EDITORIAL: Make the TSA just go away

As Americans observed the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks last week, surprisingly little attention was given to a seismic change in the country’s most visible legacy of those terrorist strikes: the Transportation Security Administration.

On Monday, the much-despised TSA announced it finally would depart from its pointless protocol of treating every single airline passenger as an equal threat to flight safety. A new system, using risk assessments, will allow an estimated 450,000 travelers per day — more than a quarter of the country’s airline customers — to bypass more time-consuming, intrusive screenings and proceed to their gates, shoes and coats still on.

“After 9/11, we treated everybody the same,” TSA Deputy Assistant Administrator Joseph Salvator told The Washington Post. “We’re trying to move off that model and use a risk-based approach and the intelligence we have developed over the years.”

Putting the TSA and “intelligence” in the same sentence is a reach. But the agency’s decision to stop treating everyone as a suspect is akin to football’s Tim Tebow converting to atheism. It’s an abandonment of religion.

The new process, which could be in place as soon as one month from now, will randomly select passengers considered low-security risks. Passengers won’t know of their status until they receive their boarding pass or present the pass to the first TSA security checkpoint.

Those who get a Golden Ticket will use lines normally reserved for the TSA’s Global Entry and Pre-Check programs, which give passengers a faster, less-rigorous screening if they submit to an application process and fingerprinting, and pay higher fees. Those passengers still walk through metal detectors and put their carry-on luggage through X-ray machines, but they don’t have to remove their coats, shoes or belts, they don’t have to remove computers, liquids or gels, and they don’t have to pose for a full-body scan.

The step will save a nice chunk of time for a significant amount of daily airport traffic, thus shortening wait times for the unwashed masses who don’t win that day’s screening lottery. For a tourist destination such as Las Vegas, which occasionally overwhelms McCarran International Airport when big conventions and events come to town, anything that improves the visitor experience is a plus.

But let’s not kid ourselves here. The TSA should go a lot further. So far, in fact, that the agency shuts down.

It is beyond insane that TSA employees still pull aside grandfathers in wheelchairs, mothers with infants, and small children for pat-downs when no one with those profiles has ever carried out an act of terrorism on an airplane. This outrage will continue under the TSA’s new process. The idea that only 25 to 30 percent of daily airline passengers are low security risks is preposterous. A more accurate figure is 99.9999999 percent.

The TSA might be the least-effective agency in the federal government — and that’s saying something. The agency sucks about $8 billion per year out of the economy to cover payroll and overhead, then consumes billions more through lost productivity and lost ticket sales; countless Americans refuse to fly because they won’t allow the TSA to humiliate them. The inconvenience of air travel sends more and more people onto the country’s roads, where they are far less safe. “Researchers at Cornell University suggest that people switching from air to road transportation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led to an increase of 242 driving fatalities per month — which means that a lot more people died on the roads as an indirect result of 9/11 than died from being on the planes that terrible day,” Charles Kenny wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek last year.

The TSA has never stopped an act of terrorism, and it has never caught a single terrorist. Scientists have pointed out that TSA body scanners, which cost taxpayers billions more dollars, have deep flaws. Audits of the TSA have uncovered thousands of annual security breaches, as well as a lack of accountability in dealing with screener misconduct ranging from theft to sleeping on the job to allowing friends and family to bypass screenings. The TSA is a massive fraud perpetrated to fool the public into feeling safe.

Yes, checked luggage and carry-on bags must go through X-ray machines. Passengers should continue to walk through metal detectors. These are reasonable security measures. Certainly, intelligence should be used to flag any passenger associated with radicalized groups. But the best deterrent to future jetliner terrorist attacks, the most effective defense since 9/11, remains passengers themselves. Alert passengers stopped shoe bomber Richard Reid and underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. And too many times to count, passengers have tackled, beaten and restrained fellow passengers who have threatened flight attendants, pounded on cockpit doors and otherwise freaked out in the middle of flights. Decent, law-abiding people will never allow another commercial aircraft to be hijacked again. And they’ll put themselves in harm’s way if they believe someone could damage an aircraft or harm its crew.

Congratulations to the TSA for acknowledging the absurdity of its practice for the past 12 years. Now it should get out of the way and let private companies handle common-sense security screenings at the country’s airports. The TSA is a terrible reminder of the freedoms and rights we have lost in the post-9/11 world. It’s not too late to get them back.