Looking back at 2011, the TSA was its own worst enemy

by Christopher Elliott on January 9, 2012

Sometimes, the TSA can be its own worst enemy.

Consider what it said about itself last week, while other federal agencies were touting their 2011 accomplishments.

TSA came out with a lighthearted list of the Top 10 Good Catches of 2011 (sample: “Snakes, turtles, and birds were found at Miami (MIA) and Los Angeles (LAX). I’m just happy there weren’t any lions, tigers, and bears…”) The release looked like the perfect Huffington Post slideshow, which, alas, it eventually became.

What’s the problem with that?

Well, with no other official statement from the agency about its 2011 achievements, we’re left to conclude that these “top 10 good catches” represent the agency’s biggest accomplishments of the year.

That’s right. Confiscating illegal pets, inert explosives, martial arts weapons, flare guns and various firearms — that’s what this $8.1 billion agency did for you in 2011.

I’m sure they’ll throw in the corny jokes for free.

In fairness to the TSA, it could have compiled a more serious list that highlighted the fact that there have been no 9/11 repeats (that’s the agency’s standard claim to fame) or talked about enhancing privacy or taking care of passengers with special needs. But that’s not my job, and on second thought, they probably knew better than to brag about those things, because they’ve already drawn enough criticism. Why add to it?

Still, TSA’s on a roll. Just before the weekend, it decided to publish yet another funny list of confiscations. This one included various knives, firearms and a speargun.

And so we, America’s flying public, are left to wonder if the removal of our contraband is the TSA’s single greatest accomplishment.

The kneejerk response from the average traveler is “of course” — no one should be flying with a dangerous weapon. But how quickly we forget that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by terrorists carrying items that were permitted on board, and technically not classified as weapons.

The real question we should be asking ourselves is: Would any of these dangerous items that TSA agents took away from passengers have been used in a terrorist attack? And that, in turn, points us to yet another important question: Is the TSA looking for the wrong thing?

As I review these lists, I notice a glaring omission. As a passenger and a taxpayer funding this enormous agency, I want to hear about how the TSA kept America’s transportation systems safer, not about how many weapons it confiscated.

The world is a dangerous place. TSA could set up one of its controversial VIPR roadside checkpoints, as it did a few weeks ago in Sarasota, Fla., and simply remove all the contraband it can find. But that would only make travel safer if it could show that the throwing stars and inert explosives would have been used in a terrorist attack. (And don’t even get me started on the legal problems these car searches present — that’s a topic for another time.)

I would have loved to hear about how the TSA thwarted just one act of terrorism — which, you’ll recall, was the reason screeners were federalized in the first place — but I didn’t, and I suspect it can’t say that. Is it unreasonable of us to expect the TSA to look for terrorists instead of just taking away weapons?

Incidentally, these humorous blog posts weren’t the TSA’s only public statements during the holidays. On Dec. 29, a day when no one is paying attention to anything the federal government does, the agency said it wanted to buy radiation-detection equipment for its scanners. (Here’s the official document, called a Request for Information.)

I guess the agency, which has insisted that its scanners are completely safe, is having doubts. Gee, it might have been nice to test the scanners before it started deploying them in our airports.

The TSA sent us several confusing messages during the holidays. It suggested its crowning achievement in 2011 was confiscating weapons we’d accidentally packed in our carry-on luggage, but not necessarily keeping America’s transportation systems safer. And it second-guessed its own statements about the safety of its scanners by ordering radiation-detection equipment.

Like I said, sometimes the TSA is its own worst enemy.

(PHoto: piki mota/Flickr)

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