What do you really know about the TSA?

Hey babe, you on the no-fly list? / Photo by Drewski 2112 - Flickr
When it comes to the TSA, you may know less than you think.

I was reminded of that last week when I heard from Sergei Shevchuk, a reader who was flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Delta Air Lines.

“I was pleasantly surprised when an officer advised me not to take out my laptop and liquids and to keep my shoes and jacket on,” he told me. “They said they’ve been doing it for a week or two. Do you know anything about this?”

Well, yes. It sounded a lot like the TSA’s new PreCheck program, which allows certain “trusted” travelers to use an express lane at the airport. Only, Sevchuk says he never applied for PreCheck.

I put the question to Sterling Payne over at the TSA. Look closer, she told me. Sevchuk may have opted into the program without knowing it. “I would suggest he check his Delta [frequent flier] profile to see if he is opted in,” says Payne.

He did. And sure enough, under Sevchuk’s SkyMiles profile, there was a little check box with the following disclaimer:

By checking this box, you consent to Delta storing your Secure Flight Passenger Data consistent with our privacy policy.

For Delta SkyMiles members, by checking this box, you also consent to Delta Air Lines, Inc. sharing your information with TSA to be considered for modified screening at select TSA checkpoints.

The takeaway? You may have applied for PreCheck without even knowing it. Careful which buttons you check online.

It was that kind of week, actually; a week in which I kept saying that when it comes to the TSA, maybe we don’t really know what we think we do.

Take the sequel to the underwear bomber, for example. Not long after the story broke about a foiled plot to blow up a Western airliner by al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, agency apologists began citing it as a reason for keeping the TSA and its objectionable scans and pat-downs.

“Last week’s revelation that terrorists tried — yet again — to blow up an airplane using a bomb sewn into underwear should remind fliers why the pat-downs and scans are necessary,” wrote one New York Post commentator. “If this seems intrusive, it’s only because the madmen are depraved.”

But hang on. Turns out the would-be suicide bomber wasn’t depraved — he was a double agent.

Absolutely nothing wrong with trying to write a story headlined, “In defense of the TSA,” but maybe we should wait until the TSA actually catches a real terrorist before trying to make that case.

But it cuts both ways. Consider what happened when an 18-month-old girl was ordered off a JetBlue flight from Palm Beach, Fla., to New York after she was thought to be on the “no-fly” list of suspected terrorists. All fingers pointed to an inept TSA for suggesting that the toddler could be a jihadist bomber.

Appearances can be deceiving, though. It turns out JetBlue had erroneously flagged the little girl in its system, which it called a computer “glitch.”

The incident raises a bothersome question that JetBlue has yet to answer, but which my colleague Deborah Tornello succinctly put to the airline in an open letter.

“How does it work that someone who has a boarding pass and is already boarded, and seated, magically appears in a ‘computer glitch’ that results in having paying customers yanked from a plane, put on display (TSA, local police, you name it, were all waiting) and humiliated, this way?,” she wondered.

What say you, JetBlue?

Of course, if you read columns like this one, you’d think the TSA is installing its invasive scanning machines at a maddening clip. That’s the conventional wisdom. But Congressional investigators last week revealed that’s not necessarily true.

A report released by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and Committee on Oversight and Government Reform concluded the TSA is wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars by “inefficiently deploying” screening equipment and technology to commercial airports.

That may be a nice way of saying it. When investigators showed up at a TSA warehouse in Dallas earlier this year, they observed approximately 5,700 pieces of security equipment being “held” at the site. In other words, they were collecting dust.

When it comes to the TSA, maybe we know a lot less than we think we know. I’ll be the first to admit that: the agency’s ways are mysterious, even to folks who work for it. I know a few people who do, as a matter of fact.

Question is, do we know enough? Even with these inconsistencies and contradictions, do we have enough information to do what many say is necessary now: To either reform this troubled federal agency or defund it?

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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  • Raven_Altosk

    How about posing questions about the TSA and airline behavior to the presidential candidates?

    As a frequent traveler, I would be interested in hearing what they have to say about us little people being groped, harassed, and treated worse than cattle on the way to slaughter.

  • Daizymae

    Yes, we have sufficient information to see that TSA is a completely incompetent abusive money sucking boondoggle run by a gang of criminals who constantly flout the law, the Constitution, the Congress, and the American people. There’s only one possible action to take: DISBAND TSA NOW!

    The second action must be to put John Pistole and Janet Napolitano on trial for crimes against humanity.

  • Elmo Clarity

    In regards to the foiled underwear bomb plot, it has also been reported that the bomb would have likely make it past the pat down.  Also, the detection of the plot was not by the TSA, but by the intelligence agencies of several countries.  If we are going to spend billions on an agency to stop the terrorists, lets spend it on the agencies that have shown results like the FBI and CIA.

    I also find it interesting that all of these attempts have originated outside the US.  Maybe we should send the TSA over to the other countries  to screen at those airports instead if they think they are doing such a great job here.

  • SoBeSparky

    It is easy and simplistic to be in the opposition.  Always has been.

    Since the wave of plane hijackings to Cuba almost 45 years ago it is clear airplane security is essential.  The failures with the hijackings on 9/11/01 brought on a slew of legislation restricting the freedoms of Americans, including authorization of the TSA.  

    Cockpits are more secure now, while suicide bombers seem eager to take down airplanes in the name of a jihad.

    At least once a week, sometimes more often, this blog and related commentary and columns continue to badmouth the TSA,  Yet, what are the alternatives?  Privately contracted rent-a-cops clearly are not.  So all you TSA nihilists, what gives?

  • Parisfox

     Those “other” countries probably wouldn’t let them in.  Seems like we are becoming the dumbest country in the world.

  • Parisfox

    Securing the cockpits was a good idea. 
    Bomb-sniffing dogs and proper scanning of luggage is a good idea. 
    Profiling would make sense….just as it does in any crime.  If a white
    man robs a store, law enforcement doesn’t search every person (white, black, Hispanic, Asian) in the area.  They look for someone who “fits the profile.”  How many 90 year old women have been “caught” trying to blow up a plane?  Show some responsibility and use a little common sense.  Those x-ray scanners are known to be dangerous.

  • Parisfox

    Sorry….double posted.

  • writenow

    Good work here.  Was stunned by voters thinking we have enough info on TSA. What a sinking feeling that generated. Possible good news….yesterday and via Twitter @Airattorney, Gerald Sterns tweeted SAC had applied to opt out of TSA in favor of private contractors. There are about 16 larger airports already contracting for private screening.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Real law enforcement individuals. Not high school dropouts. Have you ever flown through ATL? I’m not even sure those clowns working for the TSA can spell “TSA”

  • TonyA_says

    When I go to jury duty or visit my State Attorney’s office (in the court house), I go through a similar line like TSA’s (without the scanner). They are manned by marshals. I think the same is true for Fed offices. So, how can they do that – use higher paid people to do searches?

  • cjr001

    Alternatives have been given so many times that I refuse to type them out again. Should you chose to stop being lazy, you can find them yourself.

  • cjr001

    We’ve got more than enough information on TSA, and we’ve had it for years.

    TSA will not stop a terrorist. It’s only purpose is security theater; to put on a front while doing nothing more than harassing innocents under the guise of safety.

    Every day that TSA exists and does what it does is another day that the terrorists win.

  • http://profiles.google.com/bmgraham Barry Graham

    Maybe it’s just Delta. It was obvious as a Platinum AA customer when I was opting in.  I don’t see anything bad about this.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Wish I could like this one a few hundred more times.  As far as Pistole and Napolitano, the crimes against humanity trial wouldn’t take NEAR as long as the civil rights violations they are guilty of.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Who IS this person?  It’s not TSA Bob, is it?

  • judyserienagy

    Enough information?  How naive!  WE will never have enough information to form opinions on a federally-mandated agency.  The American people are rarely given enough information on anything the feds are involved with. 

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

    The only smart investments we can make now are in law enforcement and intelligence to detect plots before they reach the airports, just as in our only success stories to date, the 2006 liquids plot which was foiled by police work and this newest underwear bomb which seems to have been uncovered by intelligence work.  By contrast, our failure to stop Umar Farouk, the would-be Christmas day underwear bomber, is entirely a failure of intelligence, since his dad reported his terrorist plans in rich detail to the authorities a few months *before* the incident.  

    The only thing you need at airports are walkthrough metal detectors and baggage X-rays, to catch the truly stupid or clumsy bad guys.  Sophisticated bad guys won’t be stopped by the TSA at the checkpoint.  In fact, they probably won’t even go through the checkpoint.  Sophisticated bad guys will bribe screeners to take “drugs” or bombs around the checkpoint, or get jobs working on the tarmac where there is absolutely no security force and where TSA has admitted it doesn’t bother to conduct background checks on those airport workers (Atlanta). 

    Now, do you care to defend again the practice of ritualized sexual assault as enjoyed by the TSA today?  Get these filthy monsters out of our pants, and that will save lives because as it is people are choosing to drive to avoid getting their genitals groped and driving is by far a more dangerous mode of travel.  Honestly, do some homework before you come on here and post.

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

    Here’s one aspect of TSA that we have almost no information about: how effective are they?  What percentage of hidden weapons do they find in red team tests?   And we have this interesting exchange:

    “Just yesterday,” Mr. Issa began, “Janet Napolitano — Secretary Napolitano — said there is a high likelihood that Advanced Imaging Technology would have detected the new sophisticated underwear bomb used in the recent or attempted to be used in the recent plot in Yemen. Do you agree that there is a high likelihood that advanced imaging would have caught the new bomb?” he asked an auditor who had worked on an examination of the T.S.A.

    “That’s a very interesting question,” said Stephen Lord, the director of homeland security and justice issues for the Government Accountability Office. “I would have great difficulty answering that in open sessions, Sir.  We’ve done a classified report.”

    Mr. Issa said: “We’ll take that and I’m going to predict that it’s going to be no, they couldn’t. But the actual answer will remain classified.”

    In fact, all the available information we have points to the TSA being dramatically ineffective for all the waste and cost and pain they inflict on innocent people.  We have knives, box cutters, 18-inch razor blades, loaded guns, C4, and more being discovered on airplanes after they all pass unimpeded through airport security.  We have Jon Corbett posting a how-to video proving he can sneak metal objects through a body scanner undetected (and you can too!)  We have people with access to the classified reports on effectiveness of body scanners sounding the alarm about what they can’t find.  We have peer-reviewed research documenting that explosives molded into biologically plausible shapes can’t be detected by body scanners.  We know non-metallic items hidden in the mouth or body cavities are undetectable.  We can see gaping holes in the security apparatus – if body scanners are so incredibly important, why are they trivially avoidable by booking tickets from checkpoints that don’t have scanners?  The whole thing is transparently ridiculous.   The TSA emperor truly has no clothes.

  • scapel

    I am in favor of the TSA concentrating on who is flying rahter than on what is flying.They still need to watch what is getting on the ariplane, but seem to be not as concerned with who is getting on.

  • Raven_Altosk

    When I served jury duty, they gave us access to lockers to secure our weapons before walking through the metal detectors.

    But then, this is Texas.

  • Daizymae

    That’s because the question is worded vaguely. As it is currently worded, a person who hates TSA could answer either way according to how they understand the question.

    I’m assuming from your post that you oppose TSA. If I misunderstood, I apologize. I voted yes and I despise the TSA with every fiber of my being. You can read my post above to see why I voted yes.

    Usually Chris words the question in a very black and white manner so it’s easy to see why people vote the way they do. This time I don’t think it’s quite that clear.

  • Daizymae

    Yep, that jaybird is nekkid as a new born babe!

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    everyone knows that the TSA is a massive joke.

    It doesn’t do anything but inconvenience people & costs zillions (where does all the money go ? )

    The TSA doesn’t keep unwatreds out of USA, they just come in another way, thru very leaky borders.

    The amazing thing is that Americans put up with it.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    some may argue that the quote,

    “Last week’s revelation that terrorists tried — yet again — to blow up an airplane using a bomb sewn into underwear should remind fliers why the pat-downs and scans are necessary”

    are myths invented by TSA to justify their very existence.

    Anyone, even poor peasants, can cross into the USA from Mexico. It’s not much harder from Canada & if you’re organised & have money, you can charter a plane & fly in, land on some deserted airstrip & if you really want to make some money, fill plane with drugs 1st.

  • Oline Wright

    We know that the invasive pat downs are contrary to fourth amendment rights and that they are taking this type of treatment out of just Airlines to Buses and trains and even high-ways impeding the rights of citizens to travel.

  • Extramail

    Couldn’t agree more.

  • Extramail

    It’s only purpose is to allow the government to say they have added jobs because it keeps creating new agenciesthathave to be staffed and it doesn’t matter who applies so long as they have a job to fill.

  • Guest

    Lets say they do replace TSA with LEO’s? Americans are going to bitch about them too. That’s all we know how to do is bitch about everything and complain.The rules aren’t that hard now, imagine LEO’s rules and regulations.

  • Guest

    Usually it’s the Airport’s job to do the background checks not the TSA….and even If TSA was replaced by good old Law Enforcement, their pat down and gropes are going to be worse. People are going to complain regardless of who is doing security.

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

    And we are going to keep complaining until these monstrous thugs, no matter who pays them their dirty money, learn to take out their sexual aggressions on appropriate targets like plastic playmate dolls and their right hands.  I have no intention of being the porn star for some fat masturbator in the back room, nor will I allow a complete stranger to shove her hands up into my vagina.  Get these perverts away.  Do you see the line, TSA?  There it is.  And you’ve crossed it.  Don’t expect any peace until you stop molesting children and adults.

  • Guest

    You sound like a complete idiot. Your one of those people who believes everything you hear on the news. First off I’ve worked for TSA for 5 years. No, im not a drop out idiot, cop wanna be, or molester. Second, TSA Officers do not shove anything up ANYONES vagina. Are you nuts? Nobody mastubates in the back room. Don’t try to make everyone look bad at TSA because you don’t know what the hell your talking about.

  • Guest


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

    I don’t care what your motivation is or isn’t, Guest.  You take cash to rub the sex organs of minors.  That makes you a child molester and I think you deserve to rot in jail for it.

    I was sexually assaulted by a TSA screener who penetrated me with a metal detecting wand, so don’t you dare tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about.  I lived it.  I was violently attacked by a TSA thug and I still have nightmares and flashbacks.

  • Die_BankofAmerica_Phukking_Die

    Soon these $7-an-hour retards will be fisting your kids before they cross the street to go to school. These people are psychopaths and sniff each others’ fingers after they crotch-grab your wives. You should see the stuff they do on coffee breaks. It’s sick and they should be disbanded.