Napolitano is getting it wrong on TSA

Rory Cooper Comm. Director, The Heritage Foundation
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For two years now, President Barack Obama’s administration has been on a concentrated mission to expand the size and scope of the federal government. Of course, this passionate mission is derailed when the inefficiencies of certain government services are highlighted in the American conscience. And every time the general public decries a specific example of government ineffectiveness, the Obama team’s reaction is incredulous shock. How could anyone not blindly trust the federal bureaucracy?

Once again this is the case as a tidal wave of criticism befalls the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Over the course of the past two weeks, there has been an avalanche of bad airport security stories.

Toddlers were seen on YouTube being aggressively searched as they screamed, leaving parents aghast. Groped flyers were threatened with $11,000 fines for refusing aggressive pat-downs. Flight crews, including hero pilot Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, objected to the newly increased screening standards.

Amid these stories, passengers began creating drama of their own, by either opting out of security measures or planning a mass protest around Thanksgiving.

So with a national rebellion against the men and women who are the last line of defense inside our airports being staged, what is the Obama team’s reaction? Get over it. Trust us. Cooperate.

In typical style, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and her colleagues are treating this story as a media-hyped bunch of nothing. But in fact, it’s been a story long in the making as the government downplayed threats, yet increased screening measures and did nothing to negate a growing impression that the airport security line is a bureaucratic nightmare akin to the dreaded U.S. Post Office.

Secretary Napolitano’s publicly casual approach to the war on terror has unfortunately led Americans to see TSA officers –many of whom decided to enlist after 9/11 for similar reasons as our fighting soldiers — as postal bureaucrats. When Napolitano and President Obama stopped using the term Global War on Terror, they intentionally lowered the perceived severity of the threat and thereby the perceived consequence of airport security.

When Napolitano dismissed the Times Square bomber as a “one off,” implying it could be domestic rather than what it was — a coordinated jihadist plot — she contributed to Americans’ suspicion of who exactly DHS is monitoring.

When Napolitano said the “system worked” after the Christmas Day attack, she contributed to the lack of trust in the “system” that is causing the present anxiety. In her USA Today editorial last week, she actually used this incident as an example of why the system works saying: “we use pat-downs to help detect hidden and dangerous items like the one we saw in the failed terrorist attack last Christmas Day.” She failed to mention that the plot failed due to luck, not pat-downs.

Secretary Napolitano has often and publicly reinforced a misunderstanding of the threat and what level of vigilance is necessary, and then acts with shock and dismay when travelers aren’t trusting of why they need their crotch examined.

TSA officers are left negotiating a perilous public relations disaster with each and every screening. And legislators are rightly left debating the existing options to privatize certain screening services.

Secretary Napolitano has allowed politics and reactionary episodes to fog what is the necessary strategy for keeping terrorists off planes. And in her rush to do so, she has recklessly left TSA employees as the face of a bureaucracy gone awry, and without a legitimate defense or explanation for the agitated flying public.

When passengers spend thirty minutes in line watching children be patted down, and learning the new rules of the week for flying, tensions are surely going to rise. Passengers quickly have to learn if this is an airport that requires shoes on the belt, or in the bin and other inconsistencies. They see pilots get groped knowing full well that if a pilot wants to take down an airliner, they are in an undeniable position to succeed, sans liquid. And now they have to decide if they’ll allow a primary invasive screening designed for secondary use, or opt for an experience that some would argue requires dinner and a movie.

After September 11, 2001, Americans were prepared to spend twenty more minutes in the security line, take off their shoes, and pull out their laptops to assure they weren’t on the next flight headed for a target, rather than a destination. They then accepted, reluctantly, that they had to limit their carry-on shampoos and liquids for the cause of preventing an in-flight explosion. But as DHS continues to change the rules, add layers and push or pass the boundaries of expected privacy, passengers have a right to be sold on the measures, rather than scolded for questioning them, while leaders in Washington downplay the overall threat.

Secretary Napolitano has simply not made the case. Rather than strike a “trust us” tone — and we have learned over the past two years and last election that large masses of the public do not blindly trust Washington — she should strike a receptive tone. Rather than use secondary technology for primary screening, she needs to develop a consistent and publicly accepted screening policy that is transparent, systemic, logical and more closely resembles what Americans have come to expect.

To not listen to the American people and address their concerns is going to make the security situation worse. With planned mass “opt-outs” around the holidays, the security line is surely to become a mess. Frustrated TSA employees and passengers will add to missed flights and weather delays causing families staying home to be the only ones thankful this holiday season. And this will all lead to legislators rightly examining if the bureaucracy has become too bloated and debate privatizing large pieces of the apparatus.

Americans need to trust the people that are empowered to keep us safe. Sadly, that public faith is eroding, and it endangers our security. Secretary Napolitano is doing a disservice to our national security if she continues to discount the public consciousness and not rebuild the lost confidence in our airport security.

President Obama often blames his administration’s policy failings on communications problems. In this case, he has both.

Rory Cooper is the Director of Strategic Communications for The Heritage Foundation. He served in the Bush White House in the Office of Homeland Security and the Homeland Security Council between 2001 and 2004. You can follow him on Twitter @rorycooper