In the frantic months after 9/11, we argued that people missed the point when they successfully pushed to make all airport security officials government employees, rather than employees of private firms. Whether employed by the government or private companies, security personnel are human beings who respond to training, incentives and oversight. If the government ran security on 9/11, the clamor would have been to privatize them.
Since then, a number of undercover tests of the security system have born this out. The latest was made public last week. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, successfully sent several people through airport security checks with liquid explosives and detonators.
An Associated Press report said the undercover investigators used the Internet to gain knowledge of the best ways to conceal these items and on how to thwart the system. In some cases, they gave security personnel ample opportunities to find the illegal items, loading their pockets with coins to ensure they needed extra screening or, in one case, carrying an unlabeled shampoo bottle that was confiscated (the flammable liquid he carried was not).
Human nature being what it is, people naturally let down their guard when performing tasks that are tedious and repetitive. It's natural that security guards would not be as vigilant today as in the first few weeks after 9/11. But these are hardly excuses. Millions of air travelers every day rely on airport security guards for their safety.
The Transportation Security Administration responded to this report by noting that it has several layers of airport security, including many that are not visible to the public. Just because someone penetrates one layer doesn't mean he or she will be able to thwart them all.
There is some comfort in that, as well as in the fact that terrorists have not been able to compromise air travel since 9/11. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that terrorists are as determined as ever to attack Americans. In so many ways, their resolve seems greater and more aggressive than the resolve average Americans have to capture them.
This report is only the latest to raise warnings about security. The GAO made another 320-page report public in September, pointing out various holes in Homeland Security, including inadequate policing of airport perimeters and a lack of security on non-aviation transportation.
The good news is that agencies are constantly watching and testing the system. Whether security is run by public or private employees, it needs to be as safe as possible. That's the point.