Politics, not security, drove rush to federalize screeners

The airport security bill signed by President Bush was a disappointing but politically necessary compromise between a Senate that passed a knee-jerk bill federalizing baggage screeners and a House that tried to hold the line against runaway bureaucracy.
We remain unconvinced that making all 28,000 baggage screeners in the nation's airports federal employees is the best way to protect the traveling public. A systemic breakdown allowed 19 hijackers armed with box cutters to take over four airliners on September 11. Changing who signed the paychecks of the screeners that day would not have changed the outcome.
The fact that the immigration service is manned by federal employees did not stop the hijackers from getting into the country, but no one is suggesting that immigration be privatized. Somehow, though, the "need" to federalize airport security became an article of faith within days of the attacks. And so it will be.
The best that cooler heads could do was provide something of an escape valve, a provision that after three years an airport can switch to a private system. But since by then, all of those new federal workers will belong to a union of federal employees, we suspect that it will be easier said than done for any airport to opt out.
Other points of law: Most of the other provisions of the new law make sense.
Federal managers will be assigned to airport security points to provide oversight that was lacking.
Criminal background checks will be conducted on some 750,000 airport employees. That's a good idea, but it only exposes the federalization of 28,000 screeners for the symbolic (and political) gesture that it is.
Within 60 days airports are to screen all checked baggage with whatever means available, including X-ray machines and hand inspections, and by the end of 2002 all checked baggage is to be inspected with explosives-detection machines.
More air marshals will be aboard flights and cockpit doors will be reinforced. More passengers will be prescreened and trusted-passenger programs will be implemented, using new technologies to identify passengers and expedite screening.
The scope of the entire package points up what should have been obvious from the start. There are no quick fixes to the breakdown that led to September 11's staggering death toll.

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