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October 2, 2012

Ex-TSA agent: “We steal from travelers all the time”
Posted by Teresa at 11:00 PM * 52 comments

I was ranting (and posting dozens of links) about this issue just the other day. Now former TSA agent Pythias Brown, the Newark-based one-man crime wave, has gone public about the problem of TSA theft from passengers.

The interview is revelatory. The TSA has put far more work into denying and obfuscating the problem than fixing it, so it’s startling to hear Brown talking about it in clear. The pictures he draws match the known data a lot better than the TSA’s press releases. Here’s the story:

A TSA agent convicted of stealing more than $800,000 worth of goods from travelers said this type of theft is “commonplace” among airport security. Almost 400 TSA officers have been fired for stealing from passengers since 2003.
Some additional number of them resigned and weren’t prosecuted. My guess is that the resignations outnumber the cases that were prosecuted.
Pythias Brown, a former Transportation Security Administration officer at Newark Liberty International Airport, spent four years stealing everything he could from luggage and security checkpoints, including clothing, laptops, cameras, Nintendo Wiis, video games and cash.

Speaking publicly for the first time after being released after three years in prison, Brown told ABC News that he used the X-ray scanners to locate the most valuable items to snatch. “I could tell whether it was cameras or laptops or portable cameras or whatever kind of electronic was in the bag,” he said.

A three-year sentence is par for the course for a conviction, even in cases where the TSA agent is known to have stolen hundreds of cameras and computers, or thousands of dollars in cash or jewelry. About half the time, they get three years on probation, and that’s it.

I do not doubt that some of their victims have worked longer to pay off the goods they’ve stolen than the thieves have been incarcerated for stealing it.

Brown often worked alone, screening luggage behind the ticket counters. He was frequently told the overhead surveillance cameras, installed to prevent theft, were not working. “It was so easy,” he said. “I walked right out of the checkpoint with a Nintendo Wii in my hand. Nobody said a word.”
I believe this. Stealing has to be easy because there haven’t been nearly as many arrests for accessory to theft as there’ve been for plain old one-person theft. Brown was mailing goods to his eBay customers from the airport FedEx, paying the postage charges with a personal credit card that had his home address on it. No one noticed.

This is the organization that has obsessively confiscated insufficiently small bottles of shampoo and hand lotion, made travel a nightmare for families whose toddlers’ names happen to match names on the ever-expanding no-fly list, and had the expensive new high-tech scanners they developed rejected by potential customers in German airport security because they generate too many false positives.

What doesn’t the TSA do? Standard investigative work. Standard site security.

With more electronics than any one individual could need, Brown began to sell the stolen items on eBay. At the time of his arrest, he was selling 80 cameras, video games and computers online. Brown said the theft was comparable to an addiction. “It was like being on drugs,” he said. “I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ but the next day I was right back at it.”
A routine comparison of eBay auctions with reported thefts at Newark would have lit up Brown’s vendor account like a Christmas tree.
Brown was finally caught after selling a camera he stole from the luggage of a CNN producer. When he sold the camera on eBay, he forgot to remove the news networks’ logo stickers. “I got complacent,” he said.

TSA’s culture of theft

But while Brown believes he might have been one of the worst thieves at the TSA, he imagines the agency’s culture makes it easy for others to do the same.

The TSA has never made any distinction between the appearance of security and the real thing. Meanwhile, every employee theft is a diagnostic indicator saying there’s a hole in security at that spot.
Many officers don’t care about their work and complain about low pay and being treated badly, he claims, which prompts them to steal.
Disgruntled employees and ex-employees are the biggest security hole in any organization. The TSA has a chronic morale problem that’s gotten worse over time.
To make it even easier to get away with, TSA managers also never search their employees’ bags.
That’s a new one on me. I had no idea. I am amazed. Millions of employees in retail and manufacturing jobs are subject to being searched. So are people at concerts and museums. So is everyone who rides my city’s transit system. So is everyone who passes through an airport who isn’t TSA. What earthly reason could there be to exempt TSA employees from bag searches when the organization has an endemic problem with theft?
The agency says it has a zero-tolerance policy for theft and terminates the contracts of all thieves within the TSA. In the past ten years, almost 400 TSA officers have been fired for stealing, 11 of which were fired this year.
Yeah yeah yeah, TSA zero-tolerance policy. That’s their answer every time it happens. Notice how they only guarantee they’ll terminate employment contracts?

Many of the biggest cases that have been reported and prosecuted have involved local law enforcement. I’d like to know whether that’s because police departments are more competent than the TSA, or whether the police won’t just write it off and let the TSA employee quietly resign.

ABC’s interview with Brown highlights the extent of the dilemma passengers face when traveling with valuables. Brown is just one of many officers caught in the act of stealing goods worth thousands.

In February, 2011, two TSA officers were arrested for stealing $40,000 in cash from a checked bag in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Using an X-ray machine, the men found that the bag contained $170,000 and removed some of the money.

A favorite target: overseas travelers who speak English as a second language if they speak it at all. Many of them carry large amounts of cash, and it’s difficult for them to raise a fuss when they’re robbed.

Don’t feel too sorry for the employees driven to steal. The ones who do it target the most vulnerable travelers.

In the first two months of this year, a TSA baggage screener in Orlando was arrested for stealing valuables by hiding them in a laptop-sized hidden pocket in his jacket and selling the goods on Craigslist. And, a New Jersey-based agent stole $5,000 in cash from a passenger’s jacket as he was going through security. In April, a Texas-based TSA officer stole eight iPads from checked bags, while another officer stole a $15,000 watch from a passenger at the Los Angeles International Airport in May.
All of those were confident and well-practiced thefts, which means none of the thieves were doing it for the first time. I doubt they were doing it for the twentieth.
“It was very commonplace, very,” Brown said, describing the frequency of theft within the TSA.

“TSA is probably the worst personnel manager that we have in the entire federal government,” said Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “It is an outrage to the public and, actually, to our aviation security system.”

Once an organization jells, it can be very hard to change. The TSA is habitually mendacious, corrupt, and incompetent. The whole thing should be burnt to the ground and rebuilt from scratch.
Comments on Ex-TSA agent: "We steal from travelers all the time":
#1 ::: Brad Hicks (@jbradhicks) ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2012, 11:58 PM:

Back when the TSA was first being set up, 11 years ago, I was (out of desperation) rent-a-copping for a national company that no longer exists. Several of my cow-orkers were on me like white on rice to go apply to the TSA: union work, government work, better pay and benefits. I said no for two reasons, the minor one was "too many consecutive hours standing still for my blown-out knees." My more important reason was the second most wrong prediction I've ever made in my life:

I said that there was no way I'd give up a stable job to go work for the TSA, because the legislation that created the TSA gave airports the option to opt out of the system, and go back to private contractors, any time after November of '02. And, I predicted, that meant that there wouldn't be a TSA after 30 Nov 2002, because no airport would pay that much extra for service that wasn't going to be any good, and because by then the American people were going to have risen up in open revolt against the way the TSA was certain to treat them.

Yeah. I said that. I've been more wrong than that, but only once before, and the stakes were lower that time. I was embarrassingly optimistic about the end of the TSA back in late '01.

#2 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 12:16 AM:

Why rebuild it? It's a useless organization with no actual mission.

#3 ::: Teka Lynn ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 01:39 AM:

I'll settle for (metaphorically) "burnt to the ground." No need to rebuild it.

#4 ::: Laertes ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 01:49 AM:

#2 and #3 were my first thought as well. It's not clear to me why we need this organization.

#5 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 02:02 AM:

Wait, the TSA doesn't search its own employees' bags? if someone wanted to get contraband into an airport, say...

Quis custodiet &c. indeed.

#6 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 02:02 AM:

Wait, the TSA doesn't search its own employees' bags? if someone wanted to get contraband into an airport, say...

Quis custodiet &c. indeed.

#7 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 02:04 AM:

Right-wing pundits hated the TSA back when it was being put together --- they dismissed it as an attempt by Democrats in Congress to create a new unionized batch of government employees who'd be dependable Democratic votes.

So the way to get rid of it (and this should probably wait till after the election) is to get liberals to praise and defend it in public, playing up the union aspects. Get Obama to defend the TSA publicly. Then when the Republicans demand that it be dismantled, reluctantly agree in exchange for something other concession.

#8 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 05:15 AM:

Avram, I dunno. I think that, while it's a cunning plan, your idea presupposes a level of cunning in Democrats that is not in evidence.

#9 ::: Tracy Lunquist ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 09:35 AM:

Agree that burning will suffice. And as for open revolt, I think we all want to, but how would you do that? You'd basically have to buy a plane ticket with full knowledge that you weren't going to get to your destination, and persuade enough others to do the same that you could stage a successful revolt in the airport. You'd pretty much have to plan on being arrested and brought up on federal charges. And at least a dozen others would have to do the same-- preferably a hundred or more. You'd need very expensive lawyers. It would be expensive, time consuming, and difficult. And even after all that you might not win. Like most overblown institutions, the TSA has entrenched itself by being too big to fail. It's just that in this context, "too big" refers to its power rather than its size.

#10 ::: David Weingart ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 09:53 AM:

I'm a pretty frequent traveler. When I'm on a project (at least a US-based project) I'm on a plane 2 days a week, which means I deal with the TSA a fair amount.

Burn it to the ground. Don't rebuild it.

#11 ::: Bill Altreuter ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 10:06 AM:

Although it is dismaying that the TSA is this corrupt and useless, let's not pretend that three years in prison is a light sentence. That's serious time.

#12 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 10:47 AM:

Three years in prison is no joke. Three years' probation, however....

#13 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 11:16 AM:

The TSA has never made any distinction between the appearance of security and the real thing

Is this where I do my Capitaine Renaud impersonation?

#14 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 11:40 AM:

The thing with the TSA is they aren't accountable. Three years in prison... Not good, but that's for how many counts of theft? The amount cited was what, $800,000 dollars?

A RICO charge would have put him away for life.

But it's more than that, which is why this sort of penny-ante crap pisses us off so much; because it's the only place we can try to hold them accountable.

In the ways they actually have power, that power is arbitrary, and has proven lethal (the tasing deaths). Piss of a TSA employee and the least of your worries is a groping and a missed flight. If they get pissed you can end up on a "no-fly" list.

You can go to prison. They don't have the training cops do. They don't have to obey their own regulations (try to use a "butterfly-bag for your laptop at JFK, even thought there are signs; physical, and giant video, telling you that you can, and what the requirements are).

It's caprice. And they are underpaid, overstressed, and getting more respect than they deserve; because if they feel, dissed, you have to be servile, or go to jail.

That's why it needs to be razed.

#15 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 12:58 PM:

I agree it needs to be reformed and probably a total housecleaning (not to mention reality based screening measures that go to real world threats instead of the 1% probability events), but as for burning it to the ground, have we totally forgotten what was there before? A private security firm, typically lowest bidders, low employment criteria and training (those convictions, even those sentenced to probation, will pretty much disqualify them for employment at many places, especially in this economy), even worse pay and respect, also plagued by rampant theft (those luggage locks predate the TSA for a reason) and false imprisonment. And for all the stories of how many loaded weapons make it past the TSA screening, as I remember it the situation was worse before.

So, yeah, let's reform it and bring it under control. Rewrite the rule books, etc. But I don't think I want the bare minimal security (and non-security) that was there before.

#16 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 03:17 PM:

Steve Buchheit @15: there were metal detectors and x-raying of luggage in most airports long before the TSA. It wasn't the lack of an unaccountable Federal bureaucracy that let the 9/11 hijackers through, it was that the security forces in place at the time didn't know the new form of threat they were facing.

Prior to the TSA, yes there was still theft from travelers, but what was missing was a Federal bureaucracy dedicated to covering up those thefts.

#17 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 03:27 PM:

Bill, #11: So ask the next question: what percentage of those thieves actually get three years in prison? As opposed to, say, three years' probation, or just being fired? Because if the only penalty you face for stealing thousands of dollars' worth of easily-resold valuables is losing the job that enables you to steal them... that's not much of a deterrent, is it?

I also wonder how many of those prison sentences were the result of actions initiated by TSA? And my guess is, if not zero, pretty damn close to it.

We have an agency here with massive power and ABSOLUTELY ZERO accountability. The wonder isn't that some of its agents go rogue, it's that more of them don't.

#18 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 03:30 PM:

Steve Buchheit @15--Two things enabled the 9/11 hijackings: the refusal of the Bush administration to pay attention to warnings from the government's national security apparatus, including both the NSA and the CIA; and the lack of locks on plane cockpit doors. The latter is something pilots had been agitating about for some time, as they saw it as a real risk. As long as they could lock that door, there might be deaths on board, but no one could break into the cockpit and take control of the plane for bad ends.

Right now, I reckon the TSA sits in public estimation about as highly as the people charged with enforcing Prohibition in the 1920s. It's not a good thing when a governmental entity is run and handles its responsibilities in such a way that we loathe and despise it, because then we find it easier to loathe and despise the government any time it does something we don't like, instead of asking how things could be handled better.

#19 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 03:48 PM:

Jeremy Leader #16 and fidelio #18, I agree that the TSA needs to change, but #1 the 9/11 hijackers shopped to find the weakest security in the chain and the threat to stop people boarding with weapons would have stopped the 9/11 attack, no matter if they meant to hold the plane hostage, fly it to Cuba, or slam it into a building. AQ searched for someplace they could reliably get past security with their weapons of choice. If everything were the same, they would have boarded the flights in Boston.

As for the locking doors, I'll just remind everyone of EgyptAir Flight 990. The only reason it wasn't recorded as a murder suicide was because of tense relations at the time. If there had been a locking cockpit door, the pilot wouldn't have even had a chance to rescue the plane (unfortunately he wasn't successful in any case).

If you want to go with the thinking that there's a government agency in the act of covering for their employees, we can always change the government.

But I do agree that the TSA's reputation is in the toilet, and for good reasons. I'm just saying that they're better, IMHO, than what they replaced. Now we just need to fix them. They work for us, not the airports or the airlines.

#20 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 03:55 PM:

Steve Buchheit @15:

I agree it needs to be reformed and probably a total housecleaning (not to mention reality based screening measures that go to real world threats instead of the 1% probability events), but as for burning it to the ground, have we totally forgotten what was there before? A private security firm, typically lowest bidders, low employment criteria and training..., even worse pay and respect, also plagued by rampant theft (those luggage locks predate the TSA for a reason) and false imprisonment. And for all the stories of how many loaded weapons make it past the TSA screening, as I remember it the situation was worse before.

So, yeah, let's reform it and bring it under control. Rewrite the rule books, etc. But I don't think I want the bare minimal security (and non-security) that was there before.

I haven't forgotten the days when security at just about every airport in the country was contracted out to either Argenbright or Huntleigh, firms that specialized in fulfilling the bare letter of the law at the lowest possible cost. Both abused and intimidated their employees, paid the lowest wages the law allowed, and only regretted having 400% per year employee turnover rates in some positions because it increased their administrative costs. I wrote about it in October 2001 and October 2003.

I noticed this detail in a 2009 story about baggage handlers stealing from luggage at Lambert Airport in St. Louis:

Eight contract baggage handlers for Delta Airlines rifled through hundreds of bags of luggage at Lambert Airport over a period of more than a year, stealing some 900 items ranging from laptops and iPods to cologne and cigarettes, airport police said Thursday.

Formal charges have not been filed, and names of the suspects were not released.

Airport Police Chief Paul Mason said the workers were employed by St. Louis-based Huntleigh USA, hired by Delta to handle baggage. Huntleigh chief executive officer Richard Sporn said all eight workers were fired.

"It clearly is an unfortunate situation and we are distressed by the news," Sporn said. "Unfortunately we are not the first for something like this to happen. All we can do is learn from this and try to make sure it doesn't happen again."


Both firms are still trying to get back into the passenger and luggage security-checking biz. It must be killing them to know how much more money is flowing through that channel now that they're out of it.

We need a security agency because firms like Huntleigh and Argenbright are so bad at it. Here's a surviving link from a February 2000 story in the St. Petersburg FL Times. It's about the drop in security standards following Huntleigh's successful 1995 court case, in which it sued to be exempted from Louisiana regulations for airport security screener training and oversight. The court ruled that it was properly a federal matter, which resulted in all of the states' regulations for screener training and oversight being dropped.

"Now, a prospective screener is (merely) asked on the application form if he has a criminal history," Varnadore said. "The security companies rely on the screeners to tell the truth, and if they answer no to that question, that's it, that's as far as it goes. And to me, that's frightening."

Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, said he was surprised at the perfunctory nature of background checks on screener applicants, who appear to get less scrutiny than virtually anyone else who works at the airport, except perhaps the person who sells magazines.

Five years later, in 2000, the FAA still only had proposals. There were no nationwide regulations covering screeners.

Meanwhile, we need to replace the TSA because the TSA is so bad at it:

July 2004: Bomb-sniffing Dogs At Airport Fail Test For Recertification.
December 2004: Newark Airport Flunks a Bomb Test: Screeners spot the fake device in luggage, only to lose it. The bag gets flown to Amsterdam.
December 2004: Bomb detection test goes wrong at Newark Airport. Note the update on the earlier story: the TSA didn't just lose track of the bag. They lost it completely, never found it, and just assumed it had gone to Amsterdam.
March 2006: Airline screeners fail government bomb tests: 21 airports nationwide don’t detect bomb-making materials.
October 2006: TSA screeners still fail to find guns, bombs.
November 2006: Homeland Stupidity: The TSA Follies.
September 2007: Undercover agents slip bombs past DIA screeners.
October 2007: Most fake bombs missed by screeners.
October 2007: Test Bombs Get By Federal Airport Screeners.
January 2008: TSA tester slips mock bomb past airport security.
March 2008: TSA FAIL: Screeners Frequently Miss Fake Bombs During Undercover Tests! (video)
December 2010: TSA Misses Guns, Bombs In Tests.
December 2010: New TSA Report: Every Test Gun, Bomb Part Or Knife Got Past Screeners At Some Airport.
May 2011: Oops. Bomb at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was only a drill.
May 2012: TSA — Tenth Anniversary of a National Nightmare.

That September 2007 story was particularly interesting:

...The covert testers who were at DIA are part of the TSA's Red Team. The Red Team was formed by the Federal Aviation Administration after terrorists blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people.

The Red Team tests about 100 airports nationwide every year, according to Morris. It halted testing after 9/11. Since it re-started testing in 2003, the Red Team has investigated security at approximately 735 airports. The team tested DIA once during 2006 and on February 12 to 14, said Morris. The agents act and think like terrorists to find vulnerabilities in the aviation security system.

The Red Team uses very expensive chemical simulates in the test devices that look, smell and taste like real explosives, except they do not explode. To the CTX bomb detection machines at DIA, they are real explosives, according to a former Red Team leader.

Sources told 9NEWS the Red Team was able to sneak about 90 percent of simulated weapons past checkpoint screeners in Denver. In the baggage area, screeners caught one explosive device that was packed in a suitcase. However later, screeners in the baggage area missed a book bomb, according to sources.

"There's very little substance to security," said former Red Team leader Bogdan Dzakovic. "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."

Dzakovic was a Red Team leader from 1995 until September 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks, Dzakovic became a federally protected whistleblower and alleged that thousands of people died needlessly. He testified before the 9/11 Commission and the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the US that the Red Team "breached security with ridiculous ease up to 90 percent of the time," and said the FAA "knew how vulnerable aviation security was."

Dzakovic, who is currently a TSA inspector, said security is no better today.

"It's worse now. The terrorists can pretty much do what they want when they want to do it," he said.

TSA's Morris disagrees with that. "We have a very robust program of which we are very proud, in which we utilize testing at all of our airports every single day," said Morris.

The security chief says he expects screeners to fail the Red Team tests because they are difficult.

"We could put these tests together so that we have a 100 percent success rate every single time," said Morris. "Then, they wouldn't be challenging, they wouldn't be realistic and they really wouldn't be stretching the limits and the imagination of the Transportation Security Officer."

Morris says the tests are designed to be tough so that officers can learn from their mistakes and successes.

"It's a test but it's also a learning experience," said Morris. "It's a constant audit that we put on there to see where our employees are and where we need to enhance the weaknesses."

Morris says other agents, not with the Red Team, test and train screeners every day at the nation's 450 airports and says screeners pass most of those tests. In those kinds of tests, he said Denver has done well in the past.

However, tests done by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2006 found widespread failures. According to the GAO, screeners at 15 airports missed 90 percent of the explosives and guns agents tried to sneak past checkpoints.

Also, a Denver woman who carries a Taser for personal protection, told 9NEWS she carried it on board airplanes last year six times. Her Taser shoots 500,000 volts of electricity. She says the TSA never caught it and stopped her.

Most test results, including results from the Red Team, are secret, classified as SSI or sensitive security information. Morris says they do not make them public because they could point out holes in the system.

"We're actually fighting a war on terror. Our intent is not to educate the public on how we do tests and what are tests consist of. Our sole objective is to prevent those who have intent to do us harm from being able to successfully complete their mission."

Sources who leaked the test results to 9Wants to Know say they were concerned about the failures and want security improved.

Morris says the screeners were told about the failures and the problems were fixed. He called 9Wants to Know's sources 'disgruntled and underachieving employees.'

"Anyone who violates the rule we have in place for divulging information that is sensitive and secret, that jeopardizes the security of this country is wrong," said Morris. "They're out of line, it's not acceptable and it's not appropriate."

Dzakovic, who testified that the FAA ordered the Red Team to "not write up our findings," said the TSA is also trying to hide its results.

"The last thing TSA wants to do is look bad in front of congress and in front of the public, so rather than fix the problem, they'd rather just keep them quiet," said Dzakovic.

Dzakovic says aviation security needs fundamental changes if it's going to improve.

"If anything of value is to be achieved out of this latest round of testing in Denver, congressmen need to go into the internal mechanics of how TSA operates in order to really affect change," said Dzakovic. "Because if they don't, next year there will be another round of testing, get them same kind of results and it's just a matter of time before potentially thousands of more people get killed."

That's not the whole news story. It's just the most interesting part. That was a good piece of reporting.

#21 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 04:02 PM:

Steve, where is your evidence that they work for us? And (one example) the silly prohibition on liquids over 4 (or sometimes 3) ounces is very much to the benefit of the airports, since it enables businesses behind the security wall to sell more drinks, when many of us would carry our own drinks rather than pay exorbitant airport prices.

Or maybe you didn't realize that a lot of the current rules are part of what we want to burn to the ground.

#22 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 04:23 PM:

Xopher, the amount of inconvenience, delay, and sheer chaos generated by the new security arrangements has got to cost the airports more than they make selling us bottled water to replace the bottles we lose at checkpoints.

Consider that all those shops and restaurants behind the security wall used to be available to non-travelers who were seeing their loved ones off, or waiting for them to arrive.

#23 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 04:29 PM:

Teresa, I agree. Let's reform them. Let's make them into what they were supposed to be instead of the "let make little ol' white people feel safe from the scary brown people while not really doing anything" organization. And while we're at it, let's make them responsive to actual threats, and not accumulators of previous threat prevention techniques. Also, let's make sure all that security equipment actually works (like those cameras at the baggage acceptance areas and dump the backscatter devices) and the people are fully trained and looking for what they should be looking for.

Xopher #22, as you can see, I'm not saying they shouldn't be changed, but responding to the comments of burning them to the ground and leaving them there. I'm saying, "hey, wait, there's still a baby in that bathwater."

And the liquid requirements are part of that "not responding to the 1% possibility". I also hate paying $4 for a $0.50 bottle of water. And removing our shoes does nothing to stop the potential for bringing explosives on board.

I agree that the TSA actions are part of the security theater. Trust me, I agree 100%. I'm just saying that what we had before was as bad or worse, and going to zero isn't a viable option. However, they're part of the DoHS (ugh), and responsible to the Secretary. They write the rules. While there's the career officials, and politicians can't do just anything they want, changing their rules (what they check, how they check, their training, the reporting responsibility, part of their chain of command), IIRC, is perfectly acceptable. Now we just need to convince the administration to convince the Secretary that change is needed, and in which direction.

That's a lot easier than convincing the controlling boards of hundreds of airports that they need to change their security.

#24 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 04:36 PM:

I'm even open to building an actual transportation agency focused on securing ALL the transportation routes (civilian, commercial, ports, airports, trains - where it makes sense, boats) to replace the TSA if that's necessary (but only if we completely dismantle the TSA when we're done, not leave a vestigial office that does nothing).

#25 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 04:43 PM:

Teresa 22: Hmm, good points. I may have fallen victim to a cui bono? fallacy; I want to believe someone's profiting from this because that at least makes it comprehensible, whereas actually it's just completely stupid.

#26 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 04:50 PM:

Steve, I think "fighting the last war" characterizes the TSA. I don't think the TSA does any better at preventing the NEXT terrorist attack than the old system would have.

#27 ::: Matthew Ernest ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 05:16 PM:

"Why rebuild it? It's a useless organization with no actual mission."

Because they are missing the part that privatizes the profits. Then it will be complete.

That's why I don't believe in John Mica and his privatize the screeners bunk: that doesn't change the policy one bit.

#28 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 06:36 PM:

Xopher, #21: There is not (yet) any restriction on carrying an empty bottle of any size, and because of building code requirements, all airports have drinking fountains -- even in the secured area. So it's easy enough to have a bottle of water that you don't have to pay $3 for, if you want.

#29 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 06:46 PM:

Lee: But don't fill up from the fountains in Newark. Pthyuck!

#30 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 07:39 PM:

Steve Bucheit: The system before worked better than what we have now. More to the point, I don't think it can be reformed.

It's possible it can be replaced, but if anyone remains, the culture will persist. Since the culture is both toxic, and metastatic (because there isn't; so far as can be seen and central authority which has the control to establish a standard of behavior; but every airport I've been in has been fucked up in many of the same ways).

Moreover, the local TSA are actually sort of contractors. SFO has, "plank-owners" because the guy who got the contract to do the hiring/staffing had been in the Navy. My dad, who was a cop, applied, back when it was starting up. He was told he was allowed to apply to three airports. Not to apply to the TSA, but to the individual airports; each of which was being staffed by a different group/contractor.

Changing the government isn't an answer, for the same reasons, and more. Inertia. One person, can't undo it. That's the real problem. It would take enough people running on a platform of reform; real reform, getting elected, and using their office to make it a crusade. All the while overcoming the institutional pressures to maintain it.

Ain't gonna happen.

If it's gonna happen it has to happen because enough people are, loudly, radically angry about it. Loud enough, and angry enough, to make the people who write the laws change them.

Remember, these are the people who kept Bruce Schneier from being allowed to testify to congress about what their security is really like; from his perspective. They aren't going to quietly quit the field.

That's not even counting the industries making billions on the deals.

What might do it would be the rest of the world refusing to play along.

#31 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 08:43 PM:

Lee 28: That's what I do. But a) the water fountains are designed to make it as hard as possible to fill a container from (they're not stupid), and b) I fly out of Newark, and Jacque is right.

#32 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 09:28 PM:

TSA is too busy trying to prevent the 9/11 hijackings to do anything to stop the next terrorists.

Steve, we've had some kind of security in airports since the late 60s or early 70's, when airliners were being hijacked to Cuba or even, on one occasion, Africa. It was a lot faster and more polite than TSA is, and they didn't confiscate food and drink or routinely open and rifle your checked luggage.

#33 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 09:52 PM:

Terry Karney, you might be surprised to hear that I agree with much of what you've said. But it doesn't take people being angry and shouting. It takes people forming blocks of voters and letting the representatives know what you're after and that you remember.

This is exactly what PACs, SuperPACs, Social Welfare Organizations, and lobbyists were made for. There's a lot of people who are upset. There's your grassroots. It affects everybody, including the elected reps. There's your constituency. In 2007 a group of Republicans did try to burn it to the ground, there's your sleeper cell. We all (as citizens) can agree something needs to change, there's the fuel.

People also said, when the ACA looked moribund in 2009-2010, that the health care structure will never change.

PJ Evans, the previous system only worked better in that it was less hassle to go through the line. It was those incidents (the hijackings) that forced changes. And there were always stories of them going through bags and stealing.

#34 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 10:50 PM:

Steve Bucheit: PACs, SuperPacs, etc. is people being angry and shouting.

As to the stories of bags and stealing, yes; it can't be helped. It doesn't have to be fostered. The, "every bag must be searchable" is an invitation to theft. The "cut the locks off" approach (I've see "TSA Approved" locks cut), is counterproductive.

The level of institutional force, and the distributed costs (it's like a AT&T taking 10 bucks from everyone), make it almost impossible to get the undercurrent of upset to crystalise. I remember the protests that didn't happen.

I also know how apathetic people are to torture. That's about a threat almost no one sees as personal. The bogeyman of "Terrorism" has people with a visceral fear; which makes a lot of them stupid.

#35 ::: Lisa Padol ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2012, 10:59 PM:

I recall one flight from La Guardia where, before boarding the plane, we searched in vain for a water fountain between the security checkpoint and the end of the gate corridor. This is, I think, an exception, but it was extremely annoying.

#36 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2012, 12:48 AM:

#6 ::: Kevin Riggle :::

Wait, the TSA doesn't search its own employees' bags? if someone wanted to get contraband into an airport, say...

It's probably indicative of my being currently in the middle of a Burn Notice marathon, but I dearly want to see the TSA taken down because of a real-life Michael Weston & crew framing one of the worst thieves as a contraband runner, terrorist sympathizer, something like that...

But the team would also have to make sure the thief got caught once the contraband/explosiveish stuff got planted, and it sounds like that would be the hard part.

#37 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2012, 01:23 AM:

Nicole @ 36... That sounds like a Nathan Ford job.

#38 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2012, 01:43 AM:

Serge @ 37: Now, why didn't I think of that? Although I'd hope his team would do better than in that one episode where Hardison fooled some dupe pilot about a bogus surprise inspection or some shit; John had to shush me after a few minutes of muttering "That is not how the FAA works, that is not believable, I guarantee you no one would fall for that because the FAA does not work like that..."

#39 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2012, 05:53 AM:

Nicole @ 38... Next you'll be telling me that only an idiot could have believed Nathan when he offered to sell him the Spruce Goose.

#40 ::: cgeye ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2012, 06:08 AM:

#37: Megadittoes, Serge -- Westen's too much in trouble with the feds to even attempt that, and considering his line of work (and not to mention his girlfriend's), he'd better use a corrupt TSA guard than reform them the hard way. Ford's the type of man to see the problem, devise the short-term solution *and* put reformers in place to continue the cleansing process *and* provide tangible compensation to past victims.

The only reason we haven't seen that yet? Neither Mr. Kung Fu Monkey nor his associates want to get on the no-fly list -- I'd count on one hand the number of times an American TV series has put the TSA on the wrong side of the hero ledger. They're non-flyover people, yo...

#41 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2012, 10:30 AM:

cgeye @ 40... An excellent description of why Nathan and the gang appeals so much to me, although it's been a long time since Spencer used his culinary prowess to kill anyone.

#42 ::: Heteromeles ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2012, 02:27 PM:

I'm late to the party on this one, and I'll add my "me too" to the people who say TSA should not be reformed after it's destroyed.

The real reason I dislike them goes back to 9/11 and Flight 93, where the passengers sacrificed themselves to save whatever the target was in Washington DC. Since then, passengers have also worked hard to stop would-be terrorists in flight, after they were missed by airport security.

Since 9/11, the TSA has worked hard to make it as hard as possible for passengers to protect themselves and whoever wants to subvert the plane into a terrorism device. Since arguably the passengers are the best line of defense after the locked and armored cockpit door, I'd say simply that TSA makes flying less safe, and for that reason, they should be disbanded.

It would probably be cheaper and more effective to simply give lifetime pensions to anyone (or their families) who successfully stopped a terrorist attack or hijacking attempt in the air, repellent though that thought may be.

#43 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2012, 05:11 PM:

Lifetime free flights, at the very least.

#44 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2012, 05:25 PM:

However, passengers who stop someone who turns out not to be a terrorist should have to go through TSA twice if they ever fly again.

#45 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2012, 06:05 PM:

Porno scanner and groping, that'll l'arn ye!

#46 ::: Laertes ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2012, 01:00 AM:

I thought of this thread when I saw this story:

"Workers at the Transportation Security Administration, who provide airport security, would be covered under the law for the first time."

I wonder, though, if it'll have much effect on the culture of thievery among TSA personnel. This seems to be mostly about protecting people who reveal the misconduct of their superiors. After a moment's thought, I can't see how it'd have much effect on employees who turn a blind eye to the misconduct of their reports.

(Is it poor form to revive moribund threads like this?)

#47 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2012, 03:33 AM:

It's poor form to spam, but then it always is. New on-topic contributions are just fine. (We get people adding stuff to the "Top Al-Qaeda Leader Killed! (Again)" thread from time to time, for instance.)

#48 ::: cgeye ::: (view all by) ::: December 16, 2012, 07:14 AM:

The latest propaganda:

"Despite the inconveniences, Dinet thinks most U.S. air travelers are happy that the officers are there. But, not five minutes later, a shoeless passenger leans against her bucket of belongings waiting to be scanned and mumbles about the ineffectiveness of the TSA.

The 11-year-old agency has seen its share of negative attention since its post-9/11 inception. However, a recent Gallup poll suggests that Dinet's perception is accurate.

The poll, conducted in July, found that more than half of all Americans — 54 percent — feel TSA does an excellent or good job of handling security screenings at airports.

Likewise, the poll found 41 percent of Americans believe the TSA's airport screenings are either extremely effective or very effective at preventing acts of terrorism on U.S. airplanes."

#49 ::: cgeye ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2013, 02:24 PM:

Tell me why this is a good idea? It's too short a bill to do any good, and it's setting up a fundamentally-unfunded mandate that will cost more in implementation than it will yield in charitable donations.

Nothing in the articles I've read detail a window when passengers can request to reclaim a lost item, nor is there any concern that terraists could seed clothing with bio-weapons to fell our homeless heroes. And -- the main security issue -- why would the TSA allow unclaimed clothing to remain at the checksite, when all them terraists need do is plant explosives within the garment, then let it fall under the conveyor belt?

Encouraging the moral hazard of allowing clothes to be discarded will eventually lead to contests for the TSA officers donating the most pounds of clothes, which means they'll be less vigilant in tracking passengers' belongings, if they get credit for the losses.

And -- the most important point -- instead of turning the TSA into a laundry service, why don't they funnel those funds into, I dunno, helping veterans not be homeless? It's #securityfail, #charityfail and #VAfail, all in one.

This is so fundamentally stupid and cosmetic a bill I'm surprised they aren't handing out Pan Cake makeup to cover Congressional blushing....

#50 ::: cgeye ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2013, 02:32 PM:

Ah -- I found the language which sends this bill into Cloud-Cuckoo-Land:

"(4) Limitation.--Nothing in this subsection shall create a cost to the Government.."

It costs money to launder clothing, especially donated clothing.

It costs money to sort clothing, administrate who gets credit for what.... so, if this bill doesn't lead to a boondoggle where one of those Euro-teachers' cult used clothing scams doesn't take up the majority of the donation processing, I'd be mighty surprised:

"In the United States, the charities Planet Aid and Gaia Movement Living Earth Green World Action and the for-profit company USAgain, which have each placed thousands of clothes drop-off bins nationwide, have attracted significant unfavourable publicity over their business practices and alleged affiliation with Tvind. All three of these organisations have denied any wrongdoing or a connection to Tvind, although executives of USAgain have publicly admitted to membership in the Tvind Teachers Group, and Planet Aid has stated that "less than 5%" of the 250 people working with the charity belong to the group."

#51 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 30, 2013, 07:23 PM:

TSA agents at Newark spared from firings after violations

(CNN) -- A number of Transportation Security Administrator employees who faced dismissal for not following screening procedures ended up with suspensions instead, the agency said.

In October, TSA announced that 44 employees were facing punishments ranging from termination to suspension after they were caught on surveillance cameras not following procedures. Twenty-five of those employees were in the process of being fired.

This week, the agency completed the reviews of those cases, except for one, and only four workers have been fired.

On the one hand it's nice that the TSA even noticed that some of their employees weren't doing their jobs....

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