Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, governments across the world increased airport security, and rightly so. But in a hasty overreaction to that tragic day, Congress gave the job of screening passengers and baggage to a new federal agency: the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). As a result, taxpayers pay for more than 48,000 airport security screeners and TSA has requested nearly $8.2 billion in funding for 2011.
Creating the massive bureaucracy was a mistake. Even though the quality of airport screening was low before Sept. 11, it was not a failure of the "rent-a-guard" screeners that let those 19 terrorists board planes "armed" with box cutters. Those "weapons" were perfectly legal at the time. The real failure was one of policy, which didn't make use of passenger history and law enforcement information that should have flagged most of the terrorists as suspicious characters who warranted enhanced scrutiny.
Even with today's bloated TSA, that problem still exists. Consider that our various intelligence agencies failed to share vital information, and a suspected terrorist, the underwear bomber, was allowed to board - and tried to blow up - an international flight bound for Detroit on Christmas. Thankfully, the Obama administration last week took some needed steps to help fix this problem.
Following Sept. 11, most other countries increased their standards for airport security by letting each airport implement its own procedures under government supervision. In Europe, that led to nearly all major airports hiring certified private security firms to do their screening. Canada created a new federal agency to implement better screening but outsourced the actual screening. This kind of high-performance contracting permits better training and airport-specific flexibility (e.g., higher pay scales in Canada's jobs-rich oil patch) and it better matches screener numbers to changing travel patterns and airport passenger levels.
In contrast, the system Congress and the George W. Bush administration created came with a massive conflict of interest: TSA serves as both the aviation-security regulator and the provider of key security. Who's watching the watchmen? When it comes to baggage and passenger screening, TSA is regulating itself. As with any bureaucracy, its natural incentive is to hide errors and make itself look good. In addition to the obvious conflict of interest, this also makes for fragmented airport security.