendry Jr., Ph.D., an assistant professor of communication studies at Creighton University who has undertaken extended research into TSA policies and procedures. “And in saying that, I think we underestimate the function of security theater. Some of the things TSA does has little actual security effect, but what TSA does do well is control the space of an airport. When you have control of that space, there is a more secure feeling and the public feels confident in what the agents are doing, even if critics want to dismiss it as ‘just a performance.’”
McHendry’s research has closely examined the notion of security theater as articulated by Bruce Schneier, a security expert and a fellow at Harvard Law School. Schneier contends the performance of TSA screenings at airport checkpoints reassures travelers. But McHendry has been more focused on what the impact of the TSA is on the larger airport space and how that control affects travelers, most of whom have scant knowledge of the agency’s inner workings.
And when TSA can control an airport space and compel compliance with screening policies from the vast majority of the 1.8 million people who daily circulate through American airports, the agency has, McHendry said, been at the very least successful in controlling that airport space, if not serving as a significant component in preserving national security. Still, as McHendry has discovered through personal experience, the agency maintains an opaque front to the public it purports to defend.
“Within the TSA, there’s a core belief that they’re an important part of the nation’s fight against terrorism,” he said. “An attack on that mission makes them vulnerable. There’s a fear that exposure undermines their ability to perform that mission.”
But with a $7 billion budget and a welter of negative media exposés, some, like McHendry, are trying to push back, if only to answer questions that the TSA itself might itself like to answer as a means of showing its workability as a defense against terrorism.
Two questions McHendry raises speak to security, generally.
“In terms of pure, manifest effectiveness, does a security process stop an incident?” he said. “Do metal detectors, whole-body scanners, or behavioral detection officers really keep something from happening? Or, if not, what purpose do they serve in gaining compliance and stopping resistance to TSA personnel?”
To argue the TSA fulfills its function and has amply demonstrated its efficacy to the public it protects is difficult because of its lack of transparency. The agency, as McHendry notes, strives to put forth an appearance of openness and even maintains a lively Instagram account, displaying items checkpoint screeners have discovered in a kind of found art gallery of national security. Moreover, the TSA can boast — be it through happenstance, luck or its actual presence and function — that an attack like the one seen on Sept. 11, 2001, has not occurred at an American airport or in American airspace since the agency’s inception.
But recent tests of TSA readiness exposed massive gaps at checkpoints around the country. Federal testers were able to get through TSA security with mock explosives and other weapons in 67 out of 70 tries.
At the same time, McHendry said, much has been invested in the TSA, and the agency has gone to great lengths to show its effectiveness on many platforms. And any act of Congress to dismantle the TSA is unlikely, given its size and the scrutiny politicians would bear if another 9/11-style attack occurred after the agency was dismantled.
“It’s absolutely accurate to say the failings of the TSA need to be addressed,” McHendry said. “The TSA spends a lot of money and we don’t always know if they spend it in the most efficient way possible. There’s a lack of transparency, the pat downs and scans are invasive, and things get through the screenings. But for TSA to go anywhere will take significant action by Congress. You take the step to move back to a pre-9/11 style security model and a terrorist incident occurs at an airport? That can create some indecision. Between that and the investment in money and time and a unionized workforce, critics of TSA face an uphill fight.”
While McHendry has other criticisms of the agency — for example, the stonewalling many of the agency’s critics have faced in filing Freedom of Information Act requests — he remains intrigued by how quickly the agency has developed and how relatively nimble it remains, recent gaffes notwithstanding.
He said he’s trying to craft more studied, nuanced arguments about the TSA, something that’s been difficult, given the depth and breadth of vitriol to which the agency has been exposed.
“There is still plenty of room for improvement,” McHendry said. “It boils down to this: are our airports and airplanes really at risk or not? If not, why spend this money and use these resources? If they are, then what’s the most efficient, least invasive way for the flying public to be assured of their security?”