What’s wrong with the TSA?

urbanlight / Shutterstock.com
urbanlight / Shutterstock.com
If airport security is so good, why do passengers feel so bad?

That’s a valid question, considering how the Transportation Security Administration seems to be spinning its performance lately. The agency wants you to believe the dark days of body scans and pat-downs, of liquids, gels and shoes obediently placed on the conveyor belt, are well on their way out, thanks to its vaunted new Pre-check system. And remember, there have been no successful terrorist attacks since the agency’s creation, it would hasten to add.

So why aren’t we buying it? Why are lawmakers such as Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., threatening to introduce legislation that would force TSA agents to mind their manners?

The answer may be simple: Airport security is not that good. Pre-check is a mess. The agency assigned to protect America’s air transportation systems is still ineffective, say critics. The TSA’s messaging, far from reassuring, is leaving some passengers uneasy about aviation security.

Take Pre-check. Recently at Orlando International Airport, a TSA agent informed me I’d been “randomly” awarded Pre-check privileges. Another agent waved me through a short line, where I left on my shoes, kept my laptop in my carry-on, and walked through the metal detector. Seconds later, I was on the other side of the security line, and if I wasn’t an instant fan of the TSA, I was at least hooked on Pre-check.

But hang on. Wasn’t everyone screened like this about a decade ago? Back then, we didn’t have to pay anything extra for it, as most Pre-check passengers do now. And if ever there was a time to give me a thorough screening, this was it. I’d bought my one-way ticket to Newark only a few hours before I left, and my travel agent had misspelled my name. All of those should have set off alarms.

The preferred lines aren’t necessarily better, as Naomi Shapiro, who works for a technology company in Austin, discovered recently. She qualified for Pre-check because of her elite status in a frequent-flier program, but on a recent flight, she discovered the benefits were questionable.

“Although I kept my shoes on, they gave me a more onerous check than when I pass through the regular line,” she says.

There’s still too much about security that just doesn’t make sense. Phil Flad, a sales manager for a cruise line in Alpharetta, Ga., doesn’t understand why TSA has bins labeled “water,” “alcohol” and “peroxide.”

“If they know what those liquids are, why are they confiscating them?” he wonders. “I didn’t see a bin labeled ‘liquid explosive — sure to bring down the plane.’ And if they believed my Dasani really fell in that category, would they just casually toss it into a bin called ‘water’?”

The TSA imposed a liquid and gel ban after a bombing plot was foiled in 2006. The current system allows small amounts of liquids, gels and aerosols and sorts the banned liquids in bins, “after conducting extensive research.”

Travelers are unconvinced — and unimpressed. It’s the way the TSA goes about “protecting” us that bothers them.

“The TSA is massively rude by design, direction and leadership,” says David Southard, a retired manager for a tech company who lives in Houston. “Its incompetence could be forgiven if they were nice about it. Obviously, being rude prevents terrorism.”

It doesn’t help that the TSA keeps monkeying around with the flying public. Literally. Can anyone forget the recent case of Phyllis May and her sock monkey, Rooster Monkburn, who made the mistake of bringing a tiny toy pistol through security in St. Louis? You guessed it: An eagle-eyed TSA agent responded to the threat. “She took my monkey’s gun,” May told a Seattle TV station. Once again, the agency became the butt of jokes.

The TSA’s deeds aren’t the only cause for concern. So are its words. It goes beyond the orders barked at innocent air travelers. Observers have noted that the TSA’s blog, in which it touts its weekly weapons confiscations and defends its often indefensible actions, has been slow to approve comments, if it does at all. On its YouTube page, the TSA doesn’t allow any kind of commenting. Perhaps that’s because its latest videos, such as the “stop, screen, go” cartoon aimed at kids, smacks of propaganda to some agency-watchers. The effect is that passengers feel lied to.

Has the TSA stopped a second 9/11? If so, there is no proof. Fact is, Pre-check is just a bandage on a gaping wound that’s hemorrhaging taxpayer money. It’s a halfhearted attempt to take a step back from the false choice of a scan or pat-down. It complicates an already incomprehensible security process and distracts from the fact that the TSA needs to be reformed — if not eliminated.

What should we do about the TSA?

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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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  • Cybrsk8r

    WOW! This is a pretty courageous story considering it’s tax season. Chris, wanna make a side bet on whether you get audited this year?

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I’ve already been audited. It’s a pain, but it’s survivable.

  • Justin

    Christopher Elliott

    “And remember, there have been no successful terrorist attacks since the agency’s creation, it would hasten to add”

    I’ve also been given a magic rock that wards off Tigers. I’ve never seen a Tiger so my rock clearly works…..What a Loss Leader Argument by the TSA.

    Here’s a better one… L.A. Airport Shooting. Committed by a “terrorist” with anti government sentiment. The TSA (unarmed rent-a-security) were powerless until the real police intervened. So in case of a real terrorist attack… Fill in the blanks. – Don’t call the TSA.

  • Thetine

    I got “selected” for pre-check along with a group of other passengers on my last domestic flight. I looked at the lady next to me and said, “It’s like I’m flying in 1998!” We both laughed, but it made me think…Why can’t this be the standard for everyone?

  • frostysnowman

    What’s wrong with the TSA? Where do I start? Unwarranted, unnecessary and demeaning scans and pat-downs that do nothing to stop scary terrorists, all while the TSA pats itself on the back and brags about how many guns they find every month. Anyone who complains is told the TSA always follows proper procedure, so if they stuck their hand inside your pants (or anything similarly invasive), it’s completely OK. Meanwhile, the terrorist attacks that are being thwarted are done so by law enforcement outside of the airport. PreCheck should be the standard for screening, not the exception.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    PreCheck is just 2001- early 2002 security which NO ONE COMPLAINED about…other than the long lines (boy, who knew what was coming?!). It’s simple – RETURN all Americans to the reasonable security before unconstitutional scanners and criminal touching pat downs. Keep shoes on and toiletries stay in carry-ons. Of course, passengers who would feel unsafe don’t have to fly………….as they often tell us about the current unreasonable security procedures.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    It was and it should be again. If you were ‘randomly’ selected, then obviously the more stringent security screening is not needed since anyone might randomly bypass it.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Christopher, I’m happy to see you writing about the TSA again. This is just too important a topic to avoid so as not to tick off the sheeple.

    Anyone with a working brain cell knows that it’s nothing but useless theater…and the most expensive theater in the world at that. It still blows my mind every time I hear someone say they are happy to let these Walmart rejects paw their privates if it “keeps their plane from being blown up”. The utter lack of logic is just mindboggling.

    Wake up, sheeple! The TSA does absolutely nothing to improve our safety. Airport security needs to be placed back in the hands of the airports and airlines…the organizations with an actual financial incentive to a) keep their airports and airplanes safe, and b) do so without terrorizing and abusing their customers. The TSA does not have this incentive. Their only incentive is to foment fear among the American people so they can keep upping their budget and stealing our tax dollars for what amounts to a jobs program for uneducated unemployables.

  • Extramail

    Ans, giving lots of people government jobs. What a colossal waste of money!

  • JimDavisHouston

    When it comes to confiscating items, people just don’t understand the process. TSA employees are not the “Cream Of The Crop”, so to speak. Some banned items are obviously safe, but the screeners are not capable of using discretion. People who can’t think for themselves have to follow the book with no tolerance. I believe they all carry cards to remind them to use toilet paper and wash their hands when finished.

  • Miami510

    When individuals know they are not a terrorist, and are accustomed
    to the unique individual freedoms we have had in this country, it is natural to
    take umbrage to the slightest intrusion on those freedoms.

    From the other side of the issue, someone charged with
    public safety can make only one mistake that can be devastating; hence they
    naturally error on the side of caution. (On flights to Sochi last week, no
    liquids… no matter how small… were permitted on flights).

    We’ve all read postings on this subject where people are OUTRAGED at the thought that someone in another room is looking at a silhouette of their body and might find it funny or salacious. Well, I sorry for your feelings, Mrs. Prude,
    but I’ve read the huge number of weapons, including loaded firearms, that were
    confiscated, and I’m glad they weren’t allowed on my plane.

    When you read about the nut cases that are permitted to buy and own firearms, I’m glad those people are not sitting on the same plane as I am. Do I object to the time all this security takes? Of course I am… but my anger is directed against the Islamic fundamentalists… where the blame rests.

  • Justin

    How many foreign attacks have their been on the U.S?

    World Trade center
    Boston Marathon (Home Brew) but ok….

    How Many Domestic Attacks have been perpetrated on America by Americans:
    School Shootings en masse
    Oklahoma City
    Work Place Shootings
    L.A. Airport Shooting
    etc, etc, etc
    Domestic terrorism is more a threat than anyone from overseas.. Just saying bud.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    You’re asking the wrong questions. What’s right with the TSA ? Answer nothing.

    Does it actually do ANYTHING AT ALL for security ? No, just scares away tourists the USA desperately needs.

  • LeeAnneClark

    And here we have a perfect example of the sheeple mentality I referred to in my earlier comment. And yet again I find myself gobsmacked by the utter lack of logic.

    Let me ask you, Miami510: Do you actually believe that any of the “huge number” of weapons/firearms confiscated by the TSA were going to be used to take down a plane? REALLY? You think that the TSA actually stopped a terrorist attack by confiscating these items? So they took the weapon, but let the terrorist on board, right? Because you realize, I assume, that all they did was take the weapon. Not one of the passengers carrying those weapons was arrested, or even prevented from flying, or that would have been reported as well (and there have been no such reports – just the TSA’s weekly roundup of technician’s tools, plastic guns, and inert hand grenades).

    Did it really never occur to you that NOT ONE of those passengers was actually a terrorist?

    What they were, in fact, were mostly just gun enthusiasts who forgot they left their gun in their bag. Or they’re morons who wanted to carry their weapon with them on vacation to Aunt Mag’s to do some target shooting, and thought they could sneak it through. Or they were field technicians carrying sharp tools who forgot to put them in their checked bag. Or scuba divers who forgot they’d left their dive knife in their carry on.

    What they were NOT were terrorists. Because if there were any terrorists actually trying to attack Americans at the airport, why on earth would they try to get on a plane with an item that would likely get confiscated, thereby foiling their brilliant plan to kill mass numbers of infidels? Do you think terrorists put so little thought into their dastardly plots that they believe they can carry a gun onboard? Wouldn’t it make a whole lot more sense for the terrorist to just waltz up to a line at the TSA checkpoint filled with hundreds of passengers all crammed together in winding rows, manned by a dozen lazy TSA oafs standing around, and just…blow hisself to smithereens with a bomb vest? He could take out HUNDREDS of evil infidels in one fell swoop, and not even have to get his junk touched!

    Why hasn’t that happened? Because there ARE no terrorists plotting to blow up planes in the US. Because our nation has REAL security experts who stop any such ideas long before the whackos get to the airport. Because any actual terrorists interested in attacking Americans wouldn’t bother with planes anymore. There are far easier targets that don’t have all the obstacles: malls, sporting events, buses, trains. Marathons. Why would a terrorist bother with a plane these days?

    But I realize that logic doesn’t compute for sheeple. You’re too busy believing all the tripe the TSA is feeding you about scawy tewwowists, until you are actually THANKING the uneducated, ill-trained Walmart reject who shoves his hands down your pants and steals your iPad out of your carry-on.

    Sheeple logic always cracks me up. And then it makes me sad.

  • Daddydo

    There is screening all over the world. Until you have gone through an Israelii screening, you have no idea of thoroughness. Don’t bend over. The general complaint with TSA is inconsistancy. They need to re-group and re-think this procedure. From Spain to England, Germany, and Mexico this past year. Not one single rude person in the bunch. Friendly and courteous was all that I saw. Oh wait! There were very few “entitled” Americans in line. Do you think that maybe we are the ones causing the problems? Too rich to wait, too many frequent flier miles to be bothered with the procedure. Maybe we are the ones needing fixing.

  • random_observation_source

    While I agree with you and many others in principle on the TSA’s effectiveness (or lack there of), I have to say that the hyperbole and the constant belittling makes you just as extreme as those willingly and happily handing over all their personal freedoms for the sake of the appearance of security before every flight.
    As someone who missed the DC sniper by 15 minutes at the Home Depot parking lot, who was less than a quarter mile from the Pentagon on 9/11 and who had close family blocks away from WTC that same day, I really do believe that “scawy tewwowists” are out there. I also believe, as I assume that you do, that dollar for dollar, investing in intelligence and law enforcements does more for preventing attacks than investing in additional un-armed bodies milling around the airport in the name of security. (I also know that I’m far more likely to die by getting hit by a car as I walk home in an attempt to stave off the heart disease that’s killed most of the rest of my family than I am to be killed by terrorism, but that’s another story :) )
    However, we all need to keep in mind that these “sheeple” and “uneducated ill-trained Walmart rejects”, as well as the “molestors” and “pedophiles” you call them in other articles, have the same voting rights as we do. Constantly insulting them, while sometimes entertaining, doesn’t help the cause. It only makes it harder to convince them that the same congress people that keep renewing and increasing TSA funding don’t need their votes at the next election.
    (hopping off the soapbox now)

  • LeeAnneClark

    Interesting response.

    First of all, do I really need to point out to you that you are by no means the only person with a direct personal connection to terrorist attacks? I lost a first cousin in the North Tower. I also have a close friend who is a runner, and missed getting injured in the Boston Marathon bombings by mere feet. So I am well aware that terrorists exist. I never suggested that they don’t.

    But clearly they exist in far smaller numbers than the TSA would have us believe, with all of their fear tactics. It requires only the slightest modicum of logic to recognize that if our nation was so riddled with mass-murder-minded extremists, we would be seeing a whole lot more actual attacks than we are, on targets that are a whole lot more effective, and accessible, than airplanes. If there are so many terrorists running around our streets that people are willing to submit their genitalia to groping every time they board a plane in order to avoid them, why are there so few actual incidents?

    The truth is that it is simply impossible to completely protect against such attacks. That’s just a fact. If some rage-filled nutjob wants to take out a bunch of innocent civilians, all he has to do is walk into any crowded mall, sporting event, or bus and blow himself up. Just look how easy it was for the Boston bombers to wreak their havoc. What we all have to accept is that there *is* no way to prevent this, short of turning our nation into a horrific police state. There would have to be a TSA checkpoint at every doorway. We would have to endure cavity checks every time we left our house.

    I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t want to live in a place like that. With the personal freedoms we treasure here in America come the risks of living in a free society. Life involves risks. If someone is not okay with that, they really should just not go outside.

    And of course the most ironic part about this is that the risk of being involved in a terrorist attack on an airplane is so infinitesimally small as to be almost immeasurable. The types of risks that have an exponentially greater likelihood include getting hit by lightning, dying in your bathtub, dying from food poisoning. Heck, you are 87 times more likely to drown than die in a terrorist attack. You are 9 times more likely to choke to death on your own vomit, and 8 times more likely to die from accidental electrocution. And most ironic of all: you are 11,000 times more likely to die in a plain old ordinary airplane crash than from a terrorist plot involving an airplane! And yet people are still willing to submit themselves to the most disgusting assault on their bodies and belongings, and pay 8 BILLION dollars of our tax money every year to guard against a risk that is so small it’s almost impossible to measure.

    Meanwhile we’re still getting in our bathtubs without expecting the government to post bathtub monitors…even though we are far more likely to die there than in a terrorist attack.

    Yes, I am in total agreement with you that our investment in intelligence and law enforcement to stop terrorism before it ever gets to the airport is far more effective than anything the TSA does at the airport. I’m glad you see that. I just wish that all Americans could see how mind-bogglingly ineffective the TSA really is, and would speak up to STOP THE ABUSE.

    As for my “constant belittling” of the TSA, sorry but after getting full-on sexually molested not once by TWICE by brutish TSA screeners, and watching my elderly disabled mother be terrorized, assaulted and publicly humiliated, they have lost all rights to being referred to as anything but what they are: uneducated, ill-trained bullies. They assaulted me. What was done to me is, according to the FBI’s definition, rape. So pardon me if I choose not to show any respect towards them. They sure as hell didn’t show any respect to me when they shoved their gloved thumbs up my vagina, and rubbed their hands all over my mother’s breasts mere weeks after her cancer surgery. They deserve every insult we can fling at them.