TSA watch: A crazy agency finally gets an official diagnosis

by Christopher Elliott on September 27, 2011


You probably already suspected that the idea of a Department of Homeland Security in general, and the Transportation Security Administration, specifically, was a little crazy.

Last week, all doubts were removed.

I mean, nothing says “nuts” like the plans for Janet Napolitano’s new office, which will be in the very same room used by the director of the nation’s first major federally run psychiatric institution. I’m not making this up.

DHS Secretary Napolitano and the rest of the Homeland Security team, including parts of the TSA, will soon move to a renovated castle-like structure opened in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane.

Ironic? Perhaps.

Even crazier, to some, is the idea that we’d be better off without the TSA. Only fringe politicians and pundits have seriously suggested that the country should disband the agency.

But this week, one of the most popular petitions on the White House’s new “We The People” section is advocating just that. It wants to dismantle the TSA.

Nearly 20,000 Americans have signed it so far.

The petition says it’s time for the president to act.

The Transportation Security Administration has been one of the largest, most expensive and most visible blunders of the post-9-11 homeland security reformation.

It has violated countless constitutional rights of average Americans, caused miserable and expensive delays in an already-overburdened air travel system, and allowed multiple known instances of harassment, theft, extortion and sexual abuse by its employees.

The poll urges the president to invest in “saner, more effective” security measures.

The fact that such a petition could be hosted by the White House site says a lot about the nation’s attitude toward the TSA. Who would have ever thought it would come to this?

It’s important to see this in context. The TSA hasn’t exactly endeared itself to the traveling public in recent days.

Big hair alert! We know TSA has a thing for hair, but chasing down a passenger after screening to check her coif is unusual, even by TSA standards. But that’s exactly what happened to a passenger in Atlanta. (Memo to TSA: That’s what the screening areas are for. You don’t want to be the agent running through the terminal, shouting, “The lady with the big hair, stop!”)

Working for the TSA can be murder. News that a TSA agent was caught stealing is so routine, it surprises almost no one. Ditto for drug trafficking or other serious but nonviolent crimes. But murder? A top TSA official in Mississippi is in jail in Gulfport charged the killing of colleague, according to reports. Needless to say, this is not good for the agency’s image.

And speaking of thieves …
Who says crime doesn’t pay? A former lead transportation security officer at Newark Liberty International Airport who faced up to 10 years in prison for stealing up to $30,000 from travelers as they passed through security-screening checkpoints, received three years probation and six months of home confinement for his crimes. A federal judge said Al Raimi had been cooperative in the government investigation, which led to several other arrests. In a related story, some TSA agents who failed to check bags in Honolulu were only suspended or allowed to retire after their negligence was uncovered.

So maybe America can be forgiven for wanting to get rid of the TSA. It hasn’t caught a single terrorist, its agents haven’t been on their best behavior and their crimes often go unpunished.

But will the government finally listen to the voice of its own people? And if it does, what should it do?

(Photo of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington by Amber Wiley/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott is the author of Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals. Critics have called it “eye-opening” and “inspiring” — it’ll “grab your attention and won’t let go.” Pre-order your copy now!

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