TSA Turns 10: Examining the Agency's Strengths and Weaknesses

PHOTO: TSA agent performs enhanced pat down on elderly travelerPlayJohn Moore/Getty Images
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Let's cut to the chase: The 9/11 attacks killed almost 3,000 people.

Terrorist-piloted planes smashed into two of the world's tallest buildings. We watched them burn on live TV until they came crashing down. Total collapse time per tower: 12 seconds.

And some people have a problem with airport security?

They do. And there are some good reasons for that, and bad ones too. Let's take a look as we approach the 10th anniversary of the formation of the Transportation Security Administration, better known to weary travelers as the TSA.

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Former President George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act into law on Nov. 19, 2001, and that was the start of the TSA.

But it wasn't the start of airport security in the U.S.; metal detectors began appearing in American airports back in the 70s, thanks to the rise of hijackings. In most cases, the bad guys only wanted money or a change of scenery; planes as weapons of massive destruction was a concept introduced by the murderers of 9/11.

So clearly something more was needed to secure our commercial aviation industry. But that's where people of good will part ways: What exactly do we need?

As I see it, the biggest strength of the TSA is also its biggest weakness: We want to be assured we are safe, and when we are safe, we don't want the inconvenience and time-consuming tediousness of security lines. It's a love-hate thing; we don't want them until we need them.

The TSA's Bob Burns, who writes for the TSA blog, says something similar: "I think the majority of travelers believe in and understand TSA's mission even though they might not be entirely thrilled with it … I think most are willing to do what it takes to keep things safe, but I don't think it'll ever get to the point where passengers show up at the checkpoints with rainbow wigs and foam hands reading, "TSA is #1!"

For the TSA, it can be a no-win job of finding individual needles in millions of haystack fields, but they work hard at the search; nearly 50,000 TSA officers screen more than 1.7 million passengers each day at more than 450 airports nationwide. But never mind that in the past year, the TSA confiscated more than 1,100 firearms from airline passengers (including five loaded handguns at the Salt Lake City airport last month alone); it's that one undetected pistol that fell from a duffel bag at Los Angeles International that gets all the attention.

Failures? There have been a few, including several in the arena of public relations (and if you think that's not important, see recent developments/gaffes in the presidential campaigns of Herman Cain and Rick Perry).

As for TSA gaffes, anyone remember the "puffer"? The trace portal machines were supposed to detect explosives by blowing air on you, but some of the machines "had trouble detecting bombs," which would seem be a pretty big mark against them. So the Dept. of Homeland Security pulled them in 2009, but not before they'd already invested more than $30 million in the contraptions.

Onward and upward to full body scan machines, which is when the real uproar began. Although identifiable "naked photos on the Internet" was never a real threat (fairly graphic images but with blurred faces), you wouldn't know it from social media reaction. And despite the fact that the latest scan technology only produces a cookie-cutter outline, outrage dies hard; just the other day, a woman on Facebook referred to today's security imaging experience as "the nude-o-matic body scan."

People also hated the seeming lack of common sense on display when it came to singling out certain individuals for the scan treatment, or the alternative "enhanced" pat-down. I don't have to repeat the stories about security excesses involving the 6-year-old kid and the 95-year-old woman in the wheelchair.

Yes, we get it: terrorists take on many disguises, but c'mon. Fortunately, one of those saying "C'mon" happened to be the Secretary of the Department of Transportation. Now kids 12 and under are much less likely to undergo this scrutiny, and in most cases they don't even have to take their shoes off.

That's another 'fail' in many peoples' eyes, the whole shoe removal thing; as one of my site's Facebook friends noted, "Having to go bare foot. GROSS!" It could be worse. The shoe removal rule was instituted after shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to blow up a plane via explosives embedded in his black hiking boots back in late 2001; imagine what could have happened in the wake of 2009's thwarted underwear bomber plot.

Meanwhile, security is getting easier for some of us anyway. The TSA recently announced it will open up three more airports (Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul) to its speedy PreCheck program, already in place in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit and Miami. It allows pre-selected, voluntary "elite" miles members to generally bypass some of the more onerous security requirements in exchange for providing some personal info. However, Time magazine posed this timely question: Does airport security favor the 1 percent? Occupy TSA, indeed.

But we can't forget the TSA success stories, the confiscated guns and drugs and even hand grenades (screeners recently found inert grenades in two carry-on bags in separate incidents). But maybe one of its bigger successes is how it's raised security awareness in general; travelers are no longer passive passengers in planes. When somebody sees something wrong, they act (see the aforementioned shoe and underwear bombers, who were subdued by seatmates).

Whether you credit the TSA or passenger smarts or terrorist disinterest, the fact of the matter is that we have not lost a plane since that gut-wrenching day in September.