Chris Edwards

A government study that finds a program doesn’t work and proposes to cut it is almost as rare as pigs that fly. But a new Government Accountability Office study on aviation does just that: it proposes chopping the Transportation Security Administration’s SPOT security program because it finds no evidence that it could stop airline terrorists.

The GAO routinely finds waste in programs, but it usually just proposes ways to fix them — so the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program must be really lame. The GAO finds no “scientifically validated evidence” for the $200 million program, and it says that TSA deployed it before even doing a cost-benefit analysis.

That failure is one of many discussed in my new study on TSA, which proposes dismantling the agency.

TSA was created in a rush after 9/11, and today employs an army of 53,000 passenger and baggage screeners at airports. The agency has spent billions of dollars on programs that have few demonstrated benefits, including SPOT, the air marshal program, and the intrusive full-body scanning machines.

More importantly, TSA’s performance has been underwhelming. In the early years after 9/11, federal auditors found that the ability of TSA screeners to stop prohibited items from getting through security was no better than that of the previous private screeners.

In recent years, there have been head-to-head comparisons between federal and private screening because 16 U.S. airports are now allowed to use private contractors.

Studies have found that TSA’s screening results have been no better, and possibly worse, than that of the private screeners. And a House report in 2011 found that private screeners at San Francisco International Airport were far more efficient than the federal screeners at the Los Angeles International Airport.

The government has an important oversight role to play in aviation security, but the TSA’s near-monopoly on screening has resulted in it getting “bogged down in managing its bloated federal workforce,” as one congressional report concluded.

Another congressional report blasted TSA for having an “enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy,” and even former TSA chief Kip Hawley noted last year that the agency is “hopelessly bureaucratic.”


Chris Edwards

Chris Edwards is the director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, and editor of www.DownsizingGovernment.org. Before joining Cato, Edwards was a senior economist on the congressional Joint Economic Committee, a manager with PricewaterhouseCoopers, and an economist with the Tax Foundation.

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