It’s been more than a decade since the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems.
Almost from the beginning, a small group of activists have kept a vigilant eye on the agency. When TSA agents pilfered your luggage, they spoke up. When the blueshirts forced us through inadequately tested scanners, they said something. When agents treated us like prison inmates, they fired up their laptop computers and they wrote.
Today, those watchdogs — and I include myself in the group — are at a crossroads. Some of our closest supporters are gently advising us to give it a rest. They say our relentless criticism of an agency that is just trying to protect us makes us look shrill and unreasonable.
Besides, every dog needs a break.
I know that’s true. I had an opportunity to take my sons, ages 8 and 10, dogsledding a few weeks ago in Lake Louise, Canada. Our two lead dogs, Linus and Sally, reminded me of the friends I’ve worked with who are united by a concern about the TSA. They want to move forward no matter what.
Our guide told us his dogs would keep running despite their injuries.
But if you’re racing sled dogs, you know that’s impossible. You have to give the huskies a break and feed them. A sled dog can consume between 10,000 and 12,000 calories per day. If you don’t stop every few hours to allow them to recover, your team will get run down and lose the race.
What do the TSA’s watchdogs want?
If you rewind to 2010, when the agency began secretly installing poorly tested body scanners in America’s airports, and then forcing passengers to use them or face a prison-style pat-down, the watchdogs have a lot to be proud of. Thanks to their advocacy, the TSA quickly abandoned its “one-size-fits-all” approach to aviation security.
Today, a select few passengers don’t have to subject themselves to an invasive scan or a humiliating pat-down because the watchdogs said something — even as others insisted that this was the price we had to pay for keeping America’s skies safe. Yet a majority of passengers must still be screened in a way that critics claim is unconstitutional.
We’re not there yet
Here’s what the watchdogs want:
Decommission all full-body scanners. The technology is unproven and potentially dangerous. The expense can’t be justified to the American taxpayer.
Fix the screening process. Every airline passenger should be checked in a way that is non-invasive, doesn’t involve harmful radiation, and respects their civil rights and the U.S. Constitution. We know the current system doesn’t do that. Let’s find something that does.
Kill VIPR. The TSA’s Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response team, which patrols roads, NFL games, and political conventions, needs to be shuttered now. No one asked for these ad hoc teams of TSA agents, and no one will miss them.
Restructure the agency. The TSA needs to trim its $8-billion-a-year budget by eliminating a vast layer of ineffective middle management and reducing the size of its force, which is often referred to as “Thousands Standing Around.”
Retrain TSA’s workforce. Frontline TSA agents like to see themselves as the last line of defense against terrorism. They aren’t. Rather, they are the face of the federal government, and at the moment, it’s not a good one. Agents need basic customer-service training, and they need to be aware of the civil rights and disabilities concerns of passengers.
The TSA’s critics have a vision of what the agency could be: rather than the paramilitary organization that strikes fear in the hearts of law-abiding Americans, an agency focused on excellent customer service that helps Americans travel safer.
I’ve seen glimpses of this organization from time to time when I fly. It is the TSA agent who smiles and helps an elderly passenger in a wheelchair through the screening area instead of barking at her. It is the more common sense security line afforded to TSA Pre-Check passengers and airline crewmembers.
And I think: It could be this way for all of us. It should be.
When it is, this watchdog will rest.
Update (5 p.m.): I should have known better than to fly on the same day one of these columns posts. Let’s just say today’s trip from Denver to Reno could have gone better.
A stone-faced TSA agent tried to force me through a scanner, which would have separated me from the rest of my family. I politely opted out of the machine.
My screener, Officer Johnson (I’m not making this up — that’s his real name) was, um, very enthusiastic. He nearly succeeded in pulling down my pants twice.
In fact, all of the agents at the screening area seemed happy to see me patted down. I asked my son to take pictures of the event. Yes, that expression on my face is one of annoyance. What are these characters protecting us from, again?