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A better way than the TSA

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The Improving America's Security Act recently passed by Congress allows the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) airport screeners to unionize. This bill could add about 50,000 dues-paying members to union rolls while breathing new life into TSA's unofficial slogan: Thousands Standing Around.

The White House has threatened to veto the legislation because it claims that collective bargaining will destroy the TSA's flexibility. And according to the White House, "flexibility is ... how the ... TSA protects Americans while they travel." Who knew?

Cynics probably put "flexible" at the bottom of the TSA's attributes, right after "competent" and "fun-loving." But flexible or not, screeners have little effect on security. They are there to make passengers feel safe, not to actually keep them safe.

The TSA itself virtually confirms this. So does its parent bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the General Accounting Office (GAO). All three routinely test screeners' ability to intercept weapons smuggled through checkpoints. And screeners routinely flunk.

Washington's reaction is to tinker with department rules and spend millions on "better" technology. But a far better approach would be to scrap federally regulated flight security altogether. Private security firms would rely on effective antiterrorist tools rather than political correctness. They would actually keep us safe, not just make us feel that way.

The TSA was barely a year old when the GAO gave it failing marks in a report to the House Aviation Subcommittee in 2003. The committee's then chairman, John Mica (R) of Florida, summarized the findings: TSA was "still a very poor system" that "needs a dramatic overhaul." By April 2005, the agency's incompetence was so glaring that not one but two federal reports documented it. Both the GAO and the DHS found that screening was no more effective than before 9/11.

The TSA had gone from bad to worse a year later when undercover investigators packed their bags with common household items that explode when combined. They tried to smuggle these ingredients past the checkpoints at 21 airports – and they succeeded every time.

Barraged by criticism, DHS pooh-poohed the test's premises: "While random items commonly found under a kitchen sink could conceivably be concocted into an IED [improvised explosive device], we find it highly implausible."

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