TSA bashing: Is it warranted?

November 6, 2013
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The freedom-loving American public has directed some harsh criticism toward the Transportation Security Administration in recent years, despite the agency’s mission of preventing terrorist attacks. Some of the vitriol is justified, but misinformation often feeds the rhetoric.

Search the internet for TSA bashing, and you’ll find myriad references to an agency that annoys and harasses travelers, in addition to violating people’s constitutional rights. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) last year proposed abolishing the organization, and the group Campaign for Liberty joined in that effort, saying “the TSA simply must be stopped.”

On Friday, a man took his dissatisfaction to the extreme, allegedly shooting one TSA officer and wounding two others during a shooting rampage at Los Angeles International Airport. Authorities have said the suspect, Paul A. Ciancia, harbored anti-government feelings and believed TSA searches infringe on his rights.

TSA officers one day after a shooting that killed one of their colleagues at Los Angeles International Airport. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images).
TSA officers one day after a shooting that killed one of their colleagues at Los Angeles International Airport. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images).

Travelers often express weariness over the inconveniences associated with moving through TSA security lines: removing belts, placing shoes in a bin, taking laptops out of bags, disposing of toiletries larger than sample-size, waiting, more waiting, and the occasional swabbings and pat-downs.

Critics have questioned the effectiveness of these precautionary measures that bother so many travelers. In 2008, airline-security expert Bruce Schneier commented in an Atlantic article that “only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.”

Schneier and Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg tested TSA screening practices by walking through checkpoints with contraband and falsified documents. Their efforts were largely successful, casting doubt on the benefits of burdensome screening procedures.

(Photo courtesy of TSA)
(Photo courtesy of TSA)

But for every “underwear bomber” who sneaks through security undetected, TSA rounds up countless items that travelers would probably prefer to keep off their flights, as the agency shows with weekly updates on its blog. Last week, the agency snagged 29 firearms, 27 of which were loaded and nine of which had rounds chambered, according to the blog.

Anti-TSA activists often complain that manual body checks are invasive, and some have accused officers of inappropriate groping.

Those concerns are sometimes warranted, as was the case when a Baltimore-based air marshal admitted to taking pictures up women’s dresses. But TSA officers who follow the rules and act professionally are only trying to keep airplanes from becoming weapons of mass destruction, according to agency officials.

“It is TSA policy that the nearly 1.8 million passengers who are screened every day are to be treated equally and with the dignity, respect and courtesy they deserve as we carry out this important mission to protect the traveling public,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday.

Some TSA bashing is simply inaccurate and exaggerated. For instance, a comic strip on the photo-sharing Web site Pinterest depicted a TSA officer shooting a man because he carried a snow globe that an agent suspected to be a bomb.

TSA officers do not carry firearms on the job unless they work as air marshals, so that scenario would be virtually impossible.

In another example of apparent misinformation, Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative Red State blog, posted a letter from an anonymous friend who said the TSA confiscated nail clippers from a soldier returning from Afghanistan on a military charter flight full of service members who were still carrying their assault rifles.

Sounds like an absurd move, right?

FactCheck.org called the story an “impossible fabrication,” noting that the TSA doesn’t prohibit nail clippers or screen military charters in the airport where the incident supposedly occurred.

Much has also been said about TSA’s full-body scanners. Critics suggested they might cause cancer and that the detailed images amounted to “virtual strip searches.”

TSA removed the machines in May, replacing them with devices that emit less radiation and use software to project hidden items onto a generic body image. That was despite a report from the Marquette University College of Engineering that concluded the machines do not expose passengers to dangerous levels of radiation.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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