TSA Waves Convicted Murderer With Explosives Experience Through Its PreCheck Lane

from the waving-through-felons-while-patting-down-toddler dept

The TSA’s PreCheck program also expedites security screening for “notorious convicted felons” and “former domestic terrorists.” Who knew? From the sounds of its in-depth pre-screening efforts, you would think (unnamed) convicted felons wouldn’t be able to sail past the checkpoint without even slowing down, but apparently, that’s exactly what happened. And it’s not just any former felon/domestic terrorist, but one who was previously convicted of murder and offenses involving explosives. (via Kevin Underhill/Lowering the Bar)

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) received a whistleblower disclosure alleging a sufficiently notorious convicted felon was improperly cleared for TSA Pre? screening, creating a significant aviation security breach. The disclosure identified this event as a possible error in the TSA Secure Flight program since the traveler’s boarding pass contained a TSA Pre? indicator and encrypted barcode.

The good news (such as it were) is that the TSA did not grant the unnamed felon/terrorist PreCheck approval through its laborious and intrusive application process. It also didn’t wave him/her through because lines were backing up at the normal checkpoints. (This is called “Managed Inclusion” by the TSA, but it more resembles “For the Hell of It” in practice…) That ends the good news.

It did, however, use its “risk assessment rules” to determine the terrorist/felon to be of no threat. This might be encouraging news for former felons/domestic terrorists, perhaps signaling that government agencies may ultimately forgive some criminal acts and not subject former felons to additional security harassment in perpetuity. Then again, this may just be the TSA’s excuse for waving someone with questionable PreCheck clearance through security because a checkmark — and its own internal bureaucracy — told it to.

We also determined the Transportation Security Officer (TSO) followed standard operating procedures, but did not feel empowered to redirect the traveler from TSA Pre? screening to standard lane screening.

The OIG recommends more “empowerment” for rank-and-file. Good luck with that. If officers don’t feel empowered, it’s because management has shown them that questioning the (broken and wildly inconsistent) system isn’t an option. Neither is doing any independent thinking. When this officer attempted to push it up the line, he/she ran into a pretty predictable response.

[T]he TSO knew of the traveler’s TSA Pre?disqualifying criminal convictions. The TSO followed the standard operating procedures and reported this to the supervisory TSO who then directed the TSO to take no further action and allow the traveler through the TSA Pre? lane. As a result, TSA does not have an incident report for this event.

One of the TSA’s Behavioral Detection Officers (highly-trained in the art of the mental coin toss) was also contacted by the concerned officer. And, again, no further action was taken/recommended.

In the end, a felon/terrorist boarded a plane because the TSA’s bureaucratic process can’t handle contradictory variables. The PreCheck approval said “yes,” but the previous convictions said PreCheck approval should never have happened. The TSA deferred to the obviously incorrect checkmark on the boarding pass. And now we have the punchline to the joke that starts, “A murderer with explosives experience walks into a PreCheck lane…”

The OIG’s mostly-redacted recommendation criticizing the TSA’s over-reliance on fallible pre-screening processes was mostly ignored by the agency.

TSA officials did not concur with Recommendation 1. In its response, TSA said that with respect to individuals who may pose an elevated security risk to commercial aviation, theU.S. Government’s approach to domestic aviation security relies heavily on the TSDB and its Selectee List and No Fly List subcomponents. TSA said, had the intelligence or national law enforcement communities felt that this traveler posed an elevated risk to commercial aviation, they would have nominated the traveler to one of these lists and prevented the traveler from being designated as lower-risk.

To which the OIG responded, “Well, that ‘s obviously not working because this traveler should have been automatically denied PreCheck approval.”

We consider TSA’s actions nonresponsive to the intent of Recommendation 1, which is unresolved and open. TSA said it relies on the U.S. Government watchlisting process to identify individuals that represent an elevated risk to commercial aviation. However, not all non-watchlisted passengers are lower-risk and eligible for TSA Pre?. For example, TSA has established disqualifying criteria, in addition to the watchlisting process, for an applicant seeking TSA Pre? Application Program membership. TSA will deny membership to an applicant convicted of any of the 28 disqualifying criminal offenses or not a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident. Even though the traveler is not watchlisted, the traveler would be permanently ineligible for TSA Pre?.

And yet, a convicted murderer has been PreCheck approved. The TSA wants to blame the rest of the government. The OIG just wants someone to use common sense, rather than never questioning a boarding pass. The OIG has a good point. The TSA claims it’s shifting to a smarter, more responsive travel security, like the PreCheck program and its many Behavioral Detection Officers. But when a situation involving both arose, it left the thinking to its brainstem — unwavering faith in databases and policy — rather than making any move indicative of higher thought processes.

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Comments on “TSA Waves Convicted Murderer With Explosives Experience Through Its PreCheck Lane”

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Vidiot (profile) says:

Giant "R"

The front page of an investigational government report is a wonderful place for a massive, bolded “registered” mark… just think of all the trademark infringement that will prevent!

Because after all, a small, superscript symbol might lead to consumer confusion. (Over a non-commercial, non-consumer government security program.)

Anonymous Coward says:

There's one positive thing to learn from this...

[T]he TSO knew of the traveler’s TSA Pre✓disqualifying criminal convictions. The TSO followed the standard operating procedures and reported this to the supervisory TSO who then directed the TSO to take no further action and allow the traveler through the TSA Pre✓ lane. As a result, TSA does not have an incident report for this event.

The encouraging thing here is that it shows that there are at least some TSOs who actually know how to do their job (both detecting the inconsitencies, and following directives — and blowing the whistle when the process fails).

Of course, I bet that TSO is currently unemployed and has a black mark beside their name now….

Anonymous Coward says:

Convicted "murderer"

Bets whether said murderer actually killed anyone, versus just being present at the commission of a felony in which someone died? “Felony murder” is popular with prosecutors, easy to prove (prove a felony happened, prove somebody’s dead, done), and if the defendant is already on the hook for explosives-related felonies, the job’s done for you.

Michael (profile) says:

but did not feel empowered to redirect the traveler from TSA Pre✓ screening to standard lane screening

So they feel empowered to detain people for hours, inappropriately touch children, steal money and valuables, and rifle through baggage whenever they want, but put on the breaks when they want to move someone to the regular screening line?

Edward Teach says:


Hey, man, the SLA was the ISIS of 1974. Even small, rural towns in Missouri had fears of the dread SLA busting into the Savings and Loan, holding everyone at gunpoint, and leaving with a “fortune”, just like that Patriotic Little Town now rightfully fears an ISIS invasion, declaration of Shari’a Law, and mandatory hijab wearing by all citizens.

I think the TSA was just following orders. We should give them thanks and gratitude for their perilous service to all mankind.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re:

This puts an interesting spin on the system of screening done by the TSA. I don’t think anyone is truly afraid of Sara Jane Olson blowing up the plane she is on in a suicidal attack. There are Americans who don’t believe in rehabilitation, or that she could tire of being a violent radical even after more than 30 years of being a mom and showing no inclination towards any sort of violence. They would have her placed on the no-fly list, at the very least, as a form of further punishment. It makes sense to me that because she is so well known, notorious in fact, she should be given pre-check approval rather than being subjugated to the bias of any particular TSA agent who recognizes her name. I know Tim is ranting about the general lack of common sense and inconsistency shown by the TSA, but I think this particular action did make sense.

Beta (profile) says:

conservation of evidence

Whom would you rather fly with?

A) A young Muslim man.
B) A convicted murderer with knowledge of explosives.
C) A pilot from Düsseldorf who has passed background checks with basically no red flags.

At some point we must face facts; people who sound the scariest aren’t necessarily the greatest risks, and our intuition just isn’t very good when it comes to very rare events.

And note that the scary convicted murderer with knowledge of explosives didn’t actually cause any trouble at all on board the plane. So the only evidence we have indicates that there is no harm in letting such people fly (or walk free in the street, for that matter), and that the TSA doesn’t measurably improve public safety whether it does “its job” or not.

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