Are new warning and tracking systems enough to make us forget about TSA agents’ misdeeds?

by Christopher Elliott on April 27, 2011

It’s been a “good news” kind of week for observers of our nation’s security apparatus. At least that’s how the government is spinning it.

But there’s plenty of bad news for travelers, too. More on that in a minute.

On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security announced it had scrapped the color-coded terrorism alerts and was moving to a more “robust” two-tiered system called the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS).

The feds also issued a helpful guide (PDF) that explains NTAS. It’s an interesting read. It promises to only issue alerts “when credible information is available” and to include “a clear statement that there is an imminent threat or elevated threat.”

The implication, of course, is that under the previous system, there was sometimes no imminent threat and the warnings were vague. The guide also contains DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s favorite saying, which gives a lot of travelers the creeps: the Orwellian, “If you see something, say something.”

The TSA also had some good news of its own, if you can call it that. On Friday, it announced that it will offer a tracking number for every email and phone call, which will allow travelers to “follow-up on their security concerns if necessary,” according to the agency. The system was a requirement of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007.

My first reaction to the news was: They don’t already do this?

No wonder people aren’t hearing back from the TSA. The agency has no meaningful way to follow up with them. Let’s hope this fixes the problem.

There was plenty of bad news to counterbalance those two developments.

TSA agent charged for distributing child pornography
A passenger screener at Philadelphia International Airport was charged with distributing more than 100 images of child pornography via Facebook, according to court records. Federal agents also alleged that Transportation Safety Administration Officer Thomas Gordon Jr. of Philadelphia, who routinely searched airline passengers, uploaded explicit pictures of young girls to an Internet site on which he also posted a photograph of himself in his TSA uniform, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

TSA agent admits theft
Dawn Nikole Keka, a former TSA agent at Kona International Airport in Hawaii, last week pled guilty to one count of theft in Honolulu District Court for stealing $200 from an undercover agent. The sting operation took place on the morning of March 11 after Japanese tourists complained to the TSA about missing money from their carry-on bags, according to FOX affiliate KHON.

Tri-Rail riders get the once-over in South Florida
After the Amtrak fiasco earlier this year, we though TSA would lay low on what it calls the “Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response Operation” or VIPR. But there they were last week at the West Palm Beach Tri-Rail station, scanning and patting down commuters. Was there a credible threat to Tri-Rail? No. TSA says it wants to help detect and deter any suspicious or dangerous activity in various modes of transportation. Does this mean they’re setting up checkpoints on I-95 next?

All in all, an interesting week. I’m not sure if the “good” news from TSA and DHS eclipses the other news.

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  • Hapgood

    I haven’t seen how Blogger Bob is spinning the “good news” about the tracking numbers (while blowing smoke over the latest misconduct). But it’s apparently a tacit admission that the TSA bureaucracy has addressed passenger concerns by casting them into a black hole.

    The tracking number SHOULD bring a glimmer of badly-needed accountability to the TSA. But whether it actually does remains to be seen. Blogger Bob constantly reminds us that we can never know what action (if any) they take when a passenger complains about a specific screener. TSA employees apparently enjoy an absolute and inviolate right to privacy even when they commit egregious offenses. So unless the offense is such an egregious criminal violation that it can’t be hidden behind the TSA’s shroud of secrecy, the tracking number would do nothing to close that loop and hold screeners accountable.

    And of course, the TSA’s operating procedures are all necessarily secret. So any changes (or not) to those procedures as a result of passenger concerns would also be secret. Again, the tracking number would do nothing to assure that the TSA actually responded to the concern (other than by ignoring it). Some might consider it an improvement if someone submitting a question about the status of a tracking number received a reply of “We can’t tell you because of privacy or national security restrictions” rather than no reply at all. But it still wouldn’t provide any real accountability.

    Given the TSA’s fetish for secrecy, and their complete disregard for what the public thinks of them (as affirmed by John Pistole himself), I would expect the tracking number to be nothing more than “customer relations theatre,” and just another thing that disappears into the black hole. I could be wrong about this expectation, but the TSA’s history makes it the most probable scenario.

  • Karen C.

    Found this quote by Henry David Thoreau when I was looking up another quote: “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”
    Thought it would be a good saying to use when explaining to the TSA agents (and the TSA bureaucracy or your representatives) why I won’t be a “sheeple” and go through the scanners or allow the pat-down without complaining loudly (which I’ve been told can get me fined). Do wish more people would just say “NO.”

  • Hapgood

    The theft in Hawaii is a public relations disaster that can’t be spun away.

    The TSA demands that we relinquish control and sight of our valuables before undergoing the strip search scan and/or pat down. They have no interest in either safeguarding our belongings or helping us to safeguard them. This is a perfect environment for theft, possibly including identity theft if a wallet or passport is stolen. And now we have to be afraid that this crime could be perpetrated by TSA screeners themeslves while they’re distracting us with their hands down our trousers. Given the TSA’s secrecy and lack of accountability, could this reported incident merely be the tip of the iceberg?

    The risk to passengers’ valuables and identity papers is the most serious problem with the “enhanced security.” It’s far more serious than the endlessly discussed problems with privacy, radiation, and humiliation. But the TSA has thus far ignored it, probably because the people at Headquarters who devised the procedures never considered it. This reported theft should be a wake up call to suspend the strip searches they’ve satisfactorily addressed this flaw.

    But they’ll probably just insist that Dawn Nikole Keka was a single “bad apple” who has been dismissed and prosecuted, so the problem has been solved and there’s really nothing to worry about.

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