The TSA Turns Harassing Travelers Into a Fine—and Pointless—Art

Security officials who fail every test thrown their way, plan to inflict the punishment for those shortcomings on airline passengers.


"Food can trigger lots of false alarms because of the density of some items," the Wall Street Journal recently reported about the Transportation Security Administration's justifications for imposing yet another round of tighter and more-intrusive airport carry-on baggage restrictions. "Chocolate, for example, can look like some types of explosives to X-ray machines."

As a result, some airline passengers around the country—soon to be all of us—are being asked to remove such items as books, electronic devices, and food from carry-on luggage for separate screening.

This makes an odd sort of sense (not really). An internal investigation of the TSA, leaked in 2015, found that many types of explosives apparently look to agents quite a bit like chocolate. Guns seem to closely resemble Tom Clancy novels in their eyes. Knives may be easily mistaken by the thin uniformed line against especially dim terrorists for those fuzzy troll dolls, though that part is a bit unclear. Well, maybe that's not all true. But such confusion would explain why "TSA agents failed 67 out of 70 tests, with Red Team members repeatedly able to get potential weapons through checkpoints."

"In one test an undercover agent was stopped after setting off an alarm at a magnetometer," ABC News noted, "but TSA screeners failed to detect a fake explosive device that was taped to his back during a follow-on pat down."

Well, they should obviously have used chocolate in the test. Maybe a few of those suspicious-looking Toblerone bars kids sell door to door would have set their spidey-senses tingling.

After that embarrassing failure, the TSA's working theory seems to be, if you make everybody dump their sandwiches, tablets, and paperbacks into separate bins at the security checkpoint, we vastly increase the chance of intercepting backpack nukes and rocket-propelled grenades, which themselves could be mistaken for sandwiches, tablets, and paperbacks. Sure, the guards may still need some guidance as to which confiscated items are safe for noshing, but the security measures will be covering all bases.

The TSA has been quietly implementing the new rules at airports around the country, resulting in predictable screams when security guards at Kansas City International Airport forced passengers to dump paper products, even including documents and Post-It notes, out of their carry-ons. The TSA initially blamed the incident on the local security contractor and made appropriate apologetic noises. Weeks later, the feds admitted that the scrap-paper limitation was part of a test program already in place at airports including Boise, Colorado Springs, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, LAX, Boston, Lubbock, Munoz Marin in Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. Full implementation of the finalized rules is expected after the summer travel rush.

Well, you can't be too safe. You can get the nastiest paper cuts from Post-It notes. And don't get me started on playing cards. In the wrong hands, there's nothing more dangerous than a full house.

It could be worse. Flights from 10 Middle Eastern airports to the United States are subject to new rules "requiring that all personal electronic devices larger than a cell phone or smart phone be placed in checked baggage." The restrictions will likely expand further, since "Secretary Kelly affirmed he will implement any and all measures necessary to secure commercial aircraft flying to the United States – including prohibiting large electronic devices from the passenger cabin – if the intelligence and threat level warrant it."

Those rules are still discussed only in the context of international flights, though the new separate screening rules for books, electronics, and food point to a serious convergence of hassle factors for anybody setting foot in an airport no matter the destination. And it may be only a matter of time before we all fly unplugged. Security expert Bruce Schneier doesn't believe the laptop ban makes any sense, since such a device is no safer in the cargo hold than the cabin, and can be more easily screened at a checkpoint than in luggage. But if it's going to be imposed, "why aren't domestic flights included in this ban?… [A]nyone who could detonate a laptop bomb on his international flight could do it on his domestic connection."

Oh, please don't give them ideas.

While it's understandable that the TSA might want to reduce its 95 percent failure rate when detecting bombs and weapons, it's not so clear why it has chosen to do so by targeting passengers' lunches and reading materials for special scrutiny. There might be an easier way. Maybe the screening devices just need a good thump on the top to get them working properly (maybe the operators do too, but that's a different issue). After all, the DHS Inspector General warned just two years ago that "Because TSA does not adequately oversee equipment maintenance, it cannot be assured that routine preventive maintenance is performed or that equipment is repaired and ready for operational use."

"If the equipment is not fully operational," the report added, "TSA may have to use other screening measures, which could result in longer wait times and delays in passenger and baggage screening."

"Other screening measures" like making everybody sort their possessions into separate trays? Huh.

Don't count on TSA getting around to that equipment maintenance anytime soon—or to seriously addressing its employees' inability to identify forbidden stuff mixed in with passengers' belongings. The agency tasked with travel security, or just with hassling travelers, has a lousy history when it comes to dealing with its shortcomings.

In 2012, the DHS Inspector General assessed the TSA's handle on controlling access to the sensitive areas at airports—you know, all the areas the checkpoints and locked doors are supposed to protect. It "identified access control vulnerabilities at the domestic airports where we conducted testing," though the details were classified.

Last October, a little insistently, the IG put out a more detailed report covering the TSA's handling of ID badges that allow people access to terminals, cargo areas, and airfields. It turned out that "some airport operators and TSA personnel were misinterpreting its guidance on how to determine the acceptable percentage of lost, stolen, or unaccounted for badges," and referred to a report that "an official from the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport said that, over 2 years, more than 1,400 badges were lost or stolen."

So the screws get tighter and tighter at the security gauntlets suffered by passengers, while actual bad guys could bypass all of that by availing themselves of potentially thousands of lost and stolen ID badges allowing relatively easy airport access.

Keep that in mind when you line up to sort your possessions into appropriate trays at the security checkpoint. As the hassle factor rises, the only way to make your flight without suffering an outrageous degree of pointless harassment might be to get your hands on one of those missing ID badges.

Especially if you're carrying chocolate.

NEXT: Trump Proposes Major Overhaul of Outdated U.S. Air Traffic Control System

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Chocolate terrorists sounds mighty close to a racist categorization. What’s Timothy McVeigh, white chocolate?

    1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

      This is what I do… http://www.webcash10.com

  2. I wonder how much the TSA has lengthened the minimum distance to make flying worth it? With security lines creeping up to nearly 2.5 hours in some places it seems to me that anything under 10 hours worth of driving just isn’t worth it. We are actually moving backwards in terms of time required to travel from one place to another.

    1. Yeah, that’s why I don’t fly unless its at least half way across the USA or international travel. Its just not worth the hassle.

    2. I have actually driven to places I could have flown to. It’s not that much longer, plus I get to stretch my legs at every rest stop. Instead of driving to Los Angeles from San Francisco, I drove. Even though there were Southwest flights every hour that would get me there in half an hour. I like Southwest, but the TSA was too much.

    3. Except for a trip to London in 2004, I haven’t flown on a commercial flight in many years, even though I love flying. The security screenings were excessive even before 9/11, and I knew they’d become even more ridiculous afterwards, which is just what has happened. I wish they’d just give up and stop the “security” nonsense altogether. I’d much rather take my chances with terrorists than with the thugs from TSA and Homeland Security who supposedly are “protecting” us from them.

      1. I’m with you. Let’s give the crew (those who volunteer) a gun with which to fight back, put good locks and reinforcement on the flight deck doors, and get on with living our lives. Plus, the idiots refuse to do profiling of potential terrorists, a procedure which could drastically reduce times at security lines.

        1. 73% of all terrorist acts in the last 7 years were perpetrated by guys named Mohamed.

    4. Of course, high-speed rail would make the calculus easier for traveling on the ground, but we don’t wan’t to spend money like that.

      1. Spend all (or your money) you want!

      2. You’ve played to one of my argumsnts against HSR here in the Golden State. People are always telling me how fantastic it would be to board and HSR train just like a BART train in SF and be in LA an hour later. They really believe that.

        I remind them of TSA and what happens at airports and ask why they think they’re going to be able to just board an HSR car at a platform without a security check.

        Blowing up an airliner at 30,000 feet creates plenty of impact. Blowing up an HSR train at full throttle, on the ground alongside I5 would be much more spectacular and probably more deadly. Way more impact than even the best Hollywierd action flicks.

        Don’t think that HSR would not be targeted. Don’t think that there won’t be ridiculous security involved.

  3. I think the TSA should be fully run by the airlines, and airlines should be fully liable for security failures.

    Having said that, I would expect a privately run TSA to be more intrusive and annoying than the current system.

    1. But also more accountable.

    2. Not necessarily. San Francisco Airport using private security. They have to wear TSA uniforms and follow the TSA rules, and the lines are just as long. But they actually seem like human beings. They have hygiene. They smile. They will open up a new lane if necessary. Stark contrast to neighboring San Jose.

    3. Isn’t that how it used to be done? Who else has as much at stake then the airlines? Wouldn’t they take the most effective measures that would still allow flying to be worthwhile?

    4. Actually, before 9/11 and the establishment of Homeland “Insecurity” and its subsidiary TSA, the airline industry used private security services, wherein all of their agents had been thoroughly vetted. There were no thefts of valuables by these private security screeners, nor were there molestations of passengers, including children.
      One cannot truly say the same with TSA. Homeland “Insecurity” never vetted TSA agents for criminal records .. and as a result, thieves and sex offenders wound up being hired. I suspect that non-US citizens (and, even illegal aliens) were hired, which never should’ve happened .. Only US citizens with NO criminal records should be hired. Since they refuse to change their ways, TSA must be abolished and security screenings returned to the airlines.

  4. An RPG looks like a tablet?

  5. Strip all passengers naked, and handcuff them to their seat. Problem solved.
    Or re-activate the constitution at airports, one or the other.

    1. Heavily sedate passengers and pack them in like cargo.

      I think I might actually go for that option. Especially on flights that last over 8 hours.

      1. Terrorists don’t drink alcohol.

        1. I’m thinking more IV diazepam or something and being packed in a box for transport.

    2. But, for full security you’d have to put all of their clothes and baggage on a parallel flight. Just naked passengers and crew on the first one.

  6. At this point, why even bother using luggage? Just dump everything out onto the conveyor belt. I mean, really. The TSA can’t tell if it’s a book is a book? WTF?

    The problem here is that when intelligent (hah) terrorists can make explosives look like any object under an x-ray, then passengers will no longer be allowed to have objects. No books? WTF?

  7. I must be lucky or fly at the right time from the right places. I’ve almost never had it take more than 20-30 minutes to get through security screening or had the screeners act particularly rude or stupid. The only exception (to both) has been at O’Hare, which is pretty much the worst airport I’ve ever been to in every way.

    1. Avoid LAX. Ugh. Not only is it a bad airport as airports go, but the TSA seem especially unhygienic and rude.

    2. Not everyone lives in Bozeman, Montana, Zeb.

      1. How’d you know it was Bozeman, Diane? Could it not have been Helena, Butte, or Billings?

    3. I see that you’ve never flown out of or through La Guardia before.

      1. If I have, it was a long time ago.

    4. Same here. We mostly fly Delta out of their Detroit Metro hub. The airport itself is almost new, the security lines are usually short, and we haven’t had any trouble with TSA screeners being obnoxious.

    5. Flew out of Long Beach two years back. The authoritarian arrogance of the TSA screeners put my teeth on edge. They acted like the guards in the Stanford prison experiment. Young, low life wanna be gang bangers getting their jollies lording over much better off financially air passengers.

      Every time I face TSA and watch Americans give in to this kind of authoritarian overreach out of fear, I get upset. The terrorists have won. We’ve become a nation of obedient sheep. People are too stupid to see that.

      Remember the police action (quasi-military invasion) of Boston after the marathon bombing? That’s how bad we’ve gotten. The very mention of terrorism drops us to our knees in front of our betters.

  8. Flights from 10 Middle Eastern airports to the United States are subject to new rules

    Isn’t this racist?

  9. I suspect that soon, we’ll be required to arrive at the airport for our short domestic flight 12 hours before departure.

  10. Didn’t one of my predictions come true recently where the attackers are realizing the most vulnerable place with the highest potential body count is the security line itself?

    1. Like fish in a barrel.

      1. And why the military teaches ground pounders to walk staggered and separated on a path or roadway.

        Maybe my father was right; every American citizen should be required to perform two years of military service.

        Outside of the unlibertarian aspect of that, people who make it through would be a lot more self empowered, independent and much less likely to take shit from authoritarians. And, the authorities would tend to be a lot more respectful of the rest of us because of that.

  11. “The TSA initially blamed the incident on the local security contractor … Weeks later, the feds admitted that the scrap-paper limitation was part of a test program already in place at …”

    Lying fuckers. Good thing it was done in the name of keeping “someone” safe or I might just resent it. What is the penalty for a fed lying to the pubic these days. Yeah, pubic because there is a dick at the center of every encounter.

    Remember to store your chocolate in your malfunctioning portable woodchipper when flying.

  12. My last flight I watched a man walk right up to the regular TSA agent ? which had no waiting line ? and hand over his ID and boarding pass. The agent looks it over, scribbled on the boarding pass and says “you’re PRE certified, you could’ve gone through the other line”. The guy turned his head, glanced at the PRE line ? with 20 to 30 waiting passengers ? then back at the agent. They both stared at each other like they had met the stupidest person on Earth.

      1. … and that’s why he was working for the TSA… The not-quite-right fella, of course, that is…

        1. The TSA is actually a jobs program for people who are too stupid to even flip burgers.

          1. ?? but love nice uniforms instead of greasy aprons?

            1. You mean those ill-fitting polyester uniforms that make mall security guards look well dressed?

  13. Genetically Engineered Bacterial Spores at Root of New Conspiracy
    The TSA is just trying to protect us all! Now hear the latest!

    What I have heard is that the Islamofascists are cooking up yet MORE evil ways to bring down aircraft! They have deviously devised aluminum-eating genetically engineered microbes, which, as we speak (write and read), are being secreted into and onto the main weight-bearing aluminum structural elements of American and allied (non-islamofascist) aircraft, military and civilian alike. At the release of secret radio codes, these aluminum-digesting microbial GMOs will destroy aircraft in-flight.

    What are the microbes called, you say?

    Wait for it now?







    ? The Aluminum-Eatee!!!

    1. Very punny. Very, very punny!

  14. “The TSA Turns Harassing Travelers Into a Fine?and Pointless?Art”

    Is it me or is that kind of redundant, in a way?

  15. My wife and I were flying home from Texas where she had purchased a really abnormal looking porcelain baby Jesus for it’s intrinsic weirdness. It was packed in her suitcase, and I saw the screen as it passed through the X-ray. It looked like a small fetus. They didn’t even flinch.

    1. Well, a fetus isn’t going to make a plane crash.

      1. TSA’s stated mission is to find Weapons, Explosives, and Incendiaries. A fetus representation doesn’t count unless it’s made of C-4.

        1. C-4 Fetus sounds like a great band name…

          1. LOL–really. Thanks!

        2. In a vast majority of cases since TSA was established, its agents went beyond their duties. Since the agency hires people who are too stupid to even flip burgers, there are plenty of thefts of passengers’ valuables, as well as sex offenses.
          The airlines NEVER hired such low-lifes. Candidates for security screeners had to meet certain criteria. First of all, there had to be no criminal records. They also had to be at least high school graduates, depending upon the position(s) for which they applied. These security screeners were PROFESSIONALS, and they performed their duties as such. Passengers felt safe then .. They don’t now.

      2. ?. but might delay your arrival for 9 months ???

      3. It could. Remember how the VC booby trapped dead bodies in the tunnels so that a GI attempting to move them would get blown to smithereens?

  16. What no one but me seems to concerned about with respect to the new “no electronics bigger than a smartphone in your carryon luggage” is… aren’t we just making it clear that we don’t have (and apparently never have had) the ability to detect explosives in carryons? The TSA has called me aside on numerous occasions to swab down my finger tips or shoes, and stick the swab into an “explosives sniffer”. Why not just do that with any “electronics bigger than a smartphone”? Is it because that test is bullshit and just another scene in Security Theater?


    1. Of course it’s bullshit.

    2. Say, what happens if you call your laptop that’s in checked baggage, with the smartphone in your carry-on?

      1. BEEG BADA BOOM!

        1. +1 Fifth Element

  17. Every time I fly, I curse those hijacking bastards.

  18. Woe to anyone with chocolate-flavored licorice twists in their carry-on.

    This is the next transportation-related agency that needs to be privatized following Air Traffic Control.

  19. I think every passenger should have to completely disrobe before boarding. While in-flight, each person will be given one of those blue paper gowns you wear for an X-ray. (and an absorbent pad for your seat cushion).

  20. High Time to build bullet trains and then the airlines would have to reconsider their nasty ways. Other countries don’t treat travellers this way!

  21. I fly numerous times a year from Austin, TX to Seattle, WA. Never have a problem. Sea-Tac is a pretty busy airport and the security lines get long, but they move fast. The biggest problem I see is with the other passengers. I always allow enough time, I wear shoes that are easy to take off, I know what I can carry and what I can’t. I love to fly and it sure beats driving for 4 days to get to Seattle. Also, the only airline I will fly is Alaska.

  22. I had thought that after 9-11, we’d all be given hospital gowns to wear on the aircraft.

  23. Why are we still playing “Security Theater”?

    Some of us know that focusing on the stuff is pretty useless. Real security means focusing on the people, as in, some don’t get to fly (at least today, or on this plane/airline).

    But that would upset both the left (DISCRIMINATION!) and the right (REDUCING REVENUE!). But then again, when something annoys both the left and the right, that might be enough reason to do it.

  24. Real security would focus on what might happen next. Not on what has already happened.

    TSA is just post incident defense. Too late to matter. The terrorists have moved on.

  25. I found a great site that focuses on stay at home mom’s complete guide to gaining a serious amount of money in very little time. While being able to earn an passive income staying home with your kids. If you are someone who needs more money and has some spare time, this site is perfect for you. Take a look at…

    follow this link?..????????????

    Trump”s New Opprunuties See Here

  26. Do you have a paypal ? in the event if you have you can add an extra 1400 /week to your revenue just working on the laptop a couple of hours a day. check out this site… http://www.ezycash5.com

  27. Sorry, but there’s a small typo:

    “thin uniformed line” should be thin “uninformed line”

    Just sayin’

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.