TSA: thieves, spendthrifts, authoritarians: from tormenting Americans at airports to bilking taxpayers, the Transportation Security Administration has compiled a remarkable record of thuggishness and corruption.
According to a report issued last September by TSA Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, the November 2003 TSA awards banquet event rang up $461,745 in expenses, including $200,000 for a cutting-edge multi-media presentation. In addition to devouring nearly a half million dollars in tax money to celebrate itself, the TSA used the event to disburse another $1.4 million in cash bonuses for 88 senior managers.
Ervin's report noted that the management bonuses awarded by TSA were the largest of any federal agency. More than three quarters of the agency's senior management qualified for bonuses. Yet, according to Ervin, the agency failed to provide adequate justification for more than a third of the cash awards. The TSA's generosity didn't extend to employees below senior management level, however. Erwin commented: "A substantial inequity exists in TSA's performance recognition program between executives and non-executive employees."
Reacting to Ervin's findings, TSA spokeswoman Amy von Walter promised that the agency would convene future awards ceremonies at less extravagant locations, such as individual airports. But she insisted that the lavish ceremony and indulgent cash awards were justified "given the hours and productivity of the workforce during this critical period."
In what sense could the TSA be credited with exceptional "productivity"? Aside from routinely subjecting American travelers to invasive body searches more suited to convicted felons, the agency has provided hundreds of criminals with well-compensated--and secure--employment. "The TSA has been criticized for its national problems in completing background checks of its 55,000 screeners," observed the June 25, 2003 Miami Herald. "1,200 screeners have been let go after background checks turned up criminal records or lies on their applications."
The TSA's personnel pool also includes thousands of people without criminal records who apparently develop criminal tendencies once they're hired by the agency. This was the case with 22-year-old Andrew Roy Washington and 23-year-old Edwin Reyes, who, reported the Herald, were arrested for "stealing from passenger luggage" as they conducted security screenings at Miami International Airport. The pair was also caught on camera neglecting their assigned duties. According to a Miami-Dade County Police statement, Washington and Reyes "purposely neglected to inspect passenger luggage but marked the items with clearance stickers anyway."
This combination of casual corruption and indifference to security is a prominent institutional trait of the TSA.
In January 2003, TSA issued a regulation forbidding airline passengers to secure their checked luggage with anything other than agency-approved locks. An advertisement for a TSA-approved combination lock that can be opened by a special key boasted that it "deters casual pilfering." The same can't be said, unfortunately, of opportunistic pilfering carried out by TSA employees. Within six months of the TSA edict, nearly 7,000 travelers lodged theft complaints with the agency.
"We appear to have an airport security problem that has nothing directly to do with Osama bin Laden," noted New York Times commentator Joe Sharkey in an August 27 column. "I have received more than 100 credible reports from readers saying that things were stolen from their checked bags, evidently by ... [TSA] screeners who open millions of checked bags a day for inspection, or by airline baggage handlers who move the luggage on and off planes." (It's worth remembering that TSA officials, unlike baggage handlers, are given special keys to unlock checked baggage.)
"Just since June," continues Sharkey, "more than 20 baggage screeners at airports in New York, New Orleans and Fort Lauderdale ... have been arrested, charged with stealing valuables from checked bags." Laptop computers, digital cameras, jewelry, designer clothing, large amounts of cash--even prescription drugs such as Nexium and Viagra--have all disappeared at the hands of TSA personnel.
In September, the TSA began paying out more than $1.5 million to settle 26,000 claims filed by angry travelers. In an oped column assessing the damage to TSA's reputation, Jim Bracher of the Bracher Center for Integrity in Leadership advised fliers to "take common-sense actions to protect themselves from any dishonest screeners.... Keep careful watch of valuables." This is ironic advice indeed, given that TSA screeners are supposedly there to protect the public.
In his advisory to travelers regarding corrupt TSA screeners, Jim Bracher admonished airline passengers to "maintain [their] own personal and travel integrity." Unfortunately, airline passengers who actually attempt to do so will be treated as criminals--as the case of San Diego resident Ava Kingsford demonstrates.
In September, Miss Kingsford attempted to fly back to San Diego from Denver in the company of her three-month-old son. Because her driver's license was expired, she was flagged for a special pat-down search. "She took the procedure in stride until the female Transportation Security Administration screener announced, 'I'm going to feel your breasts now,'" recounted the October 10 San Diego Union-Tribune.
Understandably, Kingsford objected to this violation of her "personal integrity." Alarmed by the menace posed by the petite 36-year-old blonde, the TSA employee called in reinforcements and informed her that she wouldn't be allowed to board until she submitted. "I was crying; I was shaking," she recalled. Still refusing to be molested by a federal employee, Kingsford pulled down the top of her snug-fitting shirt to show that she wasn't concealing anything--but this wasn't sufficient. After being told she "wasn't going anywhere," Kingsford rented a car and spent the next two days driving home.
"There was absolutely no reason to grope that woman," former FAA Special Agent Steve Elson insisted to THE NEW AMERICAN. "If they were legitimately worried that she posed a threat, they could have given her the chemical swab used to detect chemical explosives, and had her screen herself in private in the presence of a female TSA screener."
Kingsford was by no means the first passenger to be subjected to an invasive, degrading search.
On October 26, 2002, Nicholas Monahan, a film industry accountant in Los Angeles, was arrested and detained for an hour in a holding cell at Portland International Airport for protesting the unnecessary molestation of his wife--at the time seven and a half months pregnant with the couple's first child--by a TSA screener.
After passing through the security checkpoint, Monahan related in an essay published at the LewRockwell.com Web site, "I found my wife sitting in a chair, crying.... When I asked her what was the matter, she tried to quell her tears and sobbed, 'I'm sorry ... it's ... they touched my breasts." In addition to touching the expectant mother's breasts, the female TSA screener "had asked [Mary] that she lift up her shirt. Not behind a screen, not off to the side--no, right there, directly in front of the hundred or so passengers standing in line."
Of course, Monahan only learned the details of the incident several hours later because as soon as he demanded to know what the federal employee had done to make Mary cry, he was arrested. He recalled, "I was swarmed by Portland police officers. Instantly. Three of them, cinching my arms, locking me in handcuffs, and telling me I was under arrest." Monahan was dragged away from his wife--who was by then nearly hysterical--to a holding cell, where he was informed he was a "menace," asked if he was on drugs, and given a citation. The federal official, with an air of affected magnanimity, told Monahan that he was doing the would-be air traveler a "favor" by only charging him with a misdemeanor.
"Think about that for a second," reflected Monahan. "Rapes, car-jackings, murders, arsons--those are felonies. So is yelling in an airport now, apparently." In addition to missing his flight to Denver, and thus being unable to attend his best friend's wedding, Monahan was stuck with a $250 fine (plus an additional $59 in state-assessed court costs). Monahan's case--while extreme--is illustrative of a larger problem.
Profiting from Abuse of Power
When they're not groping passengers, some TSA screeners are abusing passengers through the capricious use of fines. USA Today described the case of Mojdeh Rohani, a Boston resident who received a notice in the mail from TSA fining her $150 for having carried a silver-plated cake service in her carry-on bag on a flight she had taken. This fine was levied after TSA screeners at Baltimore-Washington International Airport discovered the service--a wedding gift--and after she had been allowed to check the bag and take a flight. She notes that on the day of her flight, she was briefly detained by TSA employees but that she "wasn't told [she] could get fined for this."
"'Attitude' is listed among the 'aggravating factors' that can result in a fine," noted the paper--a consideration that didn't apply in Miss Rohani's case, since she had complied meekly with TSA's demands. Passengers who somehow provoke the ire of TSA employees can find themselves liable to fines of up to $10,000.
Thus far 800 travelers have been hit with fines, all of which were imposed on the basis of extremely subjective assessments. Among them is Laurel, Maryland, resident Kathryn Harrington, who was arrested in Tampa for carrying a "concealed weapon"--an eight and one-half inch long, leather bookmark.
"She'd carried the ... bookmark on several flights since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, even through Tampa International Airport, but screeners had never noticed it," observed the September 17 St. Petersburg Times. "This time, screeners thought the bookmark resembled a weighted police weapon, known as a sap or slungshot, used to knock suspects unconscious."
The 52-year-old special education instructor and Sunday School teacher was handcuffed and confined in the airport holding cell. "I pretty much cried throughout the whole thing," she told the paper. Harrington was released after being charged with carrying a concealed weapon, an offense carrying penalties of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. After living under this threat for a month, Harrington was informed that the TSA was dropping criminal charges. "I think at this point we've decided not to pursue a civil penalty," declared TSA spokeswoman Lauren Stover. "But it's not a decision that can be made on the spot. These are things that require an investigation."
Terrorist Support Agency
"I call the TSA the 'Terrorist Support Agency,'" former FAA Special Agent Steve Elson remarked to THE NEW AMERICAN. "While I have some respect for many of the screeners and frontline TSA personnel I've worked with--they're not all corrupt, after all--I have nothing but contempt for the people who run that agency." Elson, it should be understood, spent decades serving our nation--first in uniform as a Navy SEAL, then as a Red Team leader for the FAA. In that capacity, Elson organized mock terrorist assaults and other tests of aviation security measures. Months prior to 9/11, Elson and his colleague, Special Agent Bogdan Dzakovic, offered detailed, specific warnings about security lapses at Boston's Logan International Airport.
In a prophetic May 7, 2001 letter to the office of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, retired FAA Risk Management Specialist Brian Sullivan described those findings and warned that Logan could serve as a launching pad for "a coordinated attack ... [taking] down several domestic flights on the same day. The problem is that with our current screening, this is more than possible ... it is almost likely." (See "Unfriendly Skies" in our October 18 issue.)
Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars through the TSA, aviation security "is worse today than it has ever been," Elson insisted to THE NEW AMERICAN. "It's so bad that a group of high school kids could take a plane down as a class project, if they really wanted to."
One telling illustration of Elson's point is offered by the case of Nathaniel Heatwole, a college student from Maryland who planted plastic bags filled with box cutters and other prohibited items in the lavatories of several commercial jets. In September 2003, Heatwole sent the TSA an e-mail describing how he had committed six separate security breaches at North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham Airport and Baltimore Washington International Airport. In his e-mail message Heatwole acknowledged that what he did was illegal and described his actions as "an act of civil disobedience with the aim of improving public safety for the air-traveling public." The ever-vigilant TSA initially responded to Heatwole's tip by ignoring it. When the TSA finally acted on Heatwole's e-mail, it issued public statements "trying to take credit for a significant investigative success--when all they did was act on that kid's e-mails," states Elson.
The TSA has responded to mounting public disgust, anger, and frustration in classic totalitarian style: The agency has demanded even greater power. Beginning in July, the TSA began an "express screening" pilot program for major airports in Minneapolis, Boston, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington. Flyers averaging two or more trips a month could enroll in the special program, which would include an extensive background check.
After being cleared, program members are issued--after paying a special fee, of course--a "registered traveler" card that includes a biometric identifier digital fingerprint or retinal scans. Registered travelers could bypass the Checkpoint Charlie-style security gauntlet--but only after surrendering detailed personal information into the hands of a federal agency that has become notorious for official corruption and criminality.