Friday, June 03, 2011
The Looming Showdown for the TSA (Oh, and TSA: Have You Met ACORN?)
I fully understand that the TSA screens about a million and a half passengers a day, and does so with professionalism and courtesy. For the most part.
On the other hand, the TSA is carrying a lot of baggage, and it's my guess that the agency is headed for a showdown in Washington and in the states, as complaints about these infernal body patdowns pile up along with all the other public misgivings about the agency, which range from excessive costs (about $8 billion a year) and the routine arbitrary and capricious invocations of "laws" that may or may not even exist.
The agency especially needs to get its act together on the latter. For example, what is the law about a citizen making making video of TSA agents who, arguably, might be seen to be overstepping their boundaries?
Who says you can't film them? Where does it say so? What is the reason, if so? If you're so proud of your professionalism, as you may well be, what's your problem with having the public see you do your jobs?
In this video, which is getting around this morning on the Internet, a woman at the Phoenix airport is obviously upset at a TSA checkpoint where she has just been patted down.
O.K. -- watch the video. For most reasonable people, their first reaction is likely to be: Whoa, this lady is hysterical. She is overreacting. What the hell is wrong with her behaving like this?
But here's your real problem, TSA at Phoenix. Why didn't you just calm the lady down, deal with the problem -- and move on?
But nooooo. Instead, the TSA agents on the scene turn their attention to a man who seems to be the woman's adult son, who is using his cellphone or a camera to record the incident. For whatever reason. And I would not rule out the possibility that some people are deliberately creating, or at least exploiting, checkpoint incidents to aid and abet the growing public sentiment demanding that the TSA be replaced by private security firms hired by airports (TSA, have you met ACORN? They, too, starred on a guerrilla form of "Candid Camera").
The TSA agents fix on the man taking pictures and, true to form, begin acting like small-town cops. And speaking of small-town cops, along comes some hump who works for Southwest Airlines. Suddenly, he's Officer Krupke, but without the badge and the legal authority (and the chorus singing to him in "West Side Story")
As the distraught woman shrieks ridiculously, while standing as ordered at the patdown area, the following, instead, becomes the narrative we focus on:
Man with camera insists that TSA agents, and then the bossy Southwest Airlines guy, tell him what authority they have to order him not to record the scene. Here's some excerpted dialogue:
"Put the camera down!"
"It's against regulations!"
"Escort him out for noncompliance!"
"I don't have to show you the law. We're here to carry out the law!"
Man with camera: "It's a public area."
"You do not have my permission to film me!"
Man with camera: "Then walk away."
This goes on, making security look more and more silly, until what appears to be an actual police officer enters the picture. The police officer, as cops are trained to do, assesses the situation, evidently determines that there is no danger, and then tries to calm things down -- without threats. The cop, obviously, knows or at least supposes that there is no "law" against using a camera.
The cop behaves professionally. The TSA people who take it upon themselves to demand that the man put the camera down behave like security guards at the post-party of a Lady Gaga concert. The Southwest guy behaves even worse, given that he's just some airline hump.
This does not help, TSA. And Southwest: You are developing a reputation -- once those smiley faces disappear, it can become Guatemala on your turf, really fast.
The TSA needs to get its house in order here. What, specifically, is the law, or the rule you seek to enforce, about taking pictures? Where, specifically, do you assert that rule applies?
TSA rules are often haphazard. For example, you need to restrict carry-on liquids and gels to 3.4 ounce containers that fit into a one-quart zip bag. O.K., I get it, I get it. But then, there are exemptions, like for those with medical reasons and even "cosmetic" reasons -- including gel-filled bras and gel-filled cushions for your butt.
I'm not suggesting a crackdown on those with medical and/or cosmetic needs, but what's the rationale here -- aside from the need to assuage medical lobbying and various organized political interests? What makes sense here?
Speaking of political interests, as we all know, various state legislatures are proposing a crackdown against the TSA's hated patdowns, and in Texas a bill was introduced in the state house of representatives that would apply criminal law to TSA agents in cases where patdowns are deemed to constitute sexual groping.
The TSA scoffs at this, citing the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents states from contravening federal law. And also, let us never forget the sainted columnist Molly Ivins' observation that "every time the Texas Legislature is in session, some village is missing its idiot."
Nevertheless, there's a storm brewing on the TSA (whose boss, and his boss at Homeland Security, usually travel by private jets, which allows them to avoid the TSA, like all private jet passengers). I hope the agency gets a handle on it with something other than blandishments from "Blogger Bob" on its Web site.
This morning, the House Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica will release an investigative report that, the committee says (with a disturbing neglect of basic grammar) "discloses the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) ignores skyrocketing passenger screening costs in all-federal screening model, and dismisses benefits of the model utilizing private contact screeners."
Grammar aside, read that as a further movement to support privatization of airport security.
The committee's press release adds, "This report will refute the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA’s) prior claims that screening under the private-federal model is more costly than the all-federal model.
"In creating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) after September 11, I2001, Congress provided in law the option for airports to 'opt out' and use private security screeners under TSA standards, supervision and oversight as an alternative to all-federal screening. Earlier this year, TSA pulled the plug on allowing more airports to opt out, citing cost concerns."
Mica will again call for the TSA to be required to allow airports to opt out and hire ... rent-a-cops. You know, like the ones who were on duty in Boston on September 11, 2001.