Should TSA Change Its Policy?

News that Transportation Security Administration officers required a 95-year-old cancer patient to remove her adult diaper for search lit up the social media this weekend. It’s reminiscent of the recent story where a 6-year-old girl got the pat-down because she didn’t hold still in the strip-search machine. TSA administrator John Pistole testified to a Senate hearing that the agency would change its policy about children shortly thereafter.

So, should the TSA change policy once again? Almost certainly. Will it ever arrive at balanced policies that aren’t punctuated by outrages like this? Almost certainly not.

You see, the TSA does not seek policies that anyone would call sensible or balanced. Rather, it follows political cues, subject to the bureaucratic prime directive described by Cato chairman emeritus and distinguished senior economist Bill Niskanen long ago: maximize discretionary budget.

When the TSA’s political cues pointed toward more intrusion, that’s where it went. Recall the agency’s obsession with small, sharp things early in its tenure, and the shoe fetish it adopted after Richard Reid demonstrated the potential hazards of footwear. Next came liquids after the revelation of a bomb plot around smuggling in sports bottles. And in December 2009, the underwear bomber focused the TSA on everyone’s pelvic region. Woe to the traveler whose medical condition requires her to wear something concealing the government’s latest fixation.

The TSA pursues the bureaucratic prime directive—maximize budget—by assuming, fostering, and acting on the maximum possible threat. So a decade after 9/11, TSA and Department of Homeland Security officials give strangely time-warped commentary whenever they speechify or testify, recalling the horrors of 2001 as if it’s 2003. The prime directive also helps explain why TSA has expanded its programs following each of the attempts on aviation since 9/11, even though each of them has failed. For a security agency, security threats are good for business. TSA will never seek balance, but will always promote threat as it offers the only solution: more TSA.

Because of countervailing threats to its budget—sufficient outrage on the part of the public—TSA will withdraw from certain policies from time to time. But there is no capacity among the public to sustain “outrage” until the agency is actually managing risk in a balanced and cost-effective way. (You can ignore official claims of “risk-based” policies until you’ve actually seen the risk management and cost-benefit documents.)

TSA should change its policy, yes, but its fundamental policies will not change. Episodes like this will continue indefinitely against a background of invasive, overwrought airline security that suppresses both the freedom to travel and the economic well-being of the country.

In a 2005 Reason magazine “debate” on airline security, I described the incentive structure that airlines and airports face, which is much more conducive to nesting security with convenience, privacy, savings, and overall traveler comfort and satisfaction. The threat of terrorism has only dropped since then. We should drop the TSA.