The sorry record of the Transportation Security Administration
When 9/11 exposed the holes in American airport and airline security, the Bush administration and Congress responded with the usual Washington panacea: a new federal agency. Congress quickly deluged the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) with billions of dollars to hire an army of over 50,000 federal agents to screen airport passengers and baggage.
But before the agency was even a year old, it was clear that it had "become a monster," to quote the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, John Mica (R-Fla.). Arrogant, abusive, incompetent, and expensive, the TSA is, in the words of the House Appropriations Committee, "seemingly unable to make crisp decisions...unable to work cooperatively with the nation’s airports; and unable to take advantage of the multitude of security-improving and labor-saving technologies available."
The attacks of September 11, 2001, changed many things, but they did not make the federal government more competent or effective, and they did not make it more willing to respect the dignity or liberty of its citizens. For proof, one need only examine the TSA’s sorry record.
In June 2002 news leaked out that TSA airport screeners missed 24 percent of the weapons and imitation bombs planted in the government’s undercover security tests. At some major airports, screeners failed to detect potentially dangerous objects in half the tests. The results were worse than they first appeared, because the testers were ordered not to "artfully conceal" the deadly contraband and instead pack their luggage "consistent with how a typical passenger in air transportation might pack a bag." Although the tests seemed designed to see if screeners could catch terrorists with single-digit IQs, they still failed to find the weapons much of the time.
That does not mean TSA screeners don’t find anything. Notable triumphs have included seizing a tiny pair of wire cutters from a Special Forces veteran who had been shot in the jaw in Afghanistan and needed the cutters to snip his jaw open if he started to choke; evacuating terminals in Los Angeles upon discovering that travelers were carrying such dangerous devices as a belt buckle or a tub of jam; and shutting down several concourses in St. Louis after a federal security screener spotted what appeared to be a "cutting tool" in a carry-on bag. After detecting the suspicious object, the St. Louis screener followed proper procedure: He fetched his supervisor to take a look at the frozen image on the video screen at the checkpoint. A few minutes later, the supervisor concluded that the bag was indeed suspicious and needed to be manually searched. But the passenger had long since retrieved it and headed to his or her flight. Hundreds of passengers were evacuated and up to 60 flights were delayed; despite many searches, the suspicious item was never found.
On January 15, 2003, the Tampa airport was evacuated after screeners discovered an abandoned briefcase that appeared to be packed with bombs. The ticketing level of the terminal was cleared, the roads outside were closed,
and the bomb squad arrived. An hour later, it was determined that the briefcase was a TSA dummy designed to test airport security. "We use these bags repeatedly, so the fact that the bag was in that area was not surprising," TSA Security Director Dario Compain told the St. Petersburg Times. "That it was unattended, that there was no one with it who knew its true nature and could stop the escalation of our action before it reached the evacuation stage, is what’s troubling."
The TSA detains more than just packages. More than 1,000 people have been arrested at airport checkpoints since the feds took over security in February 2002. A regulation passed that month made it a federal crime to interfere with airport screening personnel. A single word can be sufficient to trigger an arrest.
Betsylew Miale-Gix, a 43-year-old personal injury lawyer and former world boomerang record holder, was stopped at a security checkpoint at Hartford’s Bradley International Airport on June 30, 2002, and informed that she could not carry her boomerangs onto the plane. The boomerangs weighed less than three ounces each and were fragile -- the type of item that is routinely crushed if sent as checked luggage. Miale-Gix had flown many times after 9/11 and had never encountered any objections to her boomerangs. They wouldn’t be much use as weapons, after all; as one of her fellow boomerang enthusiasts commented, throwing a competitive boomerang at someone is "like throwing a first-class letter."
The state trooper who banned the boomerangs from the flight refused to listen to Miale-Gix’s explanation, and she swore at him as she was departing the screening area. She was quickly arrested, handcuffed, charged with breach of the peace, and compelled to pay $500 for bail. TSA spokeswoman Deirdre O’Sullivan told The New York Times that although boomerangs are not on the official list of prohibited carry-on items, "the screeners have the discretion to decide whether or not that item could be used as a weapon."
Travelers who assert their legal rights can find themselves bounced. Della Maricich was banned from a Portland-to-Seattle flight on May 1, 2002, after she asked an airport screener to keep her purse where she could see it while he searched it. (Many airport screeners have been accused of theft since the new search procedures were introduced.) The screener refused, and Maricich demanded to speak to his supervisor. A National Guardsman arrived on the scene a few minutes later and, Maricich later told The Wall Street Journal, "He told me that because I had disrupted the line by calling for a supervisor, I would not be allowed to fly out of PDX that day. He told me that I was a troublemaker and I was the only one who had ever complained."
On August 2, 2002, a screener at Hartford’s Bradley International Airport poked through the wallet of Fred Hubbell, an 80-year-old World War II combat veteran who had already undergone two full searches in that airport that morning. "What do you expect to find in there, a rifle?" the exasperated Hubbell asked. He was then arrested for "causing a public disturbance" and fined $78. Dana Cosgrove, the TSA airport security chief, later justified the arrest on the grounds that "all that the people around him in the waiting room heard was the word rifle."
The TSA flaunts its power to bar people from flights. A group of 20 high school students and Catholic priests and nuns, members of Peace Action Milwaukee, were detained at Milwaukee’s airport on April 19, 2002, after some of their names turned up on a "No Fly Watch List" issued by the federal government. According to one member of the group, a sheriff’s deputy told her, "You’re probably being stopped because you are a peace group and you’re protesting against your country." Many of the travelers missed their flights and had to fly the following day. Yet Sgt. Chuck Coughlin of the Milwaukee sheriff’s department insisted, "Although it was time-consuming, and although they were flight-delayed, the system actually worked."
The TSA’s no-fly lists are often poor sources of information. Many travelers are repeatedly stopped erroneously and taken aside for intensive questioning, regardless of how many times they have previously proved that they are not a threat to national security. As David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Financial Times, "Nobody wants to accept responsibility for the maintenance of the [no-fly] list, and nobody wants to claim the authority to remove a name." Now the TSA, at Congress’s behest, is creating the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II), which will assign a "threat level" to every person who flies within the United States. The TSA has provided almost no information on how the system will operate, although the government has indicated that it could sweep up a vast amount of personal information on each traveler -- including credit history, financial and transaction records, Internet usage, and legal records (including speeding and parking tickets).
In January 2003 the TSA revealed a new regulation allowing it to suspend pilot licenses based on unproven suspicions that the pilot might pose a security risk. Those who lose their livelihoods as a result of such edicts will not necessarily be permitted to see the evidence against them. The TSA did not seek comments from the public before announcing its new rule, which fails even to define "security risk." Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, protested that the TSA was being "the cop, prosecutor, judge, jury and appeals court....Clearly, this is a violation of basic constitutional rights." But agency spokesman Brian Turmail dismissed the concerns: "The bottom line is: If you’re not a terrorist, you don’t need to worry about this."
The TSA has proven inept in the air as well as on the ground. It was determined to expand the number of air marshals quickly from a few hundred to more than 6,000. When most of the applicants failed the marksmanship test, the agency solved that problem by dropping the marksmanship test for new applicants. (The ability to shoot accurately in a plane cabin is widely considered a crucial part of a marshal’s job.) Some would-be marshals were hired even after they repeatedly shot flight attendants in mock hijack response exercises.
USA Today’s Blake Morrison noted a report that "one marshal was suspended after he left his gun in a lavatory aboard a United Airlines flight from Washington to Las Vegas in December. A passenger discovered the weapon." Another air marshal left his pistol on a Northwest flight from Detroit to Indianapolis; a cleaning crew discovered the weapon. Morrison noted: "At least 250 federal air marshals have left the top-secret program, and documents obtained by USA Today suggest officials are struggling to handle what two managers call a flood of resignations."
The Transportation Department responded to the USA Today exposé by sending Secretary Norman Mineta to an air marshal training facility, where he witnessed a training exercise in which marshals shot a would-be hijacker. Afterward Mineta commented, "I not only saw a remarkable demonstration of skill and marksmanship, but a degree of professionalism we are instilling throughout our aviation security system."
Eight days later, on August 31, 2002, Delta Flight 442 was proceeding from Atlanta to Philadelphia with 183 people on board when a disheveled passenger began rummaging in the overhead bin. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the trouble began when the man "made inappropriate comments to a female passenger a few rows behind him." Two plainclothes air marshals jumped up and tackled the guy, shoving him first to the back of the plane and then dragging him to the first class area.
Then the trip got interesting. One of the marshals returned to the front of the coach section, drew his Glock semiautomatic pistol, and started screaming and pointing his gun at passengers. Philadelphia Judge James Lineberger, a passenger on the flight, later told the Associated Press, "I assumed at that moment that there was going to be some sort of gun battle....There were individuals looking to see what they were pointing at, and [the air marshals] were yelling, ‘Get down, get out -- get your head out of the aisle.’" In a formal complaint to the TSA, Lineberger declared that "there was no apparent reason for holding all the passengers of the plane at gunpoint, and no explanation was given."
Lineberger was sitting diagonally across from the initial target of the marshals, yet did not notice any problem on the flight until the marshals went ballistic. Susan Johnson, a social worker from Mobile, Alabama, was also unaware of any disturbance until the air marshals seized the man. "It never made sense," she told the Inquirer. "This guy was not any physical threat that we could see. Maybe he said some things to them that made them concerned. He just appeared to us unstable, emotionally." According to Becky Johnson, a reporter who wrote a column about the episode for her Waynesville, North Carolina, newspaper, "They never, ever said who they were, that they were air marshals or whoever."
After the flight landed, the marshals nailed another terrorist suspect: a physician and retired U.S. Army major named Robert Rajcoomar. He was handcuffed and taken into custody because, as TSA spokesman David Steigman later explained it, he "had been observing too closely."
Rajcoomar had been sitting in first class quietly reading and drinking a beer until the marshals dumped the allegedly unruly passenger from coach class into the adjacent seat. Rajcoomar told the Inquirer: "One [marshal] sat on
the guy....he was groaning, and the more he groaned, the more they twisted the handcuffs." Rajcoomar asked the stewardess for permission to move to another seat in first class; she told him to take one of the seats the marshals
When the plane landed, Rajcoomar recalled, "One of these marshals came down to me and said, ‘Head down, hands over your head!’ They pushed my head down, told me to bend down." Rajcoomar said one of the marshals told him, "We didn’t like the way you looked" and "We didn’t like the way you looked at us." He was locked up in a filthy cell for three hours before being released without charges. His wife was left to roam the Philadelphia airport, not knowing what had happened to her husband.
And the person who initially set off the marshals? He was questioned after the plane landed, but a U.S. attorney decided not to file charges.
The air marshal who brandished his weapon had twice applied to be a cop in Philadelphia but failed the police department’s psychological tests. He had also been rejected in an attempt to become a prison guard. When he threatened scores of coach passengers, he had received only two weeks of training.
What escalates this episode beyond a mere bizarre anecdote is the fact that the TSA hailed these marshals as models. Several days after the incident, Thomas Quinn,
the national director of the air marshal program, asserted, "The federal air marshals did a very good job. They did exactly as they’re trained to do." And TSA spokesman Robert Johnson, speaking to the Associated Press, blamed the passengers for being held at gunpoint: "If people would have stayed in their seats and heeded those warnings, that would not have happened. It’s our opinion that it was done by the book."
Not Just Birth Pangs
Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport is home to 1,800 TSA screeners. At 1:50 p.m. on January 9, 2003, one of them swabbed the outside of a passenger’s laptop bag to check for explosives. The screener returned the bag to the pas-senger, who proceeded to his plane. Three minutes later, the screener noticed that the explosive trace detection machine indicated a positive alert for Semtex, a plastic explosive, from the laptop. The screeners then spent three more minutes checking the machine to confirm the accuracy of the positive alert before they informed a TSA supervisor of the problem. The supervisor and screeners then left the checkpoint to walk around and see if they could find the man suspected of having plastic explosives in his laptop. (The explosive detection test is notorious for false positives.)
The group searched four airport departure gates and, after they could not find the man, returned to the checkpoint to retest the machine. More than half an hour after the positive alert for plastic explosives occurred, the TSA notified an airport policeman standing 15 feet from the checkpoint of the problem. Orders were quickly given to empty the terminal. Almost an hour after the laptop owner passed through the checkpoint, his description was circulated through the airport.
Three terminals at the nation’s third-largest airport were closed for almost two hours. Thousands of people were evacuated from the airport and at least 200 flights delayed. Hundreds of passengers already on planes waiting for takeoff were obliged to deplane. Forty other airports were affected.
Because the Dallas–Fort Worth airport was not blown up that afternoon, the TSA declared victory. Agency spokesman Ed Martelle told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: "We caught him, but we lost him. But what he couldn’t do was harm anyone. The system worked." The TSA refused to name either the manufacturer of the machine that gave the alert or the screener; as spokesman Brian Doyle explained, "There are privacy issues involved here." After prying into tens of millions of Americans’ bags, the agency suddenly developed respect for privacy -- for itself and its corporate suppliers.
Although the TSA promised to issue a full report on the incident, it reneged, announcing a few weeks later that national security concerns prevented it from releasing any more details of the debacle. The TSA also declared that "details about future breaches also would be kept secret because of national security," The Dallas Morning News reported. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram added: "Too much information was made public about the breach, local TSA officials have been told. Further disclosures by airport officials or anyone else privy to the final report could result in fines and/or jail time."
While some people may retain hope that the preceding fiascoes are merely birth pangs, contrary evidence continues to cascade in:
On February 6, 2003, according to Airport Security Report, San Francisco International Airport was disrupted after a Taiwanese woman with two carry-on bags "sprinted through an unmanned security checkpoint at 10:46 a.m. It wasn’t until 1 p.m. that TSA officials evacuated the terminal." TSA agents looked for the woman, concluded she was "lost in the crowd," and then spent time reviewing the videotape of the security checkpoint before ordering an evacuation and rescreening.
On March 8, 2003, a terminal at the Hartford, Connecticut, airport was evacuated after a screener was caught taking a late afternoon nap by an X-ray machine.
On March 11, 2003, according to Airport Security Report, TSA officials shut down the Birmingham, Alabama, international airport after "four people were discovered lurking on the airport tarmac. They fled on foot when officers questioned them about their badges identifying them as airport security workers." Dozens of flights were delayed and hundreds of people were evacuated before it was learned that the four suspicious individuals were TSA officials testing airport security.
On March 21, 2003, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport was placed under a 40-minute lockdown, prohibiting all passenger entries or exits and all plane departures. TSA agents hit the alarm when they spotted a little toy gun on a child’s belt buckle in a carry-on bag.
The TSA confiscated the child’s belt buckle. Spokesman
Rick DeChant announced, "Had Mom or Dad helped this kid pack, this [airport lockdown] could have been avoided."
On April 3, 2003, a passenger at Baltimore-Washington International airport refused to be rescreened after the metal detector signaled an alarm from her first pass. Instead, she walked on to her flight. Although two concourses were closed for an hour, the woman was never apprehended.
In May 2003 Americans learned that the TSA had fired scores of screeners who had been on the job for several months in Los Angeles and New York after finding that they had criminal records. The Los Angeles Times reported that the agency "lost background questionnaires, failed to run some employee fingerprints through a national crime database and was unable to complete background checks." The Times noted that congressmen began investigating the TSA’s "background check process after reports that a screener at Kennedy airport was arrested earlier this year for allegedly stealing $6,000 from a passenger." At Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., the agency failed to complete background checks on more than a third of the 600 screeners. One employee complained: "It defeats the purpose of what you are here for. It’s a 200-plus [person] security breach." Nationwide, more than 20,000 TSA screeners were on the job even though the government had not completed background checks on them.
One reason for the federal takeover of airport security, you may recall, is that private companies had hired screeners of dubious character and poor trustworthiness.
On March 10, 2003, a TSA press release proudly announced, "The Transportation Security Administration has intercepted more than 4.8 million prohibited items at passenger security checkpoints in its first year, contributing to the security of the traveling public and the nation’s 429 commercial airports." Agency chief James Loy bragged that "those statistics are strong testimony to the professionalism and attention to detail of our highly trained security screeners." A few weeks later, he upped the ante, informing the House Appropriations Committee: "We have identified, intercepted, and therefore kept off aircraft more than 4.8 million dangerous items."
And so all the fingernail clippers and cigar cutters seized since 9/11 transmogrified into proof that the federal government is protecting people better than ever. The press release did not mention that the checkpoint seizures included frying pans, dumbbell sets, horseshoes, toy robots, and an unknown but huge number of small pointy objects.
Security as Theater
Here’s a more sobering measure of the agency’s effectiveness: The New York Daily News celebrated the first anniversary of 9/11 by sending two reporters around the country, taking 14 flights on six airlines, and passing through 11 major airports during Labor Day weekend 2002. The reporters carried box cutters, razors, knives, and pepper spray in their luggage. They took their contraband through the checkpoints at all four of the airports used by the hijackers on 9/11. "Not a single airport security checkpoint spotted or confiscated any of the dangerous items, all of which have been banned from airports and planes by federal authorities," the paper revealed. The reporters were selected for hand searches several times, but even then nothing was found. There were more security personnel and searches than a year before, "but it amounted to nothing more than a big show."
The TSA blamed the failures on its prehistory, commenting that the Daily News’ findings "underscore the failures of an aviation security system inherited by the federal government last fall." A spokesman for Department of Transportation Secretary Mineta, Leonard Alcivar, greeted the findings with a spurt of positive thinking: "The reality is Americans have never had a higher level of security in the history of aviation."
There was less room for positive thinking a year later, when college student Nathaniel Heatwole pulled a similar stunt, planting box cutters and fake bombs on six different planes to probe the gaps in security. In September 2003 he sent the TSA an e-mail message explaining what he had done, in the hope of sparking improvements in the system. Instead he was brought up on charges and now faces up to 10 years in jail.
There is no series of tricks or reforms that will guarantee safe air travel. But a first step toward better security is to recognize the facades the feds have created. The TSA should no longer be permitted to burden travelers or taxpayers. The armies of federal agents occupying American airports should be disbanded. In the meantime, airports and airlines must not be shielded from liability if their negligence results in carnage. The specter of devastating liability lawsuits could produce more innovations and sounder security policies than the incentives produced by Washington political circuses.
Federal intelligence agencies should do a better job of notifying airports and airlines of specific current threats. Resources should be focused on determining actual threats, rather than treating every grandmother and toddler as a potential hijacker. And it would be helpful to amend U.S. foreign policy to reduce the number of foreigners willing to kill themselves to slaughter Americans.
In the wake of 9/11, the federal mentality toward air travelers is best summarized by the motto posted at the headquarters of the TSA air marshal training center: "Dominate. Intimidate. Control." But it takes more than browbeating average Americans to make air travel safe.
James Bovard is the author of Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), from which this article is adapted.