Misconduct of airport screeners probed as other issues lurk

Joe Davidson
Columnist August 1, 2012

Maybe the timing wasn’t meant to rain on the union’s parade, but Democrats found it curious that Wednesday’s hearing on airport screener misdeeds fell on the same day the agency met to finalize a labor contract.

The title of the hearing into Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer behavior, “Breach of Trust: Addressing Misconduct Among TSA Screeners,” set the tone, at least from the Republican side.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Even more to the point was the opening statement from Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation security: “Stealing from checked luggage; accepting bribes from drug smugglers; sleeping or drinking while on duty — this kind of criminal behavior and negligence has contributed significantly to TSA’s shattered public image.”

This hearing on the TSA and others that the Republican majority has called do more than examine whatever the particular issue is on the agenda. They feed a GOP narrative that the TSA is too big, much of its work should be privatized and a union contract could make things worse.

After the hearing, Rogers told reporters that he favors cuts in the agency’s “gargantuan bureaucracy” and the growth of a TSA program that allows private screeners to work with government supervision. And he wants to ensure it’s not too hard to fire folks.

“I’m a big believer that the private sector is much more customer service oriented than the public sector. . . . You’ll find private companies are much more able to get rid of bad apples than the government is,” he said.

Officials with the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents transportation security officers (TSOs), were busy trying to complete the union’s first labor agreement with the TSA at the time of the hearing. It’s just as well. A spokeswoman said they weren’t invited to testify anyway.

TSA Deputy Administrator John Halinski, a 25-year Marine Corps veteran, declined to answer repeated questions about the contract negotiations. He didn’t have to be so reticent, particularly when panel members asked about the effect of unionization on security.

Without discussing the labor talks, he could have pointed to the many federal, state and local law enforcement officers who would be insulted by any suggestion that their status as union members makes them any less professional or effective.

Halinski could have reminded legislators of the comments his boss made when the TSA granted workers limited collective-bargaining rights 13 months ago. “The safety of the traveling public is our top priority, and we will not negotiate on security,” TSA Administrator John Pistole said then. “But morale and employee engagement cannot be separated from achieving superior security.”

It would have been helpful to get the employee perspective because the sad truth is that there have been too many cases of misconduct by transportation security officers, who screen people and baggage at the nation’s airports. Rogers listed several places — Hono­lulu, Newark, Fort Myers, Fla., Jackson, Miss., and Dulles International Airport — where screeners have been suspended, fired or arrested.

But it’s also true that the crooks and scoundrels among the security officers are just a small fraction of the workforce — though a big enough group to damage the agency’s image.

Rogers alleges that “the majority of Americans do not support the government’s current approach” to airport screening, a situation exacerbated by reports of misconduct.

The TSA’s image certainly hasn’t been helped by news coverage and congressional hearings that focus more on the miscreants than on the majority who serve the mission.

“I was surprised that we would have a hearing to discuss the publicized missteps by a few of the 46,000 screeners who staff the checkpoints of this nation’s airports,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the full committee, said in a statement.

“While the failure of a few may taint an agency in the court of public opinion,” he continued, “I think that we in Congress must have a standard that looks to the facts and the totality of the circumstances. As lawmakers, we must see the big picture and we must strive to ensure that the picture is complete.”

The complete picture indicates that “most travelers have a positive experience at the airport,” Halinski testified.

Of the 600 million passengers TSOs screen annually, about 750,000 contact the TSA with comments, Halinski said. Of those contacts, less than 8 percent complain.

“This fact,” he said, “belies the near constant criticism and frequently embellished allegations of improper screening reported in the media and repeated as fact by many individuals, despite evidence to the contrary.”

Rogers acknowledged that “it is just a small percentage of the overall workforce that is involved in criminal or negligent behavior.”

But the chairman thinks Halinski might be “shining things up a little bit” with the low complaint rate. He insisted that “this public lack of confidence is a real problem” for the TSA.

Then he issued this warning:

“It’s going to start manifesting itself in the Congress if they don’t get it fixed.”

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

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