The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report yesterday on how well the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is handling complaints against it, and though the report mainly covers procedural issues, the headline-grabbing disclosure is that from 2010 to 2012, yearly allegations of misconduct jumped 26%. Most of the complaints had nothing to do with what the travelling public hates about the TSA; rather, most complaints were for sleeping on the job, tardiness and absenteeism, and failure to follow procedures. Surprisingly, a Gallup poll last year showed that a majority of Americans think the TSA is doing a good job of screening, and 41% think its work is effective. Perhaps that is a case of public inattention or low expectations for government employees. It's hard to square that public satisfaction with frequent reports of theft, intrusiveness, and weapons making it past screeners.
The GAO reported only 56 complaints for theft in those three years, a problem that has gotten the agency a black eye in the press. Thefts from checked bags skyrocketed after the TSA began inspecting them. Though baggage handlers often get blamed by travelers at first, it is the TSA agents who have "alone time" with bags. Only they have the legal right to open luggage. Though 400 agents have been fired for theft since 2003, that represents only the tip of the iceberg, according to a former agent convicted of stealing over $800,000 worth of items during his employment there.
Even when they are doing their jobs correctly, security screening is often seen as the worst part of travelling. Many travelers resent the overbearing full-body patdowns (some say groping), scanners that are a little too revealing, and the long the delays their procedures cause. In 2010, when new screening procedures were introduced, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) received over 900 complaints from fliers alleging TSA agents had groped their genitals. "The TSA agent used her hands to feel under and between my breasts," said one woman. "She then rammed her hand up into my crotch until it jammed into my pubic bone." Even more worse, passengers say, were the new full-body scanners that could see beneath a person's clothes. Putting it mildly, these scanners were a little "too revealing", and at worse, verged on pornographic.
Like much of the government's security apparatus since 9/11, the TSA has become overgrown, unwieldy, and intrusive. According to a House oversight committee report calling for reform of the TSA, it now has more than 65,000 employees, making it larger than the Departments of State, Labor, Energy, Education, and HUD combined. At the same time, we are regularly treated to media reports that knives, other contraband, and even dead dogs make it onto planes. Meanwhile, Grandma is being patted down for concealed weapons.
Perhaps additional attention could be paid to hiring procedures too. A May 2012 report released by Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn contained a list of the 50 "most dangerous" TSA agents, many of whom should have been screened out. 15 were thieves, and another 14 were sex offenders. Another was a murderer.
Make no mistake; the TSA, in some form, is a necessary evil post-9/11. But it is time for a retooling of the agency.