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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: The Men and Women of TSA Deserve Better Than a Recent Distorted Narrative

TSA’s mission involves a holistic and layered security approach including proactive measures that go well beyond the checkpoint.

Despite not having sufficient budgetary support and enduring decades-long criticism of “security theater” at the checkpoint, the Transportation Security Administration’s loyal officers have persevered with grit and integrity. The internal code at the agency is one of #neverforget and #notonmywatch.

So, it was unfortunate that on Aug. 31, an online outlet called The Verge published “The Humiliating History of the TSA” in which author Darryl Campbell alleged TSA played nearly no role in stopping terror attacks. He developed a distorted narrative of a disgruntled workforce with little career opportunity or ability to use their intellect to mitigate terrorist threats.

Then on Oct. 9, Apple News released a podcast interviewing Campbell on his TSA story. He again mischaracterized the difficult job of TSA’s frontline Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) and the complex risk management approach baked into the agency since its inception. So here is a balanced perspective with firsthand insights.

TSA was established in the aftermath of 9/11 with the mission to never let an aviation attack happen again. In the early days of the agency, the technology at the checkpoint was limited. Officers had only metal detectors, hand wands and basic X-ray equipment as their primary tools. In the years since, TSA, with support from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science & Technology Directorate (S&T), has focused on aggressively testing, certifying and deploying advanced technology to detect small bomb components and other threats to aviation.

Now officers operate the third generation of checkpoint security technology that is more sophisticated than most medical equipment used in hospitals. For screening people, this technology includes imaging for on-person objects to combat non-metallic threats as used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula “Underwear Bomber” attack. For screening carry-on luggage, TSA is implementing its second fleet-wide equipment replacement for checkpoint baggage screening using Computed Tomography (CT), which will eliminate the need for liquids restrictions put in place after the al-Qaeda liquids plot in 2006 and increase detection for threats such as those that have been hidden in portable electronic devices.

For identity management, the most recent generation of credential authentication technology (CAT) supports biometric matching and the use of electronic driver licenses for identity verification. This will ensure passengers are properly matched against watch lists and speed their access to their flights while concurrently protecting their privacy. These examples, and other new technology in the process of being deployed across the country, are much more effective at finding threats and facilitating faster security screening but require more highly trained officers to properly operate effectively.

TSA’s officers are continually trained and tested. The reporter’s assertion that TSOs are “robots with no discretion” is grossly misinformed. Officers now attend the TSA Academy at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) where they learn the fundamentals of every checkpoint position. After learning the basics, they are empowered to use discretion and experience and to work with their peers to mitigate threats. They are continually evaluated to improve those skills.

The article correctly identifies that front-line officers are underpaid – in fact they are. Pay is the primary issue related to hiring, retention and agency morale – but the author appears to attribute this issue to TSA instead of Congress, which holds the agency’s purse strings. TSO pay has been a priority for every TSA administrator since the agency’s inception, particularly for TSA’s current administrator. This year it appears Administrator David Pekoske will finally be successful in raising TSO pay as evidenced by the bipartisan congressional support to get pay parity between officers and their counterparts in other parts of the federal government. This pay increase will allow TSA to recruit and retain highly qualified officers while also highlighting the important contribution of the TSOs in securing our nation’s aviation ecosystem.

TSA is an intelligence-driven agency that participates in regular briefings with the intelligence community and other federal law enforcement agencies regarding relevant, global threat information. Because many U.S. flights originate globally, TSA uses intelligence to work in close coordination with Customs and Border Protection and foreign partners to mitigate inbound threats beyond U.S. borders. Since 2001, the last six publicly recognized terrorist attacks to aircraft targeting the United States, including the 2006 thwarted liquids bomb plot, originated from foreign points of departure. Recognizing these threats, TSA has representatives around the world inspecting foreign locations and negotiating commensurate security standards to protect travelers arriving in the U.S.

Additionally, TSA’s mission involves a holistic and layered security approach including proactive measures that go well beyond the checkpoint. TSA has responsibilities in all transportation sectors including supply chain, pipelines, rail and other aspects of aviation. Today TSA carries out regulatory oversight in cybersecurity, involving pipelines and airports. The agency recently developed and conducted corporate-wide flight attendant training to better defend against unruly passenger behavior in the air.

In closing, Mr. Campbell’s story bears little resemblance to the front-line workforce I worked with at TSA. TSOs have a very difficult job, with high-level skills required and individual discretion they use every day to keep the traveling public safe, with historically inadequate compensation. Like many agencies in DHS, TSA’s mission is a thankless one. In my experience, TSA is one of the most nimble and innovative agencies in the federal government, deploying new technology, expanding regulatory authorities, and taking a global leadership role for aviation security.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected].

Lee Kair
Lee Kair
Lee Kair is a Principal at The Chertoff Group. In this role, he advises global clients on a broad range of issues including homeland and transportation security, business strategic planning, and capture strategy for Federal contracts. Lee has 28 years of senior security and acquisition experience at six Federal agencies and departments in operational and acquisition roles. At Lee’s most recent Federal agency, Lee oversaw the 54,000 front-line employees at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) implementing national domestic security operations as Assistant Administrator for Security Operations as well as Head of Contracting Activity (HCA) responsible for the contracting of TSA’s $2.5B acquisition budget. This provides a unique blend of operational expertise and business acumen to help clients understand business and security strategies. At The Chertoff Group, Lee understands the nexus between security and business strategy to promote growth. He advises global companies in a wide range of sectors on how to effectively manage risk. Lee also advises companies in security and information technology regarding the best strategies for growth.

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