The TSA Is Hot Garbage. And We Will Never Be Rid Of It.
from the another-fine-American-insitution dept
The terrorists won. And it wasn’t a small victory. It was one that managed to make the American way of life significantly worse for anyone attempting to fly. Flying is how we get around in this sprawl of a nation that encompasses 50 states and ~3,000 miles between the coasts. And that’s just 48 of the 50 states. Maybe you could drive most places if time wasn’t a factor, but Alaska and Hawaii are pretty much inaccessible without airplanes.
Every day in the United States, travelers are treated to millions of minor hassles, thousands of invasive searches, and hundreds of apparent rights violations. That’s just how the TSA rolls. Ushered into existence by the second Bush administration following the 9/11 attacks, the TSA has become as much a part of American life as surveillance capitalism, qualified immunity, Disney-written legislation, and meritocracy delusions.
The TSA is a multi-billion/year boondoggle. Two positive changes were made following the 9/11 hijackings, neither of which require billions of dollars of federal spending. The biggest deterrents to terrorists were the implementation of locked cockpit doors and the empowerment of passengers to fight back. Everything else is theater.
But that’s not the direction the US went. Our representatives chose to perpetually fund this security theater. And the performative aspects of the TSA are constantly exposed. The TSA regularly fails to find the contraband that matters most: explosives. But it far more regularly finds things that simply don’t matter or engages in supremely illogical deployments of federal power to hassle people who just want to board planes without being stripped of their (often essential) belongings. This is what billions of tax dollars buys us, year after year after year, as Bruce Schneier caustically notes in this 2012 post:
[Then-TSA Director Kip Hawley] wants us to trust that a 400-ml bottle of liquid is dangerous, but transferring it to four 100-ml bottles magically makes it safe. He wants us to trust that the butter knives given to first-class passengers are nevertheless too dangerous to be taken through a security checkpoint. He wants us to trust the no-fly list: 21,000 people so dangerous they’re not allowed to fly, yet so innocent they can’t be arrested. He wants us to trust that the deployment of expensive full-body scanners has nothing to do with the fact that the former secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, lobbies for one of the companies that makes them. He wants us to trust that there’s a reason to confiscate a cupcake (Las Vegas), a 3-inch plastic toy gun (London Gatwick), a purse with an embroidered gun on it (Norfolk, VA), a T-shirt with a picture of a gun on it (London Heathrow) and a plastic lightsaber that’s really a flashlight with a long cone on top (Dallas/Fort Worth).
That’s the infuriating nature of the TSA. We’re nearly 500 words into this post and I still haven’t even touched the true subject matter: Darryl Campbell’s (writing for The Verge) excellent history of one of the nation’s least essential agencies — one that is, in turn, frustrating, enraging, depressing, and excoriating.
It opens with one hell of an anecdote, one that concludes with the TSA insisting on searching a corpse. Bureaucracy meets another bureaucracy and it’s the people funding both who are expected to pay for this insult to the memory of the dearly departed.
The decedent had died after check-in for an international flight but before boarding. The family decided the best move was to put her on the flight since they still had a boarding pass and they wanted to return to their home country, rather than try to suss out the intricacies of a completely foreign medical bureaucracy.
Rather than believe the grieving family’s claims the person was dead — and lacking the required death certificate (impossible to obtain at that point), the TSA decided to be the TSA. There were ways to verify this claim — things that don’t require medical professionals and have been observed in TVs and movies for decades. The TSA could have checked for a pulse, listened for a heartbeat, checked to see if the person could fog a mirror… literally anything but what it chose to do, which was feel up a corpse.
“We’re just following TSA protocol,” Cooper explained.
Her colleagues checked the corpse according to the official pat-down process. With gloves on, they ran the palms of their hands over the collar, the abdomen, the inside of the waistband, and the lower legs. Then, they checked the body’s “sensitive areas” — the breasts, inner thighs, and buttocks — with “sufficient pressure to ensure detection.”
Only then was the corpse cleared to proceed into the secure part of the terminal.
Protocol? It’s an out. It’s a way to pass the buck while dodging your obligations as a human being. A human being has the ability to use their rational thinking to make judgment calls in unusual cases. Presented with something out of the ordinary, TSA agents chose to violate a corpse rather than use their own discretion. That’s just a small part of the TSA’s problems: the inability or unwillingness for agents to make the sort of judgment calls their job should require, especially when TSA officials continue to refer to the people staffing checkpoints as trained professionals.
Who did this keep safe? What improvement to “travel security” did patting down a dead person create? The TSA has no answers other than “following protocol.”
And all the TSA really has is “protocol.” New hires are on probation for two years, giving the agency plenty of time to fire anyone who doesn’t toe the bureaucratic line without fear of litigation. Micromanagement is the name of the game, with agents being watched by other agents who are all watched by cameras, subjected to covert tests, and random inspections.
This may seem like a good way to ensure compliance by TSA agents. And maybe it is. But compliance doesn’t make the nation safer. And it doesn’t keep grieving families from having their deceased loved ones treated like potential terrorists.
Meanwhile, the TSA does nothing to counteract its negative public image. While officials complain passengers verbally abuse agents, the agency does almost nothing to engage with the public or otherwise deter the negative reactions its checkpoints provoke.
Beyond its anemic YouTube channel, the agency makes little effort to combat the rising tide of passenger hostility. Unlike other law enforcement branches, the TSA has no TV development pipeline, no community outreach programs — not even a grassroots hashtag like #humanizethebadge.
Despite the micromanagement, individual agents still have a lot of power and autonomy. And if someone wants to get from Point A to Point B, they have to go through them, something some agents use to their own advantage. When Katie Abdou was 14, she was called out of the boarding gate by a male TSA agent who insisted she needed a second screening. This is what happened next:
He did not explain why she had to get screened a second time. Instead, he bombarded her with questions and searched her luggage.
“I know I shouldn’t have,” she said, “but I was 14, and they weren’t telling me anything, so I made a joke like, ‘Do you think I have a bomb up my skirt?’ He didn’t find that very funny.”
Instead, he did a full-body pat-down on Abdou. He put his hands all up and down her body. He reached up her skirt and between her legs.
Sometimes agents defer to protocol to explain invasive searches of dead bodies. Sometimes agents ignore protocol to perform invasive searches of minors. Protocol is just a term of convenience — an excuse with a universal adapter. When protocol isn’t followed, it’s usually in service to a government agent, rather than those of travelers.
The TSA survives. Despite yearly injections of billions of dollars, it can’t be considered to be thriving. It’s terrible at the one thing it’s supposed to do. The billions in funding aren’t being passed on to the lower ranks, who are expected to be on the front lines of travel security for pay that’s already extremely low for the security sector and rarely meaningfully increases. There’s a reason the TSA advertises on pizza boxes: it constantly needs more agents but doesn’t want to attract anyone who might question the low pay or the effectiveness of the security theater.
What we’ve gotten since 2001 is a workforce that is increasingly unhappy and whose entire job revolves around dealing with other unhappy people.
No wonder TSA employees have the lowest job satisfaction of any Federal agency. It can barely recruit fast enough to keep up with attrition: for every four officers it hires, it loses three. And about one in five new hires quits in their first six months on the job.
Maybe attrition will do what Congress has no interest in doing. The TSA may be impossible to disband. But, given enough time, it may simply fall apart as attrition continues to outpace hiring.
The whole article by Campbell is worth reading. It details all the ways the TSA is failing to do its job, starting with its purely reactive protocols — something that’s probably indicative of its reactionary formation — and following through to problems that will only become worse as time goes on, like the fact the TSA’s body scanners simply don’t work when scanning anyone who doesn’t conform to binary gender expectations. Or the fact that the TSA continues to treat brown people with Arabic names far worse than they treat anyone else, conforming to another long-held bias that dates back to its 9/11 attacks origin story.
20 years. $140 billion in funding. And this is what we, as American taxpayers, have received:
The reality is that TSA has played next to no role in the biggest counterterrorism stories of the past two decades.
The TSA can’t justify its own existence. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to. It has had the unquestioning support of legislators and sitting presidents for years. We, the people, may be unhappy with the goods and services we’re buying from the TSA, but it’s the only game in town. If we want to fly, we’re at its mercy. That’s not how it should be. But that’s the way it is.