The Naval Postgraduate School & The U.S. Department of Homeland Security

GAO Delivers TKO to TSA's Reporting Procedures

TSA sealA new report released by the Government Accountability Office on March 31st, "TSA Needs Additional Information before Procuring Next-Generation Systems" raises concerns with the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) ability to train and screen for improvized explosive devices (IEDs). Now commonplace in major U.S. airports, advanced imaging technology (AIT) with automated target recognition (ATR) systems give travelers the impression that no explosives can make it past the TSA security checkpoint, and therefore provide a heightened sense of security. This security has come at a great price to the government budget - and the taxpayer - yet according to the GAO, TSA might as well turn in the advanced kit and go back to using metal detector wands; advanced equipment requires advanced training for operators, and right now, training falls short of the mark.

Despite TSA's use of ATR software, it is unclear whether system users are properly trained to operate it. Like most advanced technology, ATR systems are limited by operator proficiency. A way for TSA to improve system operators' proficiency is through drills. "GAO found that TSA personnel at about half of airports with AIT systems did not report any IED checkpoint drill results on those systems from March 2011 through February 2013." The lack of reports stems from a bureaucratic standoff in which it is unclear to airport security managers which office is responsible for creating and overseeing training milestones.

Effectively, each airport is left to create their own standards and training programs. The weakness in oversight has resulted in years of lost data that could tell local program managers which equipment and which system operators require more attention. Without enforcement, the technology and operators are left fallow, producing marginal results. Margianality is not something that is acceptable in today's airport security climate.

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