Has the TSA Hijacked Security?

Here's a question you should definitely not consider out loud the next time you're at the airport waiting in line at the security checkpoint. Suppose you were a terrorist who wanted to kill as many airline passengers as possible. Which of these plans sounds more feasible?

1.Smuggle a pocketknife or scissors on board. Then force your way into the cockpit and crash the plane.

2.Walk into the airport with a bomb and detonate it in the most crowded spot: in the middle of the passengers waiting to have their bags inspected for pocketknives and scissors.

Most terrorists probably gave up on the first idea after Sept. 11, 2001, when airlines started locking cockpit doors and telling pilots not to open them, no matter what anyone was threatening to do to flight attendants or passengers. Even if there were still terrorists planning to take over planes, they wouldn't need to bother smuggling weapons on board because they could kill people by stabbing them with pens or strangling them with belts.

I mention these ideas not to give terrorists any help -- they are obvious ones that have concerned security experts since Sept. 11. The experts have told the Transportation Security Administration that its airport screeners are wasting time looking for the wrong things, but the T.S.A. has gone on fighting the last war.

Under its new leader, Kip Hawley, the T.S.A. is finally considering proposals to speed up the screening process by ignoring scissors, small knives and other items now on its verboten list. That would be a favor to airplane passengers, but it would take a lot more to undo one of the costliest mistakes Congress made after Sept. 11: the creation of the T.S.A.

Congress ignored the lessons from Israel and European countries, which have learned the hard way not to rely on government workers to screen airline passengers. The overseas airports switched to private companies and let the national government concentrate on being a watchdog -- a job it could do much better when it wasn't overseeing its own workers.

But Congress insisted on creating a new federal airport security agency in charge of everything: making the rules, enforcing them and running the system. It was supposed to be a new kind of streamlined agency, exempt from some federal work rules. But a former T.S.A. official told me he was amazed at how quickly it had turned into a Soviet-style bureaucracy.

''It became this centralized risk-averse organization trying to create a cookie-cutter model for all the airports in America,'' he said. He praised the T.S.A. screeners, but added: ''The billions being spent aren't buying more security because they're looking at things rather than at people. Rather than treating every airline passenger as a potential terrorist, you should husband your resources and concentrate on the higher-risk passengers.''

If it didn't spend so much time and money examining business travelers' laptops, the T.S.A. could focus on real threats, like bombs in baggage, but it's been slow to set up a registration system allowing frequent travelers to bypass the screening. So they wait in line with everyone else because the T.S.A. doesn't give airports the flexibility to add screeners quickly at busy times.

When the T.S.A. was created, Republicans insisted on letting five airports -- San Francisco; Tupelo, Miss.; Rochester; Kansas City, Mo.; and Jackson Hole, Wyo. -- use private companies instead of T.S.A. screeners. A study by the Government Accountability Office found that the private screeners were more likely to detect smuggled contraband.

Now Republicans are pointing to those results -- and the innovations that the private companies have introduced while the T.S.A. has been moribund -- as evidence that America needs to make the same switch that Israel and European countries made.

''Right now T.S.A. is the regulator, the auditor and the operator of airport security,'' said Representative John Mica, the Florida Republican who is chairman of the House aviation subcommittee. ''That never works. It's a total conflict of interest.''

Mr. Mica has tried -- and failed so far because of Democratic resistance -- to pass legislation making it easier for airports to switch to private companies. I hope he succeeds this fall, but I'm worried that the T.S.A. may sabotage him. Besides the plan to ease up on pocketknives, it's also considering a proposal to exempt members of Congress from such screenings.

I will concede that they're not terrorists. But nobody deserves to stand in that line more than the politicians who created it.

Copyright ©2005 The New York Times Company