TSA Is Failing To Check Whether Its Screening Equipment Works Properly
Would you board a commercial flight if you knew that its pilots had not performed the necessary preflight checks and engine run-ups required to ensure that its engines can produce full amount of thrust that the government requires that they be able to produce?
Chances are quite high you would not.
But every day an average of 2.7 million passengers flying in the United States effectively do something very similar when they pass through airport security scanning equipment that is never checked to ensure that it performs up to the standards required by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.
A report issued in December by the U.S. Government Accountability Office stated flatly that once security screening equipment is installed at an airport nothing ever is done to make sure that it continues to operate up to prescribed security standards. Even as those machines age, and are stressed by hundreds of thousands, or even millions of passengers passing through them every year, nothing is ever done to compare their real-life performance to the same technical performances standards they were required to meet upon their initial installation.
The GAO’s report states flatly, “TSA does not ensure that screening technologies continue to meet detection requirements after deployment to airport.”
In 2015 and 2016 the TSA removed some explosives trace detection and bottled liquid scanner units from service in airports for testing, according to the GAO report, which failed to grab much attention amid the holidays and media fixation on the impeachment saga and other stories. The TSA found that the equipment did not meet the TSA’s standards because they hadn’t been maintained adequately while in service. However, while the TSA did begin doing some kinds of maintenance on such equipment, it still today does not do periodic re-testing of that equipment to make sure it meets the detection standards required for those machines. To be sure, the equipment is re-calibrated every day, but only to make sure it’s operational, not to determine if it operates up to required levels of detection performance. In other words, the equipment can be turned on, but no one ever re-checks how sensitive it is or isn’t to forbidden substances being passed through it.
Why is that?
According to the GAO, the TSA’s excuse is that it never has been given a mandate – presumably by Congress – to ensure that its screening technologies continue to operate at the same level required when first installed.
To be fair, there’s an important difference between an engine that might not be able to produce enough thrust to get a plane off the runway and a security screening device that might not be as sensitive as it should be. That difference: in raw statistical terms few terrorists will ever try to sneak weapons or explosives onto planes, while every single plane that takes off is utterly dependent on its engines’ ability to produce adequate thrust.
If a plane’s engines won’t produce adequate thrust for takeoff, a crash – with a significant number of deaths and/or serious injuries – is very likely to occur. But if the TSA’s screening equipment doesn’t perform up to its standards the plane carrying those who passed through those machines are not very much likely to be knocked out of the sky by a terrorist’s bomb, at least in statistical terms. But that minimal likelihood only serves to highlight the reality that anyone trying to smuggle a bomb on board a flight is, by definition, a statistical rarity. Tellingly, it also lends support to critics’ argument that airport security in this country is mostly just “security theater” meant to reassure travelers rather than to provide real, effective terrorism prevention.
Through the end of fiscal 2018 this nation had put into place $3.1 billion worth of security screening equipment. Beyond the chilling revelation that nobody knows if the explosives detection equipment installed in our airports really works the way it’s supposed to, the GAO report also revealed that:
· The TSA has not updated its guidance on developing new security standards since 2015
· The TSA doesn’t always implement new detection standards it does comes up with. Sometimes that’s because no new technology has been developed that can actually meet those new detections standards
· When it the TSA has performed new threat assessments it frequently has not documented important steps needed to address those new or growing threats. And sometimes it has lost organizational knowledge when it has allowed key people who performed those assessments and developed some steps to enhance security performance to leave the agency
· It’s far from clear to what extent the TSA has considered new or continuing risks in the assessments it has done because so little about its assessment processes and results have been documented.
In short, more than 18 years after the 9-11 terrorist tasks that focused this nation’s attention like never before on the importance of airport security screening, U.S. air travel continues to be far, far less secure than most of us naively believe it to be.