WASHINGTON – The anti-terrorism agency that Congress rushed into existence just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks to protect America's planes, trains and trucks is shrinking, and could all but fade away.
The Transportation Security Administration (search), which hired some 65,000 employees and has spent more than $10 billion over 3 1/2 years, has been beset by complaints about its performance, leaving it vulnerable to congressional Republicans who want to reduce the size of government.
After the terrorist attacks, "people were panicked to put in place a massive bureaucracy," said House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica.
The Florida Republican says the time has come to rethink TSA and cut it back.
The federal air marshal program which places armed, undercover officers on select planes, already has been transferred elsewhere within the Department of Homeland Security (search), for instance. Also, TSA has cut its work force of passenger and baggage screeners — who make up the bulk of its employees — from 60,000 to 45,000.
Mica and other Republicans, who were never entirely comfortable with creating a new bureaucracy, want to return all airport security screener jobs to the private sector, where they were before Sept. 11, 2001. If so, the federal screeners would get the first opportunity to apply for the private jobs.
Mica argues that private companies will do a better, more efficient job at the screening that currently is the TSA's primary function.
"They were given almost an impossible task, and they did complete the task Congress requested," Mica said of the TSA. "Now the question comes to sheer numbers and performance, and there's a lot to be desired."
Mica plans to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) soon to talk about reorganizing TSA.
The law creating the Homeland Security Department has a sunset provision for the transportation security office. It says the TSA has only to be maintained as a distinct entity until November 2004.
TSA Deputy Administrator Stephen McHale said he wasn't aware of any plans to change the agency's status as a separate entity. But, he acknowledged recently, "I'm not saying such a plan won't develop."
But many Democrats believe the federal agency is needed to protect travelers. They say Republicans set it up to fail by refusing to give it enough money.
"I helped to create TSA, which is now being disassembled," said Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, ranking Democrat on the aviation subcommittee.
The TSA started from nothing and grew quickly as part of the Transportation Department. It was incorporated into the Homeland Security Department when that Cabinet-level agency was formed as a result of separate legislation early last year.
The law creating TSA gave airports the choice of returning to privately employed screeners to check passengers and bags as of Nov. 19. An estimated 100 airports, out of 445 with TSA screeners, already have expressed interest in taking advantage of that option this fall.
Some think that would be better for fliers. Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, expects private contractors to put "more focus on customer service and civility."
Brian Jenkins, a special adviser to the Rand Corp. thinktank, said he wouldn't be surprised if the TSA disappears. He said many lawmakers were not enthusiastic about creating TSA but voted for it because of the pressure to do so soon after the attacks.
"Opposition was translated into mechanisms that would enable them to go back and dismantle it later on," Jenkins said.
Recent reports by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general and the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, showed that passenger and baggage screening remains lax despite the TSA's efforts.
Still, Democrats say private screeners will do worse and have pledged to fight for TSA.
"We will not go back to the days of private screeners," vowed Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
In the meantime, other TSA responsibilities are being whittled away — its grant-giving authority was transferred and its research and development functions will be consolidated elsewhere within the Department of Homeland Security.
Though Congress originally charged the agency with protecting all modes of transportation, it has done little beyond aviation. A full 98 percent of its $5.3 billion budget request for next year is devoted to air transport.
Mica sees TSA's future as a limited agency that retains influence over the air security system.
"The TSA should set policy, do oversight, conduct audits, possibly do background checks," he said.