On Tuesday, the watchdog group Judicial Watch issued a press release announcing it had obtained records from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) detailing allegations of sexually related assaults on passengers by TSA screeners at three U.S. airports: Denver International, LAX and Chicago O’Hare. The actions described in these complaints are egregious, humiliating, and unacceptable. Of course, these are allegations, a point TSA Acting Administrator Mel Carraway made in his rebuttal on the TSA blog. He wrote:
“There is nothing sexual about a resolution pat down, and we take every passenger complaint to the contrary seriously. If an investigation is warranted it will be conducted swiftly and thoroughly and the employees involved will be held accountable for their actions…To present as fact a handful of passenger complaints from the hundreds of millions of screenings performed each year is a far cry from any standard of objectivity and only serves to perpetuate misinformation and mistrust in an organization dedicated to serving the American people.”
By my read, the Judicial Watch release does not present the complaints as “fact,” as Carraway wrote, but instead simply presents what was found in the documents that TSA provided after they were sued for failing to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request.
If these handful of public complaints were the only blemish on TSA’s professional record, Carraway’s rebuttal could stand on its own. But TSA’s aviation security operations have a lot of problems, suggesting a culture of incompetence at the Nation’s airports. For example:
- A recent DHS Inspector General report found that TSA has not been effectively managing the maintenance of airport screening machines. Despite four maintenance contracts valued at $1.2 billion, the IG found that “TSA has not provided sufficient guidance to local TSA personnel on procedures to properly document, track and maintain Level I preventative maintenance actions.” This isn’t a new problem. Back in 2006, a GAO audit found that TSA lacked policies and procedures for reviewing maintenance contractor data on screening equipment performance. TSA agreed with the GAO recommendations, but to date, no one is clear on whether TSA actually did anything about it.
- Since 2002, TSA has fired 513 officers because of thievery at airports. A 2012 ABC News investigation acquired figures from TSA detailing the top 20 airports where TSA theft was most common, among them LAX and O’Hare (where the Judicial Watch release indicates sexual assault allegations are most common). TSA told ABC that the number of TSA employees fired for theft “represents less than one-half of one percent of officers that have been employed.” So I guess that makes it OK?
- TSA has entered into an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-NC) because of numerous complaints of “unwarranted and racially discriminatory hair searches targeting black female passengers.” TSA’s Office of Civil Rights & Liberties is now tracking hair pat-downs to reveal whether there are discriminatory practices at certain airports.
- TSA’s Pre-Check program, which started as a thoughtful approach to expediting airport screening throughput, has devolved significantly. Rather than using Pre-Check lines exclusively for those who have enrolled in the program, TSA screeners have been using it as a way to reduce wait times, “randomly” selecting passengers to waltz through the security process that does not require them to remove belts, shoes and laptops. (As it turns out, late last year, my sister was randomly selected to move through a Pre-Check line at the New Orleans International Airport, and just a couple months later, my parents also went through the Pre-Check line in New Orleans. None of my family is enrolled in Pre-Check.)
- On Wednesday, DHS IG John Roth told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he is “deeply concerned” about whether TSA can actually achieve its mission set. He offered a long list of failures across TSA’s operational areas, noting, “We have examined the performance of TSA’s workforce, which is largely a function of who is hired and how they are trained and managed. Our audits have repeatedly found that human error—often a simple failure to follow protocol—poses significant vulnerabilities.”
The common denominator in all of these examples is the TSA airport workforce. Even the Air Marshals have come forward to cry foul on how TSA hides operational information that reveals misconduct. At what point can we face facts and acknowledge that TSA is in some ways failing in its aviation security mission? Theirs is a thankless, deadly serious job, but the agency should not get extra slack because of it.
Given TSA’s $7.2 billion budget for FY 2015, this taxpayer doesn’t want to hear, “It’s not a widespread problem.” When TSA employees put their hands on someone, the onus is on TSA to ensure that it is done properly, and if anyone complains, going into damage control-mode (as Carraway clearly does in his rebuttal) is unacceptable.
So what is the answer to these persistent problems? Let’s ramp up TSA’s Screening Partnership Program (SPP), which replaces TSA screeners with those from private companies. It’s just as effective (if not more so) but much cheaper, more flexible, and critically, because the screeners are in the private sector, it is easy to fire them when complaints arise. Driven as they are by profit and competition, private companies have a much lower threshold for what they will tolerate in terms of public complaints.
The problem is that TSA is reticent to allow the private sector into the screening business, even as more and more airports are demanding the option. In 2011, TSA started rejecting all requests for private security under SPP, and even after Congress voted to force TSA to stop that, it is still dragging its heels when approving SPP requests. I can think of nothing more un-American than the federal government stifling competition, job creation, and more efficient use of taxpayer monies, all of which could be realized if TSA would but get out of the way.
I don’t know whether the allegations of sexual assault are legitimate. Maybe they aren’t. What I do know, however, is TSA has had more than a decade to prove their worth, and even as they have done a lot that is right, they are still doing a lot that is wrong. It’s time for a change. Will the new nominee for TSA Administrator, Vice Admiral Pete Neffenger, be the one to lead TSA in a new direction? One can only hope, because at this point, it would seem formal complaints only amount to inaction and defensive blog posts that tread treacherously close to disinterest in the concerns of the people TSA is meant to serve.