“Meltdowns” the TSA forgot to mention
John Mica is sounding the alarm bells about “another TSA meltdown.” In a vaguely worded press release issued late Friday, the Florida congressman, who chairs the committee that oversees the airport screeners, warned of a “dramatic meltdown of TSA operations” at an unnamed Florida airport.
He declined to provide details, except to say that it may involve a substantial number of TSA employees, including high-ranking airport security officials.
“When confirmed,” he added, “the significant security system failure at this Florida airport once again highlights the need to get TSA out of the human resources business and back into the nation’s security business.”
A nebulous press statement filled with hyperbole? Sounds like something a legislator might do during an election year.
Oh, wait. It is an election year.
But Mica’s rhetoric — and his obvious agenda, which is to privatize the TSA — looks amateurish when compared with the spin that’s sputtering out of the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems every week.
I’m referring to the weekly updates on the TSA’s blog. In the latest, delivered the same day as Mica’s oblique warning, the agency boasts of the dangerous weapons caches its agents discovered.
“7 stun guns were found this week in carry-on bags,” it reports. “Among them were a couple of standouts both discovered at Detroit (DTW). One was disguised to look like a smart phone while the other doubles as a punching weapon.”
In all, the TSA confiscated 31 firearms last week — 22 of them loaded, 9 unloaded. It also discovered illegal narcotics in nine separate incidents, thanks to its full-body scanners. Although agents aren’t “looking” for drugs, the agency insists the busts are a “a testament that the technology works.”
Don’t you feel safer already? (Well, you shouldn’t; terrorists don’t carry guns or smuggle drugs — the last one to bring down a plane did it with boxcutters and brute force. Remember?)
No one knows exactly what Mica is referring to. The congressman says the TSA is keeping the press in the dark about it. Maybe it’s connected to the proposed termination of five agents in Southwest Florida the same day. Who knows?
What’s certain is that the TSA missed a few things last week — things that could be considered a “meltdown” in their own right.
For example, there’s the strange case of Marc Rory Duncan, 38, the stowaway on a commuter flight in San Diego. Just the night before, Duncan had been released from jail, where he’d been serving time for theft.
Duncan reportedly managed to penetrate San Diego’s TSA defenses and hop on a United Express plane just before it departed for Los Angeles. An alert flight crew noticed the ex-felon, who was making some “pretty incoherent statements.”
TSA says it’s initiating an investigation and will take appropriate action. But what, exactly, is appropriate when someone who is probably not in his right mind just waltzed through every legendary layer of security you have?
Chairman Mica? Anyone?
TSA misses — or meltdowns — are so routine, no one notices them even more. Just a few days before the former jailbird tried to fly in San Diego, the the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged a Piedmont Airlines pilot with attempting to board a flight in Buffalo, NY, with a loaded revolver.
Brett Dieter of Barboursville, Va., was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, but the specifics of his case are interesting. Apparently Dieter had been flying with his .357 Magnum for several days before it was discovered.
If I were an aspiring jihadist, the path to paradise would be clear to me now. I’d buy a pilot’s uniform and a handgun and walk through a TSA screening area babbling incoherently.
They’d have to let me through.
Do you really need me to tell you this isn’t working? Well, maybe you do. So I’ll say it again: the TSA is broken beyond repair. This isn’t security theater (and whoever coined that term has done us a great disservice by reducing it to simple theater) it’s incompetence on a grand scale, the likes of which we haven’t seen in at least a generation. This makes every Soviet five-year-plan look the very model of efficiency. The TSA, for its part, wants to double down its bet with its own five-year plan of sorts: an ambitious proposal to increase its size by doubling security fees for round-trip flights. The proposal is making some headway in the Senate.
The TSA’s critics — that would be every man, woman and child subjected to an invasive scan or pat-down this summer — might disagree. If the agency could show them a single terrorist caught, a single passenger saved from a criminal or a drug-toting passenger, they may see things the TSA’s way. They’d happily pay more to be kept safe from these dangers.
But as it stands, many air travelers can’t figure out exactly what the TSA is protecting us from.
5 things the TSA doesn’t want you to see
This is a picture of two Transportation Security Administration screeners leaving work last week.
But look closely. They’re nowhere near an airport. In fact, if you’ve ever been to Washington, then you’ll recognize the area just outside a Metro station near a congressional office building.
This is just one the images the TSA didn’t want you to see last week.
How do I know?
Because when I asked the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems about the picture, its response was “off the record” — meaning that I’m not allowed to tell you what it said. But a legislative assistant who works in a nearby office building filled in the details.
“The two agents were at the Capitol South Metro Station roughly between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Thursday evening,” he says. “They had a white table set up inside the station and were randomly inspecting purses and bags. There were also a few officers as you can see standing next to the dark blue van in the picture that were 10 yards or so past the table, standing watch.”
I was able to independently confirm that the TSA agents were there and that they were working. But beyond that, not much.
The fact that TSA operates outside of airports may come as a surprise to some Americans. The agency’s so-called Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams work mostly in mass transit in big metropolitan areas, but not exclusively. They’ve been seen at ballgames, truckstops and even reportedly got themselves banned from Amtrak stations for a short while.
But why were agents at the Capitol? Maybe it had something to do with the presence of a group called Freedom to Travel USA.
The TSA would probably prefer you didn’t watch this report about the group, or its founder, Wendy Thomson.
But if you did, here’s what you’d learn: That almost every step the agency has taken to protect us from airborne terrorists has either been ineffective or wasteful, or both. And that they’ve got the data to prove it.
One Freedom to Travel member, who also happens to be a tenured mathematics professor, applied something called Bayes Rule and the concept of Base Rate Fallacy to the TSA’s behavior-detection methods. Stay with me, here. It revealed that even if TSA’s current screening practices were 100 percent effective, only one in 5 million flagged “high risk” passengers would be a terrorist.
“The experience to date is 50,000 false positives and 16 known terrorists not flagged,” says Thomson. “No known terrorists have everbeen flagged.”
Here’s another image the TSA wishes you wouldn’t look at: it’s footage of Thomas Harkins. A decade ago, Harkins was a Catholic priest working at churches in New Jersey. But the Diocese of Camden reportedly removed him from the ministry because it found he sexually abused two young girls, and a third woman is now claiming to be one of his victims.
Guess where he works now? As a TSA supervisor at Philadelphia International Airport. Don’t they screen their job applicants?
The result? The passenger, Cindy Gates, says she popped out her prosthetic breast and threw it.
And finally, here’s a video the TSA really wishes it could delete, if such things were allowed. It’s the agency’s former administrator, Kip Hawley, who continues to promote a new book that’s highly critical of the agency. Hawley has called airport security an “unending nightmare” from which common sense has been removed, and like many other TSA critics, he thinks the time has come to reform the agency.
But we should see these images. All of them. Not because the TSA doesn’t want us to, but because more information makes us better travelers, and indeed, voters.
The problems of airport security don’t rise to the level of becoming an election-year issue, but this isn’t about airport security anymore. This is about getting scanned and frisked at a ballgame, the train station, and outside Congress.
The TSA doesn’t want us to see its documented arrogance and incompetence, doesn’t want us to know that it’s an out-of-control government agency. Because if we do — if we begin to connect the dots — maybe we’ll see how important this issue really is.
And maybe we’ll do something about it.