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."