It's been a bad week for airport security. First the head of the Transportation Security Administration is suddenly dumped from his job. Then his boss, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, sends more mixed signals about meeting the deadline to hire screeners and check passengers' bags. Now the Bush administration is beginning to reconsider its opposition to arming pilots, and Congress and Mineta have begun to play a blame game over whether the effort requires more money. Security is too important an issue to be decided by the usual Washington games. The two sides need to come together and fulfill the promise made after Sept. 11.
Though the task ahead is a mammoth one, making the nation's commercial airports safer is not an incomprehensible one. Replacing poorly trained private security screeners with a professional, federal force is the biggest part of the puzzle. Congress also set a Dec. 31 deadline for airports to have in place equipment to screen every checked bag for bombs. The flying public and the airports accept the inconvenience, and the airlines have resigned themselves to hear more customer complaints. But these sacrifices won't achieve their aim if Mineta and Congress cannot agree on the funding these measures will require.
Mineta said the $1-billion Congress plans to cut from his agency's $4.4-billion supplemental spending request could affect how the new security arrangements take shape by the fall and winter deadlines. Some members of Congress blame the administration for approving the smaller budget request, and they say Mineta is trying to hide behind money to fob off larger complaints about the speed with which his agency has undertaken its job.
Mineta has repeatedly undercut his own credibility by sending mixed signals about how important the deadlines were and about whether the government would be able to meet them. He started late at turning over passenger screening to the federal government, and for months muddled directions to local airport operators about the role they would play in putting new security arrangements in place.
It was bad enough earlier this year when Mineta proposed an alternative to using bomb-detection machines. The machines are bulky and expensive, and will require many airports to retrofit. But it was important for the nation to hear the secretary commit to this goal, just as now it is important for him to oppose the risky idea of arming commercial airline pilots. Mineta's main responsibility is to create a seamless security web, not to lessen the hassles for "stakeholders" in the aviation industry.
Mineta needs to work out an agreement with Congress that gets the security plan on-track. It's getting difficult, at this late stage, to know with any certainty whether the airports truly are moving ahead on the security front. The nation was promised better last September; the flying public demanded it. So why the equivocation now?