Terrorized into Absurdity: The Creation of the Transportation Security Administration

By Roots, Roger | Independent Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Terrorized into Absurdity: The Creation of the Transportation Security Administration


Roots, Roger, Independent Review


"Emergencies" often cry out for drastic and expensive changes in public policy that later, on reflection, seem ill-conceived. Government responses to the Great Depression, for example, drastically altered the U.S. system of limited government and took an immense toll on American liberty and private-property rights--a toll that has never been repaid (Roots 2000). Declaration of a national emergency in 1933 facilitated the creation of a number of colossal government programs that survived long after the Depression had ended, even if they had done nothing to end the Depression (Roots 2000, 267 n. 44). A similar climate of hysteria regarding alleged runaway drug use in the late 1980s prompted government officials to fill U.S. prisons with casualties of the war on drugs, but the laws passed in response to that hysteria produced less-than-satisfactory advances against actual drug use (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994, 205-23).

Consistent with this pattern, U.S. policymakers responded to the terrorist suicide hijackings of September 11, 2001, with "the biggest expansion in federal powers and the most free-handed new spending of federal dollars in decades" (Page 2001, A4). Congress and the Bush administration expanded the powers of federal law enforcement to detect and arrest terrorists, increased U.S. investments in counterterrorist intelligence, placed thousands of National Guard troops at airports, and expanded the use of armed air marshals on domestic flights. By far the most ambitious reform, however, was the creation of a huge new federal agency, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), to perform security screening at U.S. commercial airports.

The airlines previously operated the screening system under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation. The FAA required each airline to screen passengers at each gate at which passengers boarded its planes. In practice, most airlines contracted with private security firms such as Argenbright Security, International Total Services, and Globe Aviation Services. In some cases, airlines entered into joint agreements for the hiring of security firms. The airline with the most flights on an airport concourse typically was responsible for managing the security screening on that concourse (McCartney, Lunsford, and Armstrong 2001). Bidding for screening contracts produced strong incentives among security firms to maintain low labor costs. The FAA dictated overall security standards and occasionally tested gate security by means of mock attempts to smuggle weapons onto airliners.

Contrary to many news reports immediately after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. system of screening air passengers was very similar to the systems used in most European countries. Indeed, some of the same security firms contracted to perform screening services on both continents (McCartney, Lunsford, and Armstrong 2001). The only major difference between the European and U.S. systems was that the private security firms contracted with the airports in Europe but with the airlines themselves in the United States.

The private-contractor system of passenger screening had many critics (Drew and Wald 2001; Morrison and Stoller 2001, A4). Prior to September 11, however, U.S. airport screeners were finding and confiscating approximately two thousand knives and guns from passengers each year (Drew and Wald 2001), and the U.S. airline industry had not experienced a major security incident in nearly a decade (McCartney, Lunsford, and Armstrong 2001). Contracting out screening services allowed airlines that otherwise were saddled by expensive union contracts to provide security screening at relatively low cost and thus to keep fares low (Adams 2002).

On November 16, 2001, Congress nationalized the nation's twenty-eight thousand airport screeners, creating an agency that by itself had more personnel than the Department of Labor and the Department of Housing and Urban Development combined. …

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