After 13 years on the job at Long Beach Airport in California, Kelly Lewis was taken aback when he was stopped by a Transportation Security Agency official last week and told he had to submit to a random pat-down before reporting for work.
"I am being called an internal threat," Lewis told Reason this week. "In the 13-1/2 years I have been at this airline (JetBlue) my first task each morning is to enter a closed aircraft, often alone, and do a security check."
Lewis says that he's never been searched by TSA prior to doing that task. Kelly and his fellow baggage handlers are on the front lines of the effort to secure America's jets, searching for drugs, stowaways, and anything else that might be improperly stashed in the plane's baggage and passenger compartments before the jets can be loaded with suitcases and people.
The TSA's sudden change—from Lewis' perspective, at least—isn't much of a change at all, according to the TSA. Random pat-downs for baggage handlers and other members of the ground crew at airports is part of its commitment to security theater, even if the targeted airport and airline employees (Lewis and most other baggage handlers are employed by airlines, not the airports where they work) have been working for more than a decade without raising any red flags.
After being subjected to the unwanted pat-down by a TSA officer last week, Lewis submitted a complaint to the TSA and to his employers. In a meeting Monday, Lewis says his supervisors told him they agreed the situation was not ideal but would not back his complaint against the TSA. Lewis says a representative from Long Beach Airport's security department told him the airport was acting in compliance with federal rules.
But those federal rules are broken, Lewis argues.
"The policy is being enforced against a set of individuals entrusted to secure aircraft each morning," he told Reason. "We should not be subjected to an obviously non-security molestation as a condition of doing our chosen line of work in this airport."
JetBlue declined comment in response to a question about Lewis' complaints and directed inquiries to the TSA's public affairs team. Similar queries submitted to the security department at Long Beach Airport were also redirected to the TSA.
"Screening policies for badged airport employees haven't changed, we continue to address the insider threat as we have for some time," said Nico Melendez, a spokesman for the TSA. "For more than a decade TSA has employed random screening techniques of airport employees, and would make perfect sense if this employee had never experienced it before, because it's random."
The so-called "insider threat" at American airports gained some public attention in 2014 after cops busted a baggage handler at New York City's LaGuardia Airport for removing a backpack filled with illegal guns from a passenger plane. The backpack was ultimately traced back to a gun-running ring based at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
In the summer of 2016 it was suspected a bomb that brought down a passenger jet and blamed on ISIS-affiliated terrorists operating out of Egypt may have been placed in the plane's cargo hold by an airport employee.
At a congressional hearing last year, officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA said they were working to "beef up" security for airport workers and airline employees.
"TSA does have a robust insider threat program," said Richard McComb, chief security officer at DHS. "That will be, you know, a very prominent part of what they monitor as we continue to roll out and mature the insider threat program within the Department of Homeland Security." Pressed for specifics, McComb said he could not talk about the insider threat program in an open hearing.
Lewis says he's been told there's no chance random screenings for baggage handlers will stop without congressional action. That isn't likely to be at the top of Congress' agenda anytime soon, but a top-to-bottom review of the TSA is overdue.
From wasteful spending and surveillance strategies based on pseudo-science (and others based on outright fear-mongering), to detaining kids with serious medical conditions and giving full-body cavity searches to grandmothers, there is no boundary too private to cross and no security effort too silly to try for the TSA.
And still they fail to stop most of the actual threats—and commit a whole bunch of other crimes in the process.
The TSA's make-everything-a-priority strategy is the problem. Not everything can be a priority. Securing anything is about choosing the right trade-offs. For too long, DHS and TSA have shown they don't properly understand that equation. Does it make sense to force a long-time, trusted airline employee to a "random" pat-down? For what purpose, aside from proving that everyone is subject to your random screenings?