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.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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.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.
“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.”