Expert: Despite shortcomings, TSA still better than the pre-9/11 alternative

June 8, 2015
Recent report on screening vulnerabilities adds fuel to the fire of agency's critics

Last week’s news that undercover agents were recently able to sneak prohibited items through airport security checkpoints in 67 out of 70 attempts, was yet another black eye for the much maligned agency.  In the wake of the inspector general’s report, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that the TSA’s acting administrator, Melvin Carraway, would be reassigned to another position within DHS and that the agency had been directed to revise its screening procedures, as well as re-evaluate its screening equipment.

“The numbers in these reports never look good out of context, but they are a critical element in the continual evolution of our aviation security. We take these findings very seriously in our continued effort to test, measure and enhance our capabilities and techniques as threats evolve,” Johnson said in a statement.

This follows another report also issued by the inspector general last month which criticized the TSA for failing to properly manage maintenance of its screening equipment. While these reports are obviously disturbing, Billie Vincent, a former director of civil aviation security for the FAA and author of the book, "Bombers, Hijackers, Body Scanners, and Jihadists," said that it is hard to draw finite conclusions about the severity of these breaches without more data on the individual incidents themselves.

Even in one of the examples cited by ABC News, which first broke news of the report, involving a screener who reportedly failed to detect fake explosives strapped to an undercover agent’s back, Vincent said that there are more questions that need to be answered.

“That begs the question: did somebody also use a particle or vapor explosive detector because if they did and it was fake explosives, it wouldn’t have shown up anyway,” said Vincent.

In an interview with NPR, former TSA Administrator John Pistole said that the “Red Team” members who carry out these tests possess information that terrorists simply do not have at their disposal.

“The distinction between the Red Team testers and actual terrorists are the Red Team testers do know the standard operating procedures. They know the technical capabilities of the machines so they can actually construct things that can be used. And then the key here is that there's no intelligence about anything bad going on because they're covert testers. When you take that out of the equation, it makes it more of a test of a very narrow part of those multiple layers of security,” Pistole told NPR.

However, according to Vincent, the argument that Red Team testers are more capable than terrorists at exposing these vulnerabilities because they are more familiar with screening processes and equipment is faulty because it assumes a lack of sophistication on the part of terrorists.

“That excuse falls on its face when you consider the fact that our adversaries are technically very, very competent. They can do their own research and there are some insiders that would provide them with data, so any of the vulnerabilities in the equipment are likely to be known to the terrorists,” added Vincent.  “If you say, ‘Well, yeah our Red Team knows it too,’ or they are taking advantage of very unique knowledge, to me that falls on its’ face. It is based on the assumption that the terrorist adversaries are incompetent and that’s just not the case.”

Vincent also believes the move to reassign the acting TSA director will accomplish little in terms of actually addressing these issues, especially if the problems lie more so in the technology than in the agency’s policies and procedures.

“That was a totally meaningless action because the poor guy that got canned would have had very little ability to make any significant changes and wouldn’t have had to time to do so even if he had the power to,” he said. “If it is dealing with technology, you are talking about a decade or more to make any significant changes.”

With the inspector general’s report, there have already been the usual rumblings about completely overhauling the TSA’s scope and mission, but while the TSA has its flaws, Vincent said it is a much better than the pre-9/11 alternative that some in the government have advocated for.  

“The facts are that if you do away with the TSA physically conducting security screenings, you’re going back to a system where the TSA regulated and did the oversight and that is what failed under the FAA because you then re-implement the power of the aviation industry, particularly the airlines. It would bring back a failed system,” he concluded.   

About the Author

Joel Griffin | Editor-in-Chief,

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of, a business-to-business news website published by Endeavor Business Media that covers all aspects of the physical security industry. Joel has covered the security industry since May 2008 when he first joined the site as assistant editor. Prior to SecurityInfoWatch, Joel worked as a staff reporter for two years at the Newton Citizen, a daily newspaper located in the suburban Atlanta city of Covington, Ga.