Does the TSA fail at a rate of 95% at detecting (fake, "test") terrorists in breach tests, as reported in this news story? The best information that I have about this is a news report. Is there any official source confirming it?

  • 2
    I would add a notability claim, but it would simply be a news report, which is no worse than that being used in the answer.
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 13, 2015 at 2:05
  • @Oddthinking: yes, I read it in some news report. Don't know whether it was the ABC News. Jul 13, 2015 at 3:05
  • Not specifically saying 95%, but hints that it is true dhs.gov/news/2015/06/01/… Jul 13, 2015 at 3:24
  • The LA Times claims that the 95% figure comes from a leaked TSA report.
    – ESultanik
    Jul 13, 2015 at 13:01
  • If it is believed that this is a valid question, would someone please edit it to insert a reference to a "notable claim"?? Aug 8, 2018 at 22:41

1 Answer 1


Apparently yes.

There was extensive news coverage of this, which eventually points back to this ABC News report from June 1st, 2015. The report references an internal government report, which is not published on the TSA's website with other public or partially redacted reports, at least at this time.

The news story states "undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials". Reading a bit further, we find that the investigators conducted 70 trials, and were only detected in 3 of them, which is a failure rate a little higher than 95%.

In an updated version of the original question, the news source was deemed to be insufficient. Since the raw TSA report is not available, I can only offer reports from other, different, news organizations, which quote other officials or sources. While I realize that newspapers are not always reliable sources, it seems that a broad spectrum of new organizations offer support for this claim. On the extreme right, the (usually unreliable and pro-TSA) Fox News Network states (bold emphasis added by me):

The acting head of the Transportation Security Administration was reassigned late Monday after a watchdog report revealed undercover agents were able to sneak fake explosives and banned weapons through checkpoints

Homeland Security officials confirmed to Fox News earlier Monday that TSA screeners failed 67 out of 70 tests -- or 96 percent -- carried out by special Department of Homeland Security investigators known as "red teams," as part of a DHS inspector general review.

This story does not refer back to the original ABC news report, but instead references (unnamed) sources within the government organization that manages the TSA.

A more reputable source, the Washington Times, cites statements from the DHS inspector general, about a week after the initial news story (it also indicates that the acting DHS secretary Melvin Carraway was ``reassigned'' during the period following the release of the report). It states:

The investigators who exposed big holes in the nation’s airport screening weren’t specialized, highly trained “red teams,” but rather were normal auditors, the inspector general who led the probe said Tuesday, undercutting Homeland Security’s explanation for how 96 percent of contraband got through in a recent test.

The story also quotes Ben Sasse (a US Senator, who apparently read the report in question), stating:

Mr. Sasse, who has received a classified briefing on the situation, said Americans should be troubled by what they don’t know, and said Homeland Security officials were trying to spin the bad news rather than confront the serious problem they face.

“The administration has an obligation to responsibly declassify the inspector general’s investigation and to publicly release everything else it knows about TSA’s failures,” Mr. Sasse said.

EDIT: Several commenters suggest that three independent news articles, citing different sources, should not be considered serious evidence in favour of this claim. Since the report is under wraps, I do not think it will be possible to do better than this. However, we can point at a long history of internal TSA audits with similar failure rates (after which, the TSA usually claims to have "updated procedures").

The strongest official document I was able to find was a public, government accountability office report from 2007. In it, GAO auditors are described as successfully passing through the TSA's security with the components of a liquid IED at 19 airports (though not randomly sampled airports), without incident. This occurred after the creation of screening rules regarding liquids and gels. The agents successfully caught a bottle of shampoo one of the auditors was carrying, but allowed the components of the IED to pass by.

There are also a host of older news stories, though many more seem to have been lost to link rot.

Here's an article from the Boston Globe in 2003. A federal official went on record confirming "certain "prohibited items" were carried past the federal screeners hired to improve airport security after Sept. 11, 2001". Anonymous TSA sources are then quoted as saying that auditors "brought knives, a bomb, and a gun in carry-on baggage through several checkpoints at different terminals without being stopped." The details go on explain that, for example, although the knife set off alarms, the security agents believed it to be the man's zipper, and allowed him through. In another incident, "one of the screeners who failed to find a gun in a bag was a supervisor, the source said.". The failure rate of the TSA in these tests is not given, but this article offers insights into the sorts of mistakes TSA agents are making. It establishes the plausibility of the 95% claim, at least as far as I'm concerned.

Here's a blog post from 2006, that quotes a Newark Star-Leger story, apparently lost due to link-rot. The TSA failed 20 of 22 tests performed by security auditors, though details of the tests are not given. That's a > 90% failure rate. Again, this should make a 95% failure rate in a recent test seem more plausible.

Here's a news story from 2007, where TSA checkpoints are again breached in ~90% of tests ( "Sources told 9NEWS the Red Team was able to sneak about 90 percent of simulated weapons past checkpoint screeners in Denver"). Example breaches (according again, to unnamed sources) include one where "an agent taped an IED to her leg and told the screener it was a bandage from surgery. Even though alarms sounded on the walk-through metal detector, the agent was able to bluff her way past the screener." The former leader of the internal audit team and current TSA inspector, Bogdan Dzakovic, even goes on record in the article, saying "It literally is all window dressing that we're doing. It's big theater on TV and when you go to the airport. It's just security theater."

Because this is a politically charged issue, I suspect we're never going to see gold-standard data on it. We'll have to rely on second hand sources and anonymous claims. However, the data we do have all seem to point one way: that the TSA failing 95% of breach tests is plausible. Granted, breach tests may not be representative of how actual attackers would perform. But if this question really is about the breach tests, and not about actual attacks, I think the conclusion is clear.

  • 3
    Given the question was unclear, it is difficult to see if this has provided a more definitive answer than the original claim. This boils down to "it must be true. It was in the newspaper." where the original claim was probably "I read this in a newspaper. Is it true?"
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 13, 2015 at 2:07
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    @QuoraFeans I have updated my answer to include additional news reports, which cite independent sources (i.e. not just the original ABC News report). Unfortunately the TSA report itself doesn't appear to be public, but high ranking officials have gone on record about it in the WP story at least. Jul 13, 2015 at 16:01
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    @fredsbend: the question is whether someone who puts his mind into smuggling a weapon or explosive device on board will succeed 95% of the time. A normal passenger not trying to hide his baby formula or water bottle won't manage to get through the TSA, I suppose. Jul 13, 2015 at 19:54
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    @fredsbend: the claim to be tested is not mine, but from the news. I too find it surprising the high fail rate. "Breach" according to the sources is defined exactly as you did. Pretending to be a passenger and passing the TSA. The reports talk about " sneak fake explosives and banned weapons through checkpoints." Jul 13, 2015 at 23:31
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    I disagree that one should conclude that the TSA should receive the benefit of the doubt. There is little to no reason for the TSA to refuse to declassify the said report if it reflects well on their high security. They don't even need to declassify the methodology used by the auditors if they are worried about copycat incidents, they can just declassify the percentage that got through.
    – March Ho
    Jul 14, 2015 at 5:50

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