TSA fights major image problem

What is going on with TSA?

At Newark Liberty International Airport, 44 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees face disciplinary action on charges related to screening misconduct. In June, eight transportation security officers there were dismissed.

At Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, 43 employees were disciplined (38 suspended, five fired) this year for not following screening procedures.

At Charlotte Douglas International Airport in 2011, 23 employees were disciplined after an investigation into checked baggage screening.

At Honolulu International Airport last year, TSA moved against 48 employees (36 proposed firings, 12 suspensions) for not screening luggage properly.

Looks like a bad pattern.

But to the union representing officers in the Newark case, it’s a matter of smoke with no fire. To an outside federal employee expert, these cases represent a vigilant agency with no patience for wrongdoing and the tools to deal with it quickly.

“I believe it’s more a function of the fact that 1) the standards of conduct are both clearer and more stringent at TSA than at many other federal agencies, 2) TSA workers are more in the public eye than many other federal employees and 3) TSA has a more streamlined disciplinary process than most agencies,” John Palguta said by e-mail. “So when there are problems they are more easily identified and more quickly dealt with.” He is a Partnership for Public Service vice president who previously worked for the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Office of Personnel Management. (The Partnership has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.)

As bad as these cases look, TSA Administrator John Pistole says they do not represent an endemic problem.

After the Hono­lulu case, TSA did a nationwide review to determine if lax screening practices were widespread. That review discovered issues in Fort Myers and Charlotte. The Newark case developed separately from an investigation into theft from baggage.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a pattern,” Pistole said in an interview, citing the millions of passengers and bags TSA processes and a workforce, at 450 locations, the size of a small city. He has established an Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate allegations of misconduct. “I would not say [it’s] pervasive or systemic across the board.”

It’s not even pervasive among the 44 workers facing the allegations in Newark, according to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). Peter Winch, the union’s acting director of field services and education, said “there is no misconduct.” The Newark TSAs, as instructed, did not open bags that were sent to a room for further inspection, he said, because the bags had been marked cleared. TSA says any bag in that room needed to be opened and checked as part of standard operating procedure.

Whatever the truth in Newark, these cases are creating a major credibility and image headache nationwide for an agency whose workers, for the most part, are professional, honest and competent.

The cases also provide ammunition for Republicans on Capitol Hill who want TSA to privatize a greater portion of its screening operation.

“All the time TSA spends on managing and disciplining its bloated workforce is time it doesn’t spend on security,” said Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation. “TSA has more than just an image problem and has lost the trust of the American people. Actions must be taken now to transform TSA into a smarter, leaner organization and that starts with partnering with the private sector on passenger screening.”

In a June letter to TSA officials around the country, Pistole said “I am concerned that the prompt reporting of misconduct, lapses in integrity and ethics is not part of the culture across all of TSA.” He told officials: “You must support a culture of hard work, integrity and professionalism in which employees feel free to report SOP [standard operating procedure] violations and misconduct without fear of retaliation.”

Acknowledging “it obviously hurts our image” during the interview, Pistole said one thing the cases have not done is endanger the flying public. The chances the improper baggage screening has compromised security “is so remote,” he said, given the nearly 1.8 million passengers and 3.4 million bags screened every day by about 50,000 TSAs.

There have been no allegations of collusion with any of the screening problems, as was the case with Los Angeles International Airport officers charged with taking bribes to allow drug couriers safe passage.

For Palguta, whatever the blow to TSA’s image, the group of screening cases “says some good things about the TSA culture, i.e., there is little tolerance for misconduct or poor performance and the agency will take action when it believes it has cause,” he said.

“I do not think it suggests that TSA employees are more prone to performance problems.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

 
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