Spotlight: TSA

TSA SealTraveling as much as we do to represent national owners of government-leased properties, it’s inevitable that one of the federal agencies we encounter most is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The agency’s current procurement for a long term lease to consolidate its headquarters in Northern Virginia has brought it to mind even more than usual lately. A component of the Department of Homeland Security, TSA defines its primary mission as protecting the nation’s transportation system to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce. Though 97% of its budget ($7.39 billion in 2014) focuses on air transportation, TSA is also tasked with protecting mass transit, rail, highway, and pipeline transportation systems. About 640 million passengers and 1.5 billion checked and carry-on bags are screened by TSA each year.

The TSA was created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Later that fall, Congress passed the Aviation Transportation and Security Act, which shifted the responsibility of screening passengers from private airlines to the federal government. Originally within the Department of Transportation, TSA moved to the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Within a year, TSA agents were functioning around the country, applying a multi-layered approach to security that involves worker training, intelligence analysis, information sharing with partner agencies, behavior detection, explosive detection by canine teams, Federal Air Marshalls and enforcement of regulations.

The current TSA workforce includes almost 50,000 Transportation Security Officers, responsible for screening 1.8 million passengers per day at 450 U.S. airports. TSA’s security duties include:

  • Detecting prohibited, illegal and dangerous items with advanced imagining technology;
  • Conducting 100% air cargo screening on domestic and international outbound passenger aircraft;
  • Conducting 100% terrorist watch list matching of passengers on domestic and international outbound and inbound flights;
  • Conduct background checks of over 15 million transportation-related employees; and
  • Supporting allocation of $2 billion in federal grants for mass transit security.

TSA has responded to critics of long airport wait times by initiating, in 2011, the Precheck Program. At about 100 airports, passengers can qualify for expedited screening by completing a background check, fingerprinting and payment of an $85 fee. Complaints about screening inefficiencies have been addressed, for example, through revised procedures for passengers ages 12 and under that encourage greater focus on higher risk passengers. The loudest complaints about TSA procedures usually target scanner machines introduced in 2010, sometimes known as “naked scanners.” The ACLU contends that the technologies invade personal privacy, and TSA is installing new software on millimeter wave units that can detect hidden threats but use the same outline of a person for all passengers. But in April testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, TSA Administrator John Pistole emphasized that TSA must use available technology to stay ahead of constantly evolving terror threats to aviation.

Risk must be managed through multi-layered use of innovative technology, intelligence gathering and sharing, a trained workforce and appropriate legislation. Especially in a time of limited federal resources, Podesta testified, “It is not possible to eliminate risk altogether so our efforts must remain focused on managing and mitigating that risk. This is the most appropriate and sustainable model for TSA.”