John Whitehead's Commentary
It’s Time to Overhaul the Transportation Security Administration
“The TSA has grown into a top-heavy, unmanageable agency, evidenced by its 400% increase in workforce since its founding. The agency’s flaws are not the fault of TSA employees working everyday on the front lines, but instead that of a bloated leadership structure in Washington, DC. When attempting to conduct oversight, instead of cooperation from TSA the committees have been met with obfuscation, excuses and attempts to mislead.”—House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform
If there is any absolute maxim by which the federal government seems to operate, it is that the American taxpayer always gets ripped off. Indeed, one of the greatest culprits when it comes to swindling taxpayers is the Transportation Security Administration, one of the most corrupt, ineffective, and downright abusive of the government’s many agencies (which is saying a lot) and a massive waste of taxpayer money.
Nowhere has the TSA’s skullduggery been more evident than in its questionable deployment of and complete mismanagement of millions of dollars’ worth of airport full-body, X-ray scanners—equipment which was funded by the Obama administration’s stimulus tax dollars and is now being pulled from airports and left to molder in a storage facility in Texas.
For almost two years, ever since the Underwear Bomber’s Christmas 2009 attempt at blowing up a Northwest Airlines flight was thwarted, Americans have been told that the TSA’s full-body, X-ray scanners—more than 700 of which have been deployed to airports across the country—are safe, effective and necessary for preventing another terrorist attack.
Buoyed by corporate lobbyists, Congress and the courts, the TSA continued to impose these full-body scanners on travelers at a tremendous cost of $140 million to taxpayers, despite mounting concerns from scientists, physicians and civil liberties advocates that backscatter scanners pose significant threats to health and privacy, while doing little to protect against a terrorist plot. In fact, according to a 2011 investigative report by ProPublica/PBS NewsHour, anywhere from six to 100 U.S. airline passengers each year could get cancer from the backscatter machines.
Making matters worse, for those electing not to be subjected to a radiation-imbued virtual strip search by government agents, the TSA made the alternative—an enhanced pat-down—downright punitive, with TSA agents going so far as to touch passengers’ genitals and breasts and put their hands down travelers’ pants. Adding insult to injury, American taxpayers and airline passengers are actually forced to subsidize this government-sanctioned humiliation. Every airline passenger pays a September 11 Security Fee of $2.50 for every leg of his trip.
Then, in late October 2012, a few weeks before more than 3 million Americans prepared to travel by air for Thanksgiving, the TSA announced a plan to remove the high-priced, invasive scanners from major U.S. airports and ship them to smaller, less busy locations—reportedly not because of privacy or safety concerns but rather in an effort to speed up security at busy airports. In place of the X-ray backscatter scanners, and in a move sure to cost taxpayers even more money, the TSA is going to replace them with millimeter wave scanners (millimeter scanners only take about ten seconds to scan, versus a full minute for backscatter scanners). TSA officials have already readied 14 new machines so they would be up and running in Chicago’s O’Hare airport by Thanksgiving 2012.
Then in another about-face right before Thanksgiving, it was revealed that the scanners were not going to be relocated to smaller airports, after all. Instead, they are going to be housed in a Texas warehouse full of more than $155 million in unused equipment “awaiting either disposal or redeployment.” (Of course, with hundreds of these scanners still being used in airports across the country, the health and privacy risks remain a concern for those unlucky enough to be forced to go through them.)
So what’s really happening here?
Relying heavily on evasive maneuvers and bureaucratic doublespeak, the TSA’s fumbling explanation for why these scanners are being relegated to a graveyard for taxpayer-funded white elephants casts the blame on everything from faulty software and too-small airports to a belated concern for travelers’ privacy concerns. A more plausible explanation for the phase-out of the X-ray scanners might have to do with recent reports that Rapiscan, one of the scanners’ main manufacturers, “may have attempted to defraud the government” by faking test data on software intended to replace the nude images produced by the X-ray scanners with stick-figure images.
The real problem, as the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform recognized earlier this year, is the TSA itself, which has gained a reputation for fumbling, bumbling and general incompetence.
Created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the TSA was charged with providing effective and efficient security for passenger and freight transportation in the United States. It has since become one of the Department of Homeland Security’s most visible and costly means of clamping down on Americans domestically, boasting an $8 billion annual budget and a roster of employees that includes TSOs (or airport screeners), behavior detection officers, and VIPR task forces (comprised of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosive detection canine teams), among others.
The TSA has increasingly drawn the ire of travelers because of its security procedures, which have subjected airline travelers of all ages, most of whom clearly do not in any way fit the profile of a terrorist, to invasive virtual strip searches, excessive enhanced pat downs and unreasonable demands by government agents—what one journalist refers to as “ritualized humiliation of travelers.” In December 2011, for example, TSA agents at JFK International Airport were accused of strip searching three elderly women. One of the women, 84-year-old Lenore Zimmerman, claims that she was forced to pull down her pants after she refused to enter a body scanner, fearing that it would interfere with her heart defibrillator. (Some medical devices, such as insulin pumps and glucose monitors, can be destroyed by scanners.) In another instance, a woman dying of leukemia was forced to lift her shirt at a TSA security checkpoint so that agents could inspect her bandages for possible security threats.
Even if you make it through security without being prodded, poked, and exposed, the possessions you handed over to TSA agents for screening may be gone by the time you arrive at your destination. In fact, an ABC News report reveals that many of the nation’s busiest airports also suffer the highest incidence of theft by TSA employees. Former TSA employee Pythias Brown, who served three years in prison for stealing $800,000 worth of cash and goods from passengers’ luggage, has come forward to explain that TSA thievery is “commonplace.” The numbers don’t lie: about 400 TSA agents have been fired for stealing from passengers since 2003.
Unfortunately, it’s getting downright impossible to avoid the TSA, which has expanded its mission from patting down passengers at airports to all sorts of surveillance and harassment at transportation hubs around the country. VIPR task forces are now deployed to do random security sweeps of ports, railway and bus stations, airports, ferries and subways. Sweep tactics include the use of X-ray technology, pat-downs and drug-sniffing dogs, among other things.
For example, in April 2012, a VIPR task force stopped passengers at a bus depot in Houston, Texas, rifling through their belongings and asking them about what routes they take and their usual transportation behavior. As one bus rider, Derrick Broze, noted, “I don't feel that by purchasing a ticket or riding a bus, I have to forfeit my constitutional rights to my protections and be subject to search or seizure.”
Unfortunately, that is exactly what the federal government is telling Americans: If you choose to travel, you are forfeiting your constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. In an effort to push back against that mindset, travelers are being urged to peacefully protest the scanners by taking part in “National Opt-Out Week” and refusing to go through the body scanners and filming the enhanced pat-downs.
Here’s the bottom line: in the so-called name of security, Americans have been subjected to all manner of treatment by the government—especially the TSA, including being treated like suspects, and then to top it off, we’ve been asked to pay for the humiliations and degradations heaped on us, so that corporations can make a profit. Something has to give. To start with, it’s time to say no to these flagrant abuses of our taxpayer dollars and our rights.