TSA: Tenth Anniversary of a National Nuisance

The Transportation Security Administration is celebrating its tenth anniversary this week. Perhaps they can uncork an extra bottle of champagne to toast the hundreds of thousands of jobs they destroyed by making travel far more onerous for Americans.

I have been flogging this agency since 2003. Here is a link to my blog entries on TSA.’

Here’s a link to a long excerpt from Terrorism & Tyranny (Palgrave, 2003) on the TSA – Dominate. Intimidate. Control – from Reason magazine, February 2004

Here’s the full text of a piece from 2004 on how TSA agents were robbing the public blind. Gee, good thing that doesn’t happen any more, eh? The “Bag It” was not my suggested headline – at least not the first word.

New York Times, August 18, 2004

Bag It

By JAMES BOVARD, Op-Ed Contributor

Last week four screeners for the Transportation Security Administration were arrested at Kennedy and La Guardia airports for stealing money, jewelry and other valuables from checked bags. The agents were caught in a sting operation after a torrent of complaints about luggage thefts. These arrests likely represent only a fraction of the abuses nationwide.

In April, four agents in Detroit were arrested for stealing laptop computers, cameras and other items from checked luggage. In June, four agents were arrested at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport on charges of stealing cameras, laptop computers, perfume, CD players and money. Also in June, one screener was arrested in Philadelphia for stealing $335 from a passenger passing through his checkpoint, and 13 screeners were arrested in New Orleans on charges of stealing valuables from checked luggage. Many have been suspended with full pay while awaiting the outcome of the cases. According to the transportation agency, more than 28,000 claims of loss or damage have been filed.

While there have been some successful prosecutions, in at least one case the T.S.A. let a screener off the hook. Last year, video cameras recorded a Miami screener stealing CD’s from checked luggage. But criminal charges were dropped after the screener’s lawyer made it clear that he planned to ask a government official about T.S.A. operations at the trial.

The possibilities for mischief are considerable. Congress requires the transportation agency to check all airline baggage with bomb-detection machinery or with hand-held bomb detectors. More than $5 billion has been spent by the government and airports to purchase and install the new equipment. Unfortunately, the machines are unreliable. In 2002, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta told Congress that the machines have a false-positive rate of 35 percent – and if a bag tests positive, it must be searched by hand. To do this, agents routinely examine baggage in closed areas, far from prying eyes.

To complicate matters, the agency initially recommended that all passengers not lock their baggage to facilitate searches. The agency has since recommended that people buy T.S.A.-approved locks, but these have often been cut by screeners despite the agency’s seal of approval.

The T.S.A. denies that a nationwide theft problem exists, and stresses that the vast majority of its 45,000 employees have not been accused of wrongdoing. It has nevertheless worked hard to limit its liability for baggage thefts and damage. According to the Air Transport Association, which represents the major United States airlines, the T.S.A. seeks to limit its total liability to $3 million a year – regardless of how much damage travelers incur.

In some ways, the thefts are not surprising. The transportation agency has done an abysmal job of managing its workforce. In June 2003, the agency admitted that it had failed to screen its own screeners and fired more than 1,200 employees after they failed criminal background checks or other internal investigations.

Some Americans may believe that luggage thefts are a small price to pay for making air travel safe. But the safety is a mirage. Tests by the Government Accountability Office and other federal agencies have found that the airport safety net continues to be full of holes. Clark Kent Ervin, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, told Congress in April that T.S.A. screeners performed poorly in response to covert tests. More recently, the 9/11 commission report warned that “major vulnerabilities still exist” in aviation security.

Airport security must be overhauled. Instead of relying on thousands of federal agents following often pointless routines (like treating grandmothers as potential hijackers), aviation security can be improved by relying on innovative procedures, including the use of private screeners trained to higher standards than T.S.A. agents, focusing on passengers who pose the greatest apparent risk and ceasing to shield airports and airlines from liability law suits if they fail to protect their customers.

President Bush said in 2002 that the law that created the T.S.A. “greatly enhanced the protections for America’s passengers.” But it takes more than long lines and delays at airport checkpoints to defeat terrorist threats. Is it wise to trust the T.S.A. to make air travel safe when it has a hard time protecting Americans from its own agents?

James Bovard is the author, most recently, of “The Bush Betrayal.”



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