Happy Birthday or Leave Me Alone? TSA at the Ten-Year Mark

Ten years ago Saturday, a far-reaching and convoluted bill was enacted. It created a new government agency that most Americans think is a big hassle, if not worse.

The Transportation Security Administration, born in the wake of 9/11, enters its second decade with a list of successes and shortcomings that we should examine. As the agency's third employee, I worked at TSA for more than four years and continue to watch it closely. The story of its formation offers lessons for homeland security, and for other major policy challenges.

Some history: A day after the bill was signed, I was told to show up at Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta's weekly meeting for the launch of TSA. There, the Transportation Department's senior executives gathered along with TSA in its entirety: two prominent Silicon Valley executives and... me, a 27-year-old Democrat who had been at the Department for four months. The Secretary introduced us and insisted that our team be helped at every turn. We were.

Headquarters was Conference Room 10246, a sparsely-furnished space with bulky desktop computers and fresh pads of paper and pens. It was the first day of school at Bureaucrat U. There we began the task of building TSA, an organization we would affectionately, and optimistically, refer to as the world's largest startup.

Over the next 13 months, the team that built TSA, which itself grew to hundreds of people and thousands of contractors, took in a million job applications, interviewed 125,000 candidates, hired 60,000 people, bought and installed $1 billion worth of security equipment, and set up security at 450 airports. All this under intense media and Congressional scrutiny, and in an uncertain threat environment.

TSA's greatest success is that it restored the public's confidence in our commercial aviation system. Despite the permanent scars of 9/11, people are flying again. As a result, the aviation industry is still a pillar of the U.S. economy and more than two million people use it every day.

However, TSA has never had sufficient resources for other parts of aviation or for mass transit, rail, and maritime even though Congress made us cut airport staff by more than 15% in our second year.

Key aspects of TSA's history are relevant today:

1. TSA's founding legislation had 37 distinct deadlines. There was no wiggle room. Today, on major issues, poorly written bills with conflicting mandates run to thousands of pages, and affected parties block Congress' will by slowing down implementation. The TSA act didn't permit this.

2. Surprisingly, it took longer for Congress to create TSA than it did to pass the Patriot Act. Congress and the White House couldn't agree on whether TSA officers should be Federal employees and finally -- weeks later -- settled on a mediocre compromise that is still inadequate (some airports can use private sector screeners, but with extensive restrictions). Congress did cut a deal, though; today, stalemates last months or years.

3. The bill added a security tax to every ticket. Even though it has raised billions, it doesn't cover all security costs, and the airlines don't like it, but people are flying again. However, because like other taxes, it probably won't be changed, new programs won't be funded.

4. TSA was initially given wide latitude to bring in talented private sector executives, to poach from military and law enforcement agencies, even to bring officials out of retirement. Today, it's far too difficult to onboard talent, and the cumbersome process dissuades people from service, not just at TSA but throughout government.

Creating TSA from a standing start in Room 10246 provides lessons for lawmakers on how to address key issues and what they should avoid.

To this day, there are few people willing to publicly defend TSA. But the most powerful endorsement of the agency is made by millions of Americans when they head to the airport confident they'll arrive at their destination safely.