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Fred Gevalt Headshot

Good Luck to Obama's Prospective TSA Chief -- Heʼll Need It.

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This past week, President Obama, with two false starts already under his belt, finally nominated a guy who actually has half a chance of passing muster with the Senate for TSA Administrator -- John Pistole, current deputy administrator of FBI. Mr. Pistole will have his work cut out for him. If appointed, he will have stepped out of an agency with at least some definitive roles, rules, and work flow into a new environment altogether. He will have descended into the make believe super agency that in Please Remove Your Shoes is best described by one interviewee in the first person plural imperative: "Letʼs Play Cop." He will have to come to terms with fallacious strategies that are probably too far established to change, staffing, budget, and practices that are grotesquely excessive, (as well as jealously guarded) and the new overtures of unions towards his 50,000 people. He will be defending the past and current activities of a majority who just need a job, managed by a checkered minority that have survived through measured applications of nepotism, willful insubordination, treachery, deceit, bureaucratic "Omerta," contempt of congress, and mistreatment and abuse of subordinates. (Have I forgotten anything?)

Personally, I find the most offensive thing about our boys and girls in blue (TSA) is the way they seem to thrive on fear. This is certainly what trickles down to to the lower ranks at the airport. Understanding that this varies from "customer to customer," weʼve had testimony from people who have reported everything from the acid drip of anxiety to outright physical shakes as they approach the crowd control ribbon and stanchion barriers at the security checkpoint. So much for the land of the free and the home of the brave, because itʼs certainly true that without the possibility of fear, 9/11 wouldnʼt have happened, and Congress certainly wouldnʼt have spent $8 Billion per year of our hard earned dollars to pay someone to look in a suitcase.

In many cases weʼre nervous of the screeners at the checkpoint for reasons that have more to do with class warfare than security. It shouldnʼt be a surprise that TSA screeners have disproportionate numbers of minorities, disadvantaged, and lower income within their ranks. TSA pays better than their private counterparts did before, but they still donʼt pay the salaries of the average traveler. Being a screener is not a fabulous job: low pay, tough hours, hostility from passengers, hostility from managers. Why wouldnʼt they want to intimidate us all? A reaction from the downtrodden against the shoeless, the circumstances lend a whole new irony to the role of footwear in this process, and serve to verify suspicions of TSAʼs reputed motto: "TSA......weʼre not happy ʻtil youʼre not happy!"

Horror stories abound: children poked and groped against their will (federal screening practices on children would comfortably meet state statutory definitions of child molestation), parents separated from kids during secondary screening. Medicines, food, prostheses, and even body piercings forcibly removed from travelers by these agents of the Federal Government. Since theyʼre not actually empowered to make arrests when things get rough, they depend on the frustrated, insecure reactions of the local and state police. TSA has little understanding of constitutional and statutory law, nor the police of administrative law. What a partnership. Since 9/11 they have waylaid, arrested, beaten, handcuffed, (and in one tragic case inadvertently strangled) droves of Americans who, though not models of behavior, were basically just trying to get from A to B.

Emotions range far and wide in this checkpoint maelstrom that TSA itself has dubbed "the pit." Visions of missed flights and worries about whether youʼll ever see your wallet, wristwatch, or key chain again are enough to make you flunk the first grade "behavioral detection" routine that TSA has spent $212 million to instill upon certain screeners literally looking for trouble. It starts with a question and answer session from a screener visibly less hostile than the rest: "Good morning. Are you flying somewhere today?" You: "Ummmmmh, I hope so." Scoreboard: over 150,000 "suspicious" passengers stopped to date, 1,100 arrested, and not one "bad guy" found, despite the recent GAO finding that 16 known terrorists have slipped through the system without getting caught. Nevertheless, TSA has its tin cup in hand and is looking for $235 million more for next year for behavior detection. Is Congress afraid to say no?

Finally, of all the "layers" of security, intelligence is arguably the most important. So given his background, maybe Mr. Pistole can help redesign a part of the process that might actually keep our problems from getting to the airport in the first place, but the airport portion of the current charade is going to be a challenge. The best solution might be a Martini at the concourse bar, but Mr. Pistole, if you have any thoughts, feel free, ʻcause weʼre not having much fun out here. Good luck. We really do wish you all the best.

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