TSA Watch: Looking back, this agency was its own worst enemy

Sometimes, the TSA can be its own worst enemy.

Consider what it said about itself last week, while other federal agencies were touting their 2011 accomplishments.

TSA came out with a lighthearted list of the Top 10 Good Catches of 2011 (sample: “Snakes, turtles, and birds were found at Miami (MIA) and Los Angeles (LAX). I’m just happy there weren’t any lions, tigers, and bears…”) The release looked like the perfect Huffington Post slideshow, which, alas, it eventually became.

What’s the problem with that?

Well, with no other official statement from the agency about its 2011 achievements, we’re left to conclude that these “top 10 good catches” represent the agency’s biggest accomplishments of the year.

That’s right. Confiscating illegal pets, inert explosives, martial arts weapons, flare guns and various firearms — that’s what this $8.1 billion agency did for you in 2011.

I’m sure they’ll throw in the corny jokes for free.

In fairness to the TSA, it could have compiled a more serious list that highlighted the fact that there have been no 9/11 repeats (that’s the agency’s standard claim to fame) or talked about enhancing privacy or taking care of passengers with special needs. But that’s not my job, and on second thought, they probably knew better than to brag about those things, because they’ve already drawn enough criticism. Why add to it?

Still, TSA’s on a roll. Just before the weekend, it decided to publish yet another funny list of confiscations. This one included various knives, firearms and a speargun.

And so we, America’s flying public, are left to wonder if the removal of our contraband is the TSA’s single greatest accomplishment.

The kneejerk response from the average traveler is “of course” — no one should be flying with a dangerous weapon. But how quickly we forget that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by terrorists carrying items that were permitted on board, and technically not classified as weapons.

The real question we should be asking ourselves is: Would any of these dangerous items that TSA agents took away from passengers have been used in a terrorist attack? And that, in turn, points us to yet another important question: Is the TSA looking for the wrong thing?

As I review these lists, I notice a glaring omission. As a passenger and a taxpayer funding this enormous agency, I want to hear about how the TSA kept America’s transportation systems safer, not about how many weapons it confiscated.

The world is a dangerous place. TSA could set up one of its controversial VIPR roadside checkpoints, as it did a few weeks ago in Sarasota, Fla., and simply remove all the contraband it can find. But that would only make travel safer if it could show that the throwing stars and inert explosives would have been used in a terrorist attack. (And don’t even get me started on the legal problems these car searches present — that’s a topic for another time.)

I would have loved to hear about how the TSA thwarted just one act of terrorism — which, you’ll recall, was the reason screeners were federalized in the first place — but I didn’t, and I suspect it can’t say that. Is it unreasonable of us to expect the TSA to look for terrorists instead of just taking away weapons?

Incidentally, these humorous blog posts weren’t the TSA’s only public statements during the holidays. On Dec. 29, a day when no one is paying attention to anything the federal government does, the agency said it wanted to buy radiation-detection equipment for its scanners. (Here’s the official document, called a Request for Information.)

I guess the agency, which has insisted that its scanners are completely safe, is having doubts. Gee, it might have been nice to test the scanners before it started deploying them in our airports.

The TSA sent us several confusing messages during the holidays. It suggested its crowning achievement in 2011 was confiscating weapons we’d accidentally packed in our carry-on luggage, but not necessarily keeping America’s transportation systems safer. And it second-guessed its own statements about the safety of its scanners by ordering radiation-detection equipment.

Like I said, sometimes the TSA is its own worst enemy.

(PHoto: piki mota/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Asiansm Dan

    Detecting the terrorists and preventing terrorist acts usually must be under an ONE INTELLIGENCE STRUCTURE. Unfortunately, USA have 2 separate structures, CIA and FBI, for internal and international responsibilities (don’t talk about the competition between them). Instead of making a reorganization to unify and streaming information, the government create TSA as a patch solution instead go to he correction of the root is the problem of information processing and circulation.
    The TSA do the wrong things because of the boss/leadership have done the wrong decision. I don’t blame TSA, I blame more the people who create the agency and waste the money for disputable result and the root of the problem or the 9/11 act is still there… intelligence information not circulate full and fast enough.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Paraphrasing Mary McCarthy about Lillian Hellman, “everything this agency says is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

  • cjr001

    Somebody needs to put together a list of TSA’s ACTUAL achievements. It would include:

    Wasting billions of dollars,
    Catching zero terrorists,
    Humiliating and sexually assaulting countless passengers via gropes and pornoscans,
    Employing who knows how many thieves and rapists,
    And being perhaps the single most despised government agency.

  • Nancy Marine Dickinson

    And the government could help with this by not letting people on airplanes entering the US after the person’s father contacts the US and TELLS them his son has plans to perform acts of terrorism.

    Oh, wait…

  • ClareClare

    Great piece, Chris, thanks.  You say “don’t get me started on the legal problems… that’s a topic for another time,” to which I reply, YES, please, do address it another time!  I for one would certainly like to know what is happening in the courts with suits against the TSA!  As an American living abroad, I find myself in a bizarre situation as I can fly back INTO the US without any problems (presumably?) from TSA, but then I won’t be able to get OUT again without having to deal with these goons–and since I’m not going to risk being raped in order to board my return flight, I’m effectively trapped overseas until the TSA is dismantled (or until I return home to the States for good, on a one-way ticket).  I’d been assuming that this unconstitutional insanity would have been stopped by the courts (or the Congress) long ago already, and am flabbergasted to see that the TSA continues to exist.  Where are the legal checks and balances that should be in play in an abusive situation like this one?  Our other branches of govt seem strangely silent…

  • http://www.talestoldfromtheroad.com/ Dick Jordan

    After reading your post, Chris, it occurs to me that the average traveler (and even “in-the-know” travel writers such as yourself) really lack sufficient facts to judge how effective TSA has been in making air travel safer.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Clare, take a look at EPIC’s abundant information on this.  They’re only one of the organizations and people pursuing lawsuits:



    Also take a look at Travel Underground, where several of our members are also embroiled in lawsuits:

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Dick Jordan,


    Those of us who’ve been studying and writing about this abusive agency for years know exactly what’s going on.  We’ve amassed — and presented — repeatedly — tons of facts: empirical evidence, statistical analysis, risk assessment, historical precedent, security expert testimony, logic.  None of it makes a bit of difference to TSA apologists.

  • http://twitter.com/ClaireWalter ClaireWalter

    Hear! Hear!

  • NotThatBrooklynGuy

    TSA motto: “Distracting American citizens from hating IRS employees for over ten years.

  • gritchie

    Wow. I guess I haven’t been paying enough attention. I’m shocked to hear about the VIPR roadside checkpoints. I support the TSA’s screening of air, train, and bus passengers, but car drivers? Just for heading into an airport?? I don’t think so. If they’re driving onto a ferry, sure, but otherwise…

    Now THIS is something to raise hell about. Readers… please click on the ‘as it did a few weeks ago in Sarasota, Fla’ link above. Random roadside checks are bullshit, but don’t count on the Courts to protect you. When they rolled over and allowed random roadside sobriety checks, I knew all was lost, but at least you can click the link, read the article, and demand every last one of your rights. :-(  


  • IWonder39

    I’m guessing, from a quick scan, that 99.9% of these items are found in check-through baggage, NOT on a person themselves. Yes, there are some and should have been caught with the magnetic scanners. I see 1, and only 1, that resulted from a pat-down (but no reason given why the pat-down was held – did the passenger set off the magnetic sensor). Why, then, the radiation, millimeter, and random pat-downs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    More on the subject of TSA being its own worst enemy: TSA’s incompetent bullying of foreign governments is on the verge of creating yet another international incident between India and the U.S.  Great article here: http://www.indianexpress.com/news/ministry-objects-to-armtwisting-by-us-aviation-body/897499/

    Calling this “interference in the internal
    matters of India”, Secretary, Civil Aviation, Nasim Zaidi, wrote to
    Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai in October requesting him to take up the
    matter with the US authorities to “avoid any diplomatic impasse”.

  • Daisiemae

    Thank you for constantly being informed on this subject. You always do your research, and I greatly appreciate your articles.

  • cjr001

    “Our other branches of govt seem strangely silent…”

    The courts are not interested, and both Congress & the White House were too busy expanding the abuse with the 2011 NDAA.

  • cjr001

    It’s breaking news that Feds have arrested a 25-year-old man in Florida for a terrorist plot after a sting.Guess who STILL hasn’t stopped any terrorist plots?

  • naoma

    UGH.  I am stopped by these TSA people on all my flights — and I take a LOT OF FLIGHTS.  REMOVE THAT COAT –“it is a dress!!!!!” Why are you wearing 2 watches????  “I travel through several time zones.”  And on and on.  ugh!!!

  • RoadWeary

    As I have oft replied to such posts in the past, the
    real problem is the TSA is not hiring the right people with the right training.
    They require only a high school GED and acceptable English as requirements for
    applying for a position.  The pay is so
    very low they are actually competing with McDonalds’ and Burger King for
    employees.  Don’t forget about the
    article that appeared about the screeners who were fired after a fist fight
    broke out because a TSA screener consistently taunted another screener about
    the size of his (well, you know) after they saw it on the screen from the new
    scanners.  It was then I realized that
    the TSA has some bona fide idiots working there and, more importantly they get
    a much better view of you naked that we have all been lead to believe.  As a frequent traveler I loathe going through
    the circus side show to get on a plane. I loathe subjecting my daughter to what
    is essentially a naked search and feel that it accomplishes little.  They are not even finding what they need to
    find – 12 inch blades from the Myth Buster guy, lotions creams and gels I’ve
    accidentally forgotten in my purse, pocket knives etc…  A pen or sock full of coins are also weapons –
    do we have to surrender our socks and writing instruments next?   I believe that highly trained psychological
    screeners would do a better job, cause less distress and ultimately better
    thwart real threats.  Octogenarians in
    diapers and cupcakes are not the real threat.