MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

For Airline Employees, TSA Insider Threat Program Is Little More Than Random Molestation

How the TSA turned a long-time, trusted employee into an "insider threat" for no clear reason.

BRIAN KERSEY/UPI/NewscomBRIAN KERSEY/UPI/NewscomAfter 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?

It doesn't make much sense, but Lewis joins a long list of people who have been inconvenienced and abused by the TSA for no apparent reason.

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.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    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.

    Those terrorists, always trying to bring down airliners with hidden drugs.

  • creech||

    He probably needs to be checked for Sleep Apnea too!

  • Tom Bombadil||

    "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."
    "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."

    Is this crybaby jackass trying to make the TSA's case for them? He is exactly the kind of person/employee who needs to be screened, not only randomly, but daily. The guy's got an all access back stage pass for Chrissakes. Without looking, I'm going to guess he's some kind of "minority" and it feelz bigoted to him.

  • Don't look at me.||

    I always assumed they were patted down each day or at least body scanned. He should do what I do each time at the airport, curse those 9-11 dirtbags.

  • Curt||

    Yup. Or maybe it's crazy to think that someone who passed a background check once upon a time never needs any more security. Meanwhile, passengers going through metal detectors and xrays should probably be groped also.i

  • SuperNaut||

    Why would he object to the same search everyone else receives?

    This is fine, everything is fine.

  • BYODB||

    Because he's supposed to be one of the watchers, not one of the watchee's. That's this guys real complaint. I have zero sympathy, but I'm glad he's on our side now in disbanding the TSA right?

    Oh...no...he likes the TSA he just doesn't think that he should be a target. Boo-hoo.

  • Curt||

    "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.""

    I'm part of the security theater. I do bullshit inspections to make people feel safe. I shouldn't be the subject of bullshit inspections to make people feel safe.

  • BYODB||

    Precisely.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Hey Eric Boehm,
    I've got your next assignment.
    Write an essay on why police should never be videotaped, because, well, they're the good guys.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Can anyone tell if this is a parody account or an actual retard? It's a tossup for me.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Can anyone tell if Dr. ad hominem has a point related to the article?

  • BYODB||

    Neither, your sarcas-o-meter is broken. Permanently, from what I can tell.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Sarcasm? So Hugh wasn't calling me a retard. That's a relief.

  • BYODB||

    It was a reply to him, not you Tommy Boy ^_-

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Well, that makes me happy, but also sad that I might be retarded after all.

  • BearChick||

    My thoughts, as well.

  • PurityDiluting||

    "I identify as competent"
    More Remy gold

  • Jerryskids||

    I'm not sure baggage handlers should be the poster children for long-suffering abuse by dickheads at the airport. It's like Michael Moore calling Chris Christie a fat-ass. I'd bet the TSA agents aren't searching baggage handlers for bombs, they're searching them for the shit they stole out of the luggage, making sure they get their split of the loot.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    "Kelly and his fellow baggage handlers are on the front lines of the effort to secure America's jets.."

    Oh please. Nobody is in a better position to introduce contraband to the aircraft than this guy who has access to the baggage compartment and also "signs off" that everything is kosher.

    Something tells me he doth protest to much.

    Also, being a baggage handler is a lot like being a fry cook at McD's. You aren't supposed to still be doing it after 13.5 years.

  • BYODB||

    Yeah, except McD's aren't unionized.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Neither are JetBlue's baggage handlers.

  • BYODB||

    Huh, really? I guess I wasn't paying attention when those unions were busted then. Thanks for the info!

  • Tom Bombadil||

    JetBlue's kind of (in?)famous for being mostly non-union. Possibly only the pilots are unionized and that happened fairly recently.

  • JJ1979||

    Nothing new I've worked at LAX for 5 years now and get a random check at Least once a month if not more. It's part of the job and I have nothing to hide from them so what's the big deal? I've seen our security guys find homemade shanks hidden in the plane so you really can't trust anyone. One thing that really gets me through is the TSA officers can walk into the exit point of the check point and they don't have to go through the screening machines.. I think regardless of what job you hold you should have to be screened just because they are TSA dont mean that they are 100% safe.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    This I would love to see. A little circle of TSA agents inspecting each other, scanning, probing, and groping ever closer until they disappear up each others' assholes.

  • Longtobefree||

    "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."

    Actually, you should be screened each and every time you enter the facility. Just like everyone else. After all, this is the USA, and once the fourth amendment is voided, it is voided for all, under the fourteenth amendment.

  • swampwiz||

    In the aftermath of 9/11, I can remember having a conversation with a friend of mine about what air travel might have to turn into. We came to the conclusion that folks might have to just wear hospital gowns.

  • Longtobefree||

    Close; it is headed to the point where passengers will be stripped naked and handcuffed to their seats.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    It's gotten to the point where I wish I could just be sorted with the checked luggage.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Or travel via UPS...

  • Joe_C||

    So...then TSA members should be subject to checks by other TSA members too right? Sounds kind of like the North Korean Border. Three members pat each other down, so that if one defects the other two can stop them. The TSA is about as dumb as that.

  • Up To The Old Shenanigans||

    Hey now! If they pat each other down too much in public, they may eventually be charged with engaging in lewd behavior lol.

  • Up To The Old Shenanigans||

    The federal government is certainly destroying the economic incentive to work. When I was an English teacher in Japan, I had always envisioned my country as being more open to allowing the regular worker the chance to advance herself/himself with little interference. From what I have seen in the last couple of years, I am starting to re-think this belief.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    That's the trouble with being a government employee. Lots of bad karma.

  • Paulina||

    Once in a while, we all worry about our safety. The safety of our family members when they are flying out of the country is an essential thing. A lot of people were complaining that they were molested while the airline workers were searching them or looking through their luggage before or after the departure. We cannot allow our personal feelings stand in the way of safety. I think I would even apply for the position of an airline worker to prove this fact. For that, I would have to be searching for CV writing service reviews online but it is worth it.

  • tinder download||

    very nice post. I like it. Thanks for sharing this information.
    Tinder is the best online chatting application. Try it.
    http://www.tinder-pc-download.com/ tinder for pc
    http://www.tinder-pc-download.com/ tinder download

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online