I once had a similar experience at a TSA checkpoint. I had thoroughly emptied my pockets, but the body scanner nevertheless detected an object in my pants. Fortunately, my TSA agent did not appear to take any pleasure in the business and went about his duty with grim professionalism.
At the time, I was merely annoyed at the inconvenience, not to mention the poor performance of the taxpayer-funded $170,000 millimeter wave scanner that I had assumed was able to tell the difference between a brick of C-4 and genitals. It turns out those scanners have never stopped a terrorist, but maybe one day the TSA screeners will inadvertently catch a cute jihadist.
It’s a sign of just how resigned we’ve become to the TSA’s existence that most of the men getting felt up probably shrugged it off and thought, “Well, that’s the TSA for you.” We’ve become desensitized to being scanned and prodded and told our toothpaste is too large and must therefore be confiscated in the name of national security. TSA’s expansion of its PreCheck program and an announcement that it would stop searching black women’s hair for weapons are what pass for progress.
This is a raw deal. The federal government heaped a mountain of farcical security measures on the American public after 9/11, and now we’re supposed to give them a thumbs up for no longer taking nude photos of us and stealing pregnant ladies’ insulin.
Mind you, this is an agency that regularly employs kleptos and perverts, an agency that handed out security badges to criminals and on at least one occasion a dog. It does not hire the best and brightest, and those with any critical faculties understand that their job—confiscating snow globes and nail clippers—is a bad joke.
“Once, in 2008, I had to confiscate a bottle of alcohol from a group of Marines coming home from Afghanistan,” former TSA screener Jason Harrington wrote in Politico Magazine. “It was celebration champagne intended for one of the men in the group — a young, decorated soldier. He was in a wheelchair, both legs lost to an I.E.D., and it fell to me to tell this kid who would never walk again that his homecoming champagne had to be taken away in the name of national security.”
And yet the agency keeps finding new and innovative ways to expand its mission and waste money in the process. Since 2007, the TSA has deployed Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) squads. These roving VIPR teams, apparently named by an ‘80s action movie screenwriter, protect such homeland locations as bus stations, music festivals, trolleys, ports and rodeos. The program’s budget rose from $30 million in 2009 to more than $100 million by 2011, a pace that could be more accurately described as mission-jog than mission-creep.
Since 2007, the TSA has also spent more than $900 million on a behavior detection program that has never been independently verified by researchers to be effective. But it was hard to learn more about the program, since TSA kept the particulars of how it worked a closely guarded secret. (National security, naturally.) It was only until someone leaked documents to The Intercept that the public learned what the TSA was on the look out for. It turns out TSA behavior detection officers are trained to detect such suspicious actions as “exaggerated yawning,” “excessive complaints about the screening process,” and “face pale from recent shaving of beard,” among other signs.
The TSA also likes to try to hide how incompetent it is, but it’s bad at that, too. The agency has repeatedly over-classified reports to hide embarrassing failures from both congressional investigators and the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General. Several federal air marshal whistleblowers have also come forward corroborating these reports.
The agency’s proposed 2016 budget requests $7.35 billion in funding, a slight increase over the previous year but down from $7.8 billion in 2012. Things are moving in the right direction, but after a decade of security theater, how much longer should we be expected to tolerate it?
One way to speed up the process would be to go back to private screeners, like all airports in the U.S. used before 9/11 and many airports in Europe still use. U.S. airports are currently allowed to opt-out of using TSA screeners, and since a pilot program began in the early 2000s, the number of airports that have joined the TSA’s screening partnership program has risen from five to 21. Private screeners are more flexible, arguably more efficient according to TSA-haters in Congress, and certainly easier to oversee on an airport-by-airport basis than TSA’s unionized workforce of roughly 50,000 screeners.
Of course, privatized screeners are still under federal oversight and rules, which means the pat-downs and shoe-removal would continue, but at least TSA could focus more time on improving and streamlining its security procedures and less on catching employees filching laptops from passengers.
The end goal, obviously, should be to abolish the TSA. Barring that, let’s at least roll back the absurd security regulations to something that comports with reality—you know, the place where the bottle of booze in your carry-on isn’t a national security threat—and reduce the agency to a small group of inspectors with clipboards who make sure that rules are being followed.
The current, bloated TSA is a malignant lump on the federal bureaucracy, an embarrassing but persistent leftover of our post-9/11 mindset. Plagued by low morale and poor performance, the TSA will become harder dislodge every year it remains in existence. As a wise prophet from Nazareth once said, “if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.” Considering where the TSA’s hands have been lately, it’s about time we lopped it off from the body politic.