In his recent budget proposal, President Trump calls for cutting funding for 31 explosive-detection dogs, and their handlers, and also to cut TSA staff who monitor access to certain secure areas at the airport. Understanding the potential consequences of these changes is first about understanding what these programs are supposed to do.
The Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams are typically Federal Air Marshals (FAM) or Federal Protection Service (FPS) personnel who conduct deterrence operations at bus and train stations and some airports. Dressed in tactical gear and wearing serious expressions on their face, they make for an intimidating presence wherever they are. Their purpose is to be visible and able to respond to a threat immediately, and to disrupt the typical “pattern of life,” to throw off criminal surveillance. The White House justifies eliminating the VIPR teams because state and local law enforcement agencies are already assigned to do this work, and the teams have not been able to articulate the programs’ effectiveness.
The TSA staffers who monitor secure areas are monitoring the exit lanes from the sterile area, that’s the area beyond the screening checkpoint to the aircraft itself and the public areas. About a 1/3 of the commercial service airports in the US currently use TSA personnel for this function. In contrast, the remaining airports use airport staff, or personnel contracted by the airport. The White House argues that the airlines perform exit lane staffing.
The challenge with any security measure is determining its effectiveness at deterring criminals and terrorists. How can you accurately measure how many times something has not happened because of a particular deterrent? For example, how often has your house NOT been robbed? You may say, never, but how does that compare to the number of attempts that burglars made but were deterred? Unfortunately, the bad guys don’t call and tell us when they tried to rob us. Nor do they tell us which security measure discouraged them.
While I’m sure most of us can agree that people are less likely to commit a crime with a cop standing right next to them, there are some ways to justify deterrence quantitively. In 2018, the Office of the Inspector General criticized the VIPR program for not being able to demonstrate the effectiveness of their operations. Of the two performance measures VIPR uses, the IG noted that they failed to determine the program’s effectiveness. For further reading on how deterrence can be measured, here are three good references.
- Mazarr, M. J. (2018). Perspective. Expert Insights on a timely policy issue. Understanding Deterrence.
- Ducharme, D. (2016). Measuring Strategic Deterrence: A Wargaming Approach.
- Mueller, J., & Stewart, M. (2016). Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism. In Democracy and Security. https://doi.org/10.1080/17419166.2016.1205333
I am a firm believer in using canines for explosive detection and general deterrence. Perpetrators don’t always know what the dog is looking for (drugs, bombs, etc.), or what it’s trained to do, like chase and attack. When it comes to deploying canine teams, the more, the merrier. One other point with the TSA canines is they are trained only to sniff out explosives. The K-9 is the “subject matter expert” in this field. Many state and local canines are cross-trained to sniff for drugs, bombs, cadavers, and so forth, making them generalists, in an area that requires an expert – ensuring there is not a bomb on a plane.
Exit Lane Security
The TSA and airport industry have fought this battle before. It took over two years before a detente was reached, with the existing battle lines remaining in place. At airports where TSA was already protecting the exit lanes, TSA would stay there. At airports where the airport operator was already protecting exit lanes, the airport operator or contractor would remain in place. By removing TSA’s personnel from the roughly 150+ airports where they currently protect the exit, lanes will create a financial burden on the airport operator and, ultimately, the air carrier, the vendors, concessionaires, and contractors at the airport. The White House proposes that the airline’s staff exit lanes instead of TSA. The budget also calls for eliminating $46 million in grant funding to improve airport security, leaving airports to either not make the improvements, or create more financial burden on the traveling public.
Here’s the core problem. In 1996, in the wake of the loss of TWA 800, President Clinton created the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security (otherwise known as the “Gore Commission), to, among other things, look at the changing threat to aviation security and provide guidance to improve the system.
A key conclusion in the report was “that terrorist attacks on civil aviation are directed at the United States, and that there should be an ongoing federal commitment to reducing the threats that they pose… When terrorists attack an American airliner, they are attacking the United States.” This determination effectively laid the groundwork for TSA, created shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Cutting the budget, pulling screeners from established duties, and attempting to delegate more of the burden of aviation security to local airport operators and the airlines, flies directly in the face of this conclusion. One of the critical jobs of the federal government is national security. This protection is performed at many levels, federal, state, local, and tribal. Still, the backbone is the money provided by the federal government, and in some cases, their personnel (i.e., TSA or approved-TSA contractors).
I agree that VIPR’s performance measures require revision and improvements. But, I can’t entirely agree with money being pulled from aviation security – which I see as really a national security issue, and with shifting the burden to the local government (or the airlines) to protect security areas that are already being staffed by the TSA.
Pre-board exit lane security at our nation’s airport should remain a key function of TSA, supplemented by armed local airport law enforcement when and where warranted. Monitoring of exit lanes by airlines will result in minimal-wage, low bid contractor personnel, leaving a potential gap in airport security subject to potential exploitation by terrorists. No amount of enhanced CCTV, bells, whistles, and other gadgets can replace to uniformed TSA professional to monitor and protect screening exits lanes.