TSA — Tenth Anniversary of a National Nightmare
by James Bovard
Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush promised Americans, “We will not surrender our freedom to travel.” In hindsight, he may have been referring to himself and other high-ranking government officials. Because for all other Americans, airline travel has become more arduous and more perilous in the past ten years.
The Bush administration and Congress responded to the 9/11 hijackers with the usual Washington panacea — creating a new federal agency. The Federal Aviation Administration was widely perceived as inept, if not incorrigible. Instead of razing the failed bureaucracy and attempting to remedy the profound flaws in the federal approach to aviation, Congress and Bush “solved” the problem of airline safety by creating a new federal agency and vesting it with sweeping power and near-zero responsibility.
Last November marked the tenth anniversary of the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA has done wonders for the sale of latex gloves and 3-ounce plastic containers, but that is probably the extent of its positive impact.
The TSA has made U.S. air travel more uncertain. Shortly after it was created, the Transportation secretary, Norman Mineta, proclaimed a goal that passengers would not have to wait more than ten minutes to clear TSA checkpoints. He hyped the slogan “No weapons, no waiting.” That was the air-travel equivalent of offering to sell people the Brooklyn Bridge. But for anyone who doubted whether the TSA would perform as promised, Bush warned, “If we get impatient, the terrorists win.”
When the TSA began hiring screeners, Mineta announced that the agency would “hire the best and the brightest” for the new jobs. But not all TSA hiring processes have been biased in favor of intelligence.
TSA screener applicants in New York were not required to show any ability to detect weapons and were given tests that were surprisingly easy. Clark Kent Ervin, the inspector general for the Homeland Security Department, complained that some of the test questions “are simply inane.” The test asked would-be screeners why they should bother looking for smuggled bombs:
Question: Why is it important to screen bags for IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices]?
a. The IED batteries could leak and damage other passenger bags.
b. The wires in the IED could cause a short to the aircraft wires.
c. IEDs can cause loss of lives, property, and aircraft.
d. The ticking timer could worry other passengers.
The inspector general report did not disclose how many TSA screeners chose a wrong answer.
In 2003, Newsday reported pervasive cheating on TSA tests by screeners hired at LaGuardia Airport and elsewhere across the nation. Class instructors read the tests to students beforehand, made sure students understood the correct answers, and then gave the tests. One screener commented, “They knew that they would need us to fill these positions, so we were not allowed to fail.” One St. Louis screener said she received “only about 40 minutes of hands-on training on two explosives-detection machines, instead of the day and a half pre-scribed by the TSA. One machine, which produces computer images of each bag’s interior, was not working, so instructors ‘just said if it was running, this is what would happen.’” Several people hired to teach airport screeners also reported having been given test answers before taking the tests to become certified instructors.
The TSA provided abysmal training to many of the new bomb catchers. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on August 25, 2002, that “dozens of members of an elite team of federal airport screeners received as little as 15 minutes’ training before starting to inspect baggage for bombs.” The screeners were members of the TSA’s Mobile Screening Force, which moved around the country to lead the way in federalizing airport security. One disgruntled new “expert” screener complained, “They handed us a swab and told us to wipe the bags this way and put us to work. The whole thing took 10, 15 minutes tops.” The law Congress enacted in late 2001 required “security screeners” to receive at least 100 hours of training. The Chronicle noted that the new screeners said their “requests for proper training have been ignored.”
The TSA admitted in mid 2003 that it had grossly failed to screen its own screeners. Once hired, more than 1,200 TSA employees were fired after failing criminal background checks or other internal investigations. A 2004 inspector general report revealed that the raw numbers were only the tip of the iceberg. At a time when TSA officials were assuring the American public of the agency’s savvy, 500 boxes of documents representing the background checks for 20,000 TSA screeners were piled away and went unexamined for months.
The TSA used lower standards for security clearances than the FAA required for private screeners hired before 9/11. The inspector general found that at one airport, the TSA hired 13 screeners with serious criminal convictions (rape, burglary, manslaughter, et cetera). It allowed a dozen of the felons to continue working for months even after the agency discovered that they had failed their criminal-background checks.
The TSA has recently been harshly criticized for its Body Imaging X-ray machines that not only destroy privacy but also emit dangerous levels of radiation. But many people are unaware that the TSA is renowned for blundering with technology.
The Aviation and Transportation Security Act of November 2001 required that by December 31, 2002, all airline baggage be run through bomb-detection machinery or checked with hand-held bomb detectors. The TSA spent billions of dollars buying minivan-sized machines and hand-held detectors to protect travelers from bombs. Unfortunately, the machines that it rushed to buy are very unreliable, giving false positives for almost a third of all luggage. After a machine signals a false alert, the bag has to be searched by hand. Such searches have spurred more than 10,000 complaints to the TSA about luggage lost, stolen, or damaged while under TSA jurisdiction. A TSA screener who was caught stealing $5,000 worth of jewelry from someone’s luggage was fired and sentenced in April 2004 to five years’ probation and six months’ home detention, and was fined $2,000.
False explosives alarms have disrupted many airports. On November 12, 2003, hundreds of people were evacuated from Indianapolis International airport after an explosives trace-detection test gave a positive reading. The bag was held at the checkpoint while the owner left and caught his flight. A bomb squad later determined that the explosives alarm was triggered by an electric toothbrush and a hair-care product. On April 16, 2004, a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport was evacuated and flights were delayed after the TSA agents summoned the bomb squad over luggage containing a stack of poker chips and a Palm Pilot.
Heart patients have often been wrongly tagged by the TSA as would-be terrorists. Much of the Portland airport was shut down on January 5, 2004, in large part because screeners were spooked by an elderly man who tested positive for nitroglycerin. TSA spokeswoman Jennifer Marty told the Portland Oregonian that the shutdown could have been avoided if the passenger “had promptly disclosed that he was taking heart medication containing nitroglycerin.”
The New York Daily News reported in 2004 that “many common brands of hand lotions set off the explosives trace detection machines at U.S. airports’ new screening stations. Dozens if not hundreds of times a day, someone’s bag or shoe tests positive for glycerin — a substance widely used to smooth skin but which is also found in nitroglycerin, a main component of dynamite.” One TSA screener working at a Midwestern airport commented, “This happens five or six times during an eight-hour shift.” TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis explained why hand-lotion false alarms are another success story: “Passengers should be confident that [detection] machines are finding even a trace of this substance. It shows the system is working as it should.”
Even false alarms that do not shut down airport corridors can disrupt a traveler’s plans. On October 25, 2003, TSA agents at Norfolk International Airport were alarmed, as Airport Security Report gravely noted, after
a novelty dog toy, which breaks wind as it bends over, set off an explosives detector. The life-size mechanical terrier alerted screeners and armed law enforcement officers after it registered as TNT on an explosives trace machine. FBI agents grilled the man in possession of the toy, a 31-year-old male from England. A series of swabs were taken from the replica animal’s rear end. Officers were convinced an explosive was inside the dog. Officers eventually returned the dog but stopped the passenger from taking his planned flight to Charlotte, N.C., and rerouted him via Philadelphia.
It is unclear whether it is official TSA policy to automatically route potentially exploding canines through Philadelphia. The TSA has snubbed mandates by Congress to upgrade its bomb-catching skills. In the 2003 appropriations act for the TSA, Congress allotted $75 million for research to develop better explosives-detection equipment. The TSA ignored the law and instead spent $60 million of that money on salaries for TSA officials. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman for the House Aviation Subcommittee, groused that instead of developing new technology, “TSA’s become expert in taking nail clippers from little old ladies.”
The TSA has always been profoundly irresponsible and dishonest. Rather than making Americans safe from terrorists, it has made them prey to federal agents. There is no reason to expect the agency to turn over a new leaf. The TSA has no liability to any American citizen it abuses or delays. It offers proof after proof of the fraudulent nature of the federal security blanket. Its follies are a warning to Americans not to expect safety from mindless, arbitrary power.
James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy  as well as The Bush Betrayal , Lost Rights  and Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave-Macmillan, September 2003) and serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation.