Congressman Issa vs. rogue airport security officers

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Even as we appreciate the need for airport screening, many of us have had our frustrations after waiting in a long line to pass through security before getting on with a trip. We take off our coats and our shoes and our belts, only to have the metal detector oink at us because of the foil around our breath mints.

The transportation security officers are just doing their duty to protect us, we understand that. But on occasion, some of them apparently go too far.

In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, complained that "innocent travelers" have been subjected "to baseless harassment, intimidation, and situations designed to instill fear and cause public humiliation."

The letter, sent Tuesday to Secretary Janet Napolitano, said some cases involved "childish practical jokes" by officers or mistreatment of disabled passengers. Each instance, he said, "amounts to an abuse of power and a breach of public trust."

He noted public apologies by the Transportation Security Administration but said that "the persistent misbehavior indicates that the Homeland Security Department is unwilling or unable to rein in its agents."

TSA responded that it "has a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior and acts swiftly when proper protocols are not followed. The inappropriate actions of a few individuals in no way reflect on the outstanding work of the more than 50,000 Transportation Security Officers who work tirelessly to keep our skies safe."

Issa cited a March incident where officers at Philadelphia International Airport required 4-year-old Ryan Thomas to remove his leg braces before going through a metal detector. The officers could have escorted the child and his parents to a secure area, where the braces could have been swabbed for traces of explosive material, "as required by Department procedure," but they didn't, according to Issa.

"By any measure, the agents' behavior was offensive and unbecoming for any official entrusted with public safety," Issa wrote.

He cited another example in Philadelphia in January where an officer put white powder in a passenger's carry-on luggage as a joke.

Certainly examples like those in Issa's letter represent a small portion of the otherwise overwhelmingly professional behavior demonstrated by transportation security officers. Nonetheless, Issa made a good point when he told Napolitano, "the Department must act swiftly to repair this breach of public trust." He asked her to "hold the appropriate individuals responsible for their misconduct."

But if the problem is a systemic one -- and it's not clear from Issa's letter that it is -- then holding individuals responsible may not be enough. TSA may need to ensure that its hiring process weeds out people who shouldn't be TSOs and that training should make it clear what behavior will not be tolerated.

Insensitive and inappropriate actions by just a few officers can besmirch the vast majority who serve the public well. TSA has enough problems, already. It doesn't need rogue officers making matters worse.

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