THE MAGAZINE

A Department Under Fire

By Matthew Harwood

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has come under constant criticism in recent years. The department has been on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) High Risk Program list from its early days due to its size. The list highlights major programs that are at high risk for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.

The harshest criticism has been directed to DHS’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which was called an inflexible bureaucracy that tended to be reactive by a report from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. In November, Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee, said that the flying public was not well served by the TSA’s focus on “little old ladies and others who pose no security risk."

To put some of the criticism leveled at DHS generally, and TSA in particular, in perspective, Steve Lord, who covers TSA issues for the GAO, points to the incredible volume of people who interact with TSA daily at security checkpoints. “All it takes is a few mishaps to earn a notable entry on YouTube in today’s viral environment,” he notes. K. Jack Riley, vice president of the National Security Research Division at the RAND Corp., says that improving the TSA checkpoint experience could go a long way to improving the agency’s image with citizens. “TSA is the face of DHS,” he observes. Riley recommends that TSA make security checkpoint videos available for analysis by an independent third-party that can make customer service recommendations and highlight inefficient practices. This could also improve the attitudes of transportation security officers (TSOs), who suffer the worst morale of any employee inside DHS, which has the worst employee morale of any federal agency, on average.

Those minor adjustments won’t address the range of serious concerns about how resources are used, however. For example, a joint report from two House committees called into question TSA and DHS acquisition methods after it was discovered that an estimated $184 million worth of TSA screening equipment sat unused in a warehouse in Texas. In one instance, TSA purchased more explosives trace detectors than it needed in return for a discount. TSA assumed demand for the technology would increase. It was wrong.

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