Doing it the hard way

Doing it the hard way

It's easy to pick on the Transportation Security Administration, but let's face it, the TSA deserves at least a little sympathy.

This an agency that was created on the fly as part of the Department of Transportation immediately after 9/11. Only 18 months later, the TSA was uprooted and put together with nearly two dozen other agencies in the Department of Homeland Security. The TSA's work has been complicated by high management turnover and unclear direction and micromanagement from Congress.

Facing all this, the TSA would seem to need all the friends it can get. That's what makes some of the agency's actions so inexplicable.

For example, Operation Safe Commerce. OSC was envisioned as a laboratory for container security. The TSA picked three key import gateways - New York-New Jersey, Seattle-Tacoma and Los Angeles-Long Beach - to test separate technologies for securing import containers.

The ports cooperated with the OSC pilot program, and technology vendors stepped up in hopes that their products would win the TSA's seal of approval. OSC's Phase 2 trials were conducted in 2003, and everyone waited for the TSA to compile and publish the results.

They're still waiting, and none of the participants has heard anything from the TSA. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has publicly complained about the lack of action. The technology vendors are in limbo, not knowing whether their technology will be accepted or should be retooled.

There's no apparent explanation but that the TSA has been overwhelmed with other priorities, such as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential and new requirements for air cargo security. The agency says progress - or lack of progress - on OSC is too sensitive to discuss. Yeah, right.

The TSA has been just as clumsy with its recent directive for cargo that's handled by all segments of the airline industry. As Bob Edmonson notes in this week's cover story, the TSA issued public regulations for air cargo security, but supplemented them with directives labeled "sensitive security information," only for the eyes of TSA's "regulated entities."

Shippers have learned of the new rules through carriers and forwarders, not all of which interpret the TSA requirements the same way. The TSA's lame justification for labeling the directives as security-sensitive is that the agency doesn't want terrorists to know what steps it's taking. But that means that shippers also are in the dark about what they're supposed to do.

No matter what the reason, it's no way for the TSA to treat its potential partners in supply-chain security. Shippers have the supply-chain expertise the government lacks, and the TSA should work with them instead of alienating them. No one disputes that the TSA has a difficult job. But why make it harder than it needs to be?