Sunday, April 24, 2005

Stone's Resignation Spells Turbulent Times at TSA

---Rear Adm. David Stone's imminent departure as head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) indicates to many aviation security experts that the three-year-old agency is already destined to become a far smaller, less important entity, while the nation's airport screeners will probably revert to private management. Some even think the agency's days are numbered.

"It's just a big, bloated, irresponsible bureaucracy that right now is coming apart at the seams," said Brian Sullivan, a retired special agent for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Given the financial pressures the federal government still faces, it "must be greatly tempting" to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff to work on streamlining the department in part by dismantling TSA, Colorado-based consultant David Forbes told Airport Security Report. (When Chertoff assumed the reins at DHS in March, he began a top-to-bottom review of the department's functioning and structure.)

Then again, TSA could still hang on in some form, such as in the old FAA role as overseer of security services, but not directly involved in running airports' screening operations, New York-based aviation attorney Charles Slepian said.

Dumping even more fuel on the fire, House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said late last week that two soon-to-be-released government reports from DHS and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have concluded that airport security has gotten no better since 9/11.

For still other observers, a change in leadership rekindles the hope that the much-maligned agency will finally get its act together. But even where there is still hope, there is also strong dismay over the "revolving door" that apparently leads into and out of the TSA secretary's office. Stone is already the third TSA administrator since the agency started functioning as a separate organ of the federal bureaucracy in February 2002.

"We need consistent and steady leadership from the individuals that shape our fragile flight environment," said Phil Boyer, president of the general aviation group, the Airline Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). Following Tom Ridge's departure as DHS head last fall, several top jobs in the department still remain open, AOPA also noted.

To Leonard Wood, chairperson of the Airport Consultants Council (ACC) Safety and Security Committee, the revolving-door phenomenon at TSA indicates that its administrators quickly tire of getting no chance to settle into their jobs before they are summoned to the witness table on Capitol Hill to get verbally beaten up. It seems that TSA simply cannot go fast enough on any initiative to satisfy national legislators, Wood told Airport Security Report. Congress either needs to give TSA's leadership some more slack or give the agency some direction, which has been almost totally lacking.

News of Stone's resignation first appeared in The Washington Post early on April 8. Later in the day, TSA affirmed the news in only 33 words, "Admiral Stone has informed Secretary Chertoff of his intention to step down from TSA and has agreed to the Department's request to remain until June to assist with the transition of a successor." A TSA spokeswoman told Airport Security Report that the agency had nothing more to say.

Internal TSA emails from that same April 8 date, and obtained by Airport Security Report, indicate that both Stone and DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson felt an immediate need to buck up the troops. "Anybody who begins to believe in the smallest way that TSA is not an integral, vital, and absolutely phenomenal part of this Department of Homeland Security ought to go take a hike because they do not know what they're talking about," Jackson wrote.

Stone's message to his headquarters staff said that "change is the sign of a healthy, innovative and creative organization," and it was "in that spirit of change" he gave Chertoff his resignation. (The Post story also said that President Bush asked Stone to leave.)

However the resignation came about, it now seems inevitable to most that the nation's airport screening checkpoints will again be privately managed.

Sullivan compared this scenario to the movie title, "Back to the Future." Congressional Republicans never much cared for expanding the federal bureaucracy by creating TSA, but the post-9/11 mood in Washington and across the nation forced their hand. Now, those same policymakers will be very content to let airport screening slide back under private management, Sullivan told Airport Security Report. At the same time, they are also insisting that things will be different this time.

Moreover, most observers believe that the great opportunity following 9/11 to improve airport security has been squandered. The once-promised model of an efficient, never-before-seen type of federal agency never materialized. Because much of FAA's staff moved over to TSA, the new agency also inherited most of the former's bureaucratic inefficiencies. Key posts were filled by people without any relevant expertise. And the agency seemed to place far less value on improved security than on keeping secrets and avoiding embarrassing any particular members of the federal workforce.

But part of the fault for this "missed opportunity" lies with the public, Sullivan said. The more time that has passed since 9/11, the less significance that airport security has for air travelers, whose collective attention span "is like a child's." Not only have air travelers become immune to the issue of airport security, but they seem increasingly irritated with hearing about it. Convenience, once again, is the paramount issue.

Slepian told Airport Security Report that all the major players in Washington -- Republicans, Democrats and the White House -- knew all along that TSA's heyday would be short. That explains why, through all of agency's blunders over the last three years, Congress did nothing and the White House said nothing.

Regardless of TSA's exact fate, most observers also feel that federal funding for airport security is likely to decrease. With the amount of waste, along with the lack of accountability, and the growing consensus that airport security across the country has gotten no better, more money is likely to start getting funneled to other modes of transportation, Sullivan said.

Another point to consider is that most of the capital spending for airport security from Washington has already been committed, Slepian explained. There are not a lot of recurrent expenditures.


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