When Susan Verbeeck attended a rally for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney with her two daughters and a friend at the Virginia State Fairgrounds in Doswell, Va., earlier this month, she didn't expect to be greeted by TSA agents.
But that's exactly what she found blocking the entrance to the fair: a row of metal-detectors staffed by uniformed TSA agents.
"We're accustomed to the TSA at airports when we travel," she says. "But now it seems they are ubiquitous. I understand that the presidential candidates need security, but wasn't the TSA originally formed for airport security?"
Well, that was the idea. But a look at TSA's mission statement, which isn't limited to air travel, means the agency could try to "protect" you anytime you set foot outside your home.
When Verbeeck's friend was selected for a special screening, and agents started wanding him, she began snapping photos.
"An agent walked up to me waving his arm at me and told me, 'No picture-taking allowed!,'" she remembers.
She complied -- but sent me the images.
The TSA has repeatedly insisted that passengers are allowed to take photos at a checkpoint, as long as it doesn't interfere with the screening. Perhaps the agent patting down her friend didn't get that memo.
But so what?
I mean, stories about the TSA's disregard for the law and its problematic mission creep are hardly new. The agency wants the money for 37 new teams of VIPR screeners like the ones who screened Verbeek and her family, at a cost to taxpayers of $100 million a year. (VIPR stands for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response team, one of the most unfortunate acronyms ever used by the federal government.)
That's not where the story ends, though.
"As Romney was speaking about the effects and efforts of Hurricane Sandy, a man in the crowd suddenly pulled out a handmade fabric banner that read 'End Climate Silence' and yelled out to Romney that 'climate change caused Sandy,'" she recalls. "The heckler was escorted out and he continued to yell on his way out the door."
"I guess the TSA did not notice his sign," she adds.
The conspiracy theorists among us might connect a few dots here. I'll do the heavy lifting for you. Have a look at the Democratic and Republican platforms and pay attention to the campaign rhetoric and you'll see that only one party -- the Republicans -- presented any kind of threat to the agency's status quo. Romney's party had adopted a platform that included TSA reform, and it supported privatizing large parts of the agency.
But the TSA doesn't want to be reformed.
Last week, it ratified a union contract, which many observers believed would never happen. As an institution, it wants to expand, not be reined in and privatized.
(Disclosure: I didn't vote for either of the major candidates, for what it's worth.)
What would you do if you were assigned to screen supporters of a party that you knew presented a threat to your job security? If you answered: harass them, fail to properly screen them and indirectly allow the candidate to be heckled, then congratulations -- here's your tin foil hat and your very own copy of "The X-Files: The Complete Collector's Edition."
Did the TSA cost the Republicans the presidency? In such a close presidential election, anything could have swayed the electorate. But I think it's safe to say the agency didn't exactly help.
More to the point, the TSA doesn't belong at political rallies. Anyone familiar with the history of totalitarianism in the 20th century understands the danger of having an amorphous, paramilitary security organization with an open-ended mission.
The next time you catch a uniformed agent outside a terminal, take a picture and send it to me with a short explanation of the circumstances. I'll publish it. If enough Americans see this nonsense, maybe it will end.
Then again, maybe not.
Follow Christopher Elliott on Twitter: www.twitter.com/elliottdotorg