Special Report

Disband the TSA

In nearly a decade it hasn't captured a single terrorist.

By 11.23.10

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It is September 11 that immediately comes to mind when most Americans think of terrorism. Although the 9/11 attacks were indeed horrific terrorism's first big heyday may have been the 1980s.

More than 300 were killed in the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. A U.S. Navy diver was killed during the 1985 Hezbollah hijacking of TWA flight 847. The same year a wheelchair-bound American was killed during a take-over of the Mediterranean cruise ship Achille Lauro.

Using grenades and assault weapons Palestinian gunmen killed 19 and wounded 140 on attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports in late 1985. In 1986, four U.S. citizens were killed by a bombing aboard TWA #840 en route to Athens. Two U.S. servicemen were killed and dozens were injured when a bomb detonated in a West Berlin discotheque in 1986. The bombing of New York-bound Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 killed all 259 passengers and crew and another 11 people on the ground in Lockerbie, England. One-hundred ninety of those killed were American.

In a previous career I was a U.S. intelligence officer stationed in London during the 1980s. I traveled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East. I worked on terrorism and related issues. During that time I was in a small group that had access to a highly classified codeword program focusing on suspected terrorists and terrorism planning. Not a single alleged terrorist planner was ever caught or an anticipated attack thwarted as a result of this program. Yet, that did not stop the sponsors of the program from claiming incredible success.

I am reminded of this as I review of the performance of the Transportation Security Administration. In nearly a decade there is not a single report of a terrorist having been caught during the TSA screening process. No bombs have been discovered. No hijackings have been thwarted. For the TSA to claim it has made the nation's skies safer is as absurd as the rooster taking credit for the sun rising each morning. Observant passengers have caught more terrorist-wannabes than the 67,000 TSA employees.

My low opinion of the TSA is not due to recent events but began soon after the agency was created. The recent spate of reports of TSA officials acting irresponsibly has finally brought the agency much needed scrutiny.

It is long past time to disband the TSA. Replace it with an effective, free market system that actually works.

Critics of the TSA's naked body scanners and intrusive pat-downs (including its genital probing) miss the biggest problem with this agency. It is the TSA's premise that the 89-year old great-grandmother in a walker, the soccer team comprised of 11-year old girls, the two-year old toddler on the family vacation, the airline crewmember and the soldier traveling home from Iraq pose the same potential threat to airline safety as the Middle Eastern man traveling alone, without luggage, on a one-way First Class ticket that was purchased with cash. The TSA is fueled by political correctness run amuck. Its sole accomplishments to date have been establishing a sizable airport presence and humiliating passengers.

For a number of years following 9/11 I regularly flew between Baltimore and Atlanta. I was saddened at the all-too-frequent sight of a soldier dressed in his camouflage uniform on the way to or from his two-week R&R with boots off and the contents of his backpack strewn across the floor as a TSA agent nosed through the belongings to see what potential threat faced other air travelers.

No one has been spared the unwarranted indignities and gross violations of privacy perpetrated by the TSA.

In 2002, then-75 year old Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) was forced to strip down to his underwear because his artificial hip set-off alarms on the magnetometer. The issue is not that Dingell should undergo the same invasive inspections as everyone else. Instead, it is that the 99% of American airline passengers who do not raise meaningful red flags should not be subjected to such invasive inspections. (As an aside, I happen to believe members of Congress pose a greater threat to the American way of life when they are voting than when flying.)

Then-U.S. Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) was asked to produce a picture I.D. at the Washington National Airport security screening area before a 2002 trip. Reagan National is the airport used by nearly every member of Congress when flying. Burns showed the TSA screener his U.S. Senate identification. The official refused to accept the government-issued I.D. but allowed Burns to proceed to his flight when he produced his Sam's Club shopping card as proof of identification.

Retired Brigadier General and former South Dakota Governor Joe Foss nearly lost his Medal of Honor when TSA officials threatened to confiscate it from him during a 2002 screening of his carry-on belongings. Believing the medal could be used as a weapon, the TSA screeners fortunately relented when the 86-year old showed them a photograph of President Franklin Roosevelt presenting the medal to him for his WWII heroics.

In 2003, a U.S. Army medic who was wounded in Afghanistan when he was shot in the jaw was grossly mishandled at San Francisco International Airport. His jaw wired shut, the soldier was given a small pair of wire clippers to use in the event he became air sick in order to keep from choking on his vomit. TSA officials confiscated his wire clippers and he was forced to fly from San Francisco to Texas even though flight attendants informed him there was nothing on board the aircraft to open his jaw in an emergency.

In 2004, a chartered airline flight rotating an Army unit back to the U.S. from an Afghanistan deployment was stranded on the tarmac at San Francisco airport for hours during a layover. The troops were not permitted to deplane to purchase food and drink nor to use the bathroom. TSA officials ruled the soldiers posed a threat to airport security because the unit's weapons were stored in the cargo hold of the aircraft.

This quarantine of troops returning from combat is not isolated. A planeload of servicemen were detained at nearby Oakland airport on their last layover while en route Hawaii in 2007 after departing Kuwait a day earlier. In spite of having all baggage x-rayed and hand-searched before boarding their aircraft in southwest Asia, the troops were ordered by TSA to deplane near an outdoor baggage handling area if they wanted to stretch their legs. TSA prohibited them from entering the terminal as they posed a threat to airport safety. Troops returning from Vietnam may have been spat upon but at least they were permitted to visit the snack bar and men's room.

Last year a retired assistant police chief who observed she had been chosen for additional screening with uncanny regularity during her frequent travels asked a TSA screener why it appeared so many women had been selected for secondary screening on that particular day. The answer, said the screener, was that cross-gender pat-downs were not permitted and on that TSA shift there was a shortage of male screeners so women were singled-out for further scrutiny.

One commercial airline pilot confided his frustration at continually being subjected to x-ray screenings and pat-downs. He told me that in the first 1500 feet of elevation after take-off and the last 1500 feet before touch-down that no other crewmember in the cockpit could prevent him from using the jetliner as the ultimate weapon if he wanted to fly the aircraft into the ground. "I'm in complete control and no one can stop me."

Another commercial pilot who is a licensed Federal Flight Deck Officer and is permitted to carry a sidearm onboard his aircraft reports that half of the time after checking in with the TSA he is whisked through security. The rest of the time he is instructed to place his weapon in his carry-on bag and run it through the x-ray machine to determine if he possesses any objects that might pose a threat in flight. It is as if the script writers on Saturday Night Live are making up the rules.

It is not as if the TSA is a highly professional workforce merely following asinine rules. In 2003, TSA baggage screeners at La Guardia airport were given the answers in advance of their certification exam to ensure an appropriate number of screeners were cleared to work.

The General Accountability Office issued a critical report earlier this year regarding TSA's Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program. The GAO found the SPOT program was not based on scientifically validated "methodology and work methods" and "it lacks outcome-oriented measures to evaluate the program's progress toward reaching its goals." In spite of spending $1.2 billion on SPOT over the next five years the program will accomplish nothing with respect to airport security.

Calling it a "bloated, ineffective bureaucracy," Congressman John Mica (R-FL) reported that under the watchful eye of the TSA, at least 17 known terrorists evaded screeners and traveled on 23 occasions from eight U.S. airports utilizing SPOT methodologies. Among these was the failed Times Square bomber who was apprehended just prior to boarding his flight to Dubai. Meanwhile, TSA screeners continue to poke, grope and fondle longtime airline crewmembers who are merely trying to do their job.

Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that "at least 23" TSA workers have been fired since 2007 for stealing from passengers. There are numerous reports of TSA workers having also been fired for drug use, perpetrating pranks on passengers and other misbehavior. From a numerical standpoint, more TSA employees than terrorists have been caught who pose a threat to Americans.

The rash of reports of TSA officials humiliating passengers and overstepping the bounds of common decency underscore the agency is indeed broken. One surmises it is only a matter of time before it is discovered that naked body scanner operators are swapping graphic images of runway models and other attractive people who are forced to enter the voyeurs' playground.

In 2003, a colleague filed a FOIA request with TSA requesting a copy of its security screening policies. According to multiple sources with access to such information, federal workers and the military traveling on official business are disproportionately singled-out for increased security screening. This is accomplished by coding airline tickets procured through government travel offices. The reason, according to the sources, is to pad secondary inspection numbers by relying on federal employees who are judged to be less likely to file complaints. Another source claimed the elderly are singled out for secondary inspection for the very same reason. The TSA denied the FOIA request.

Obviously U.S. airports require a competent security screening program. Two programs offer a model. Anyone who has crossed from Tijuana into California at the busiest border crossing in the world has witnessed U.S. border agents who observe, profile and question the public in order to narrow the field to those who legitimately require secondary inspection.

The same is true of the system at Tel Aviv Airport. Airline security officials in Israel are not required to be politically correct and give the third degree to a Danish school teacher on holiday for every Palestinian they further scrutinize. Israel's El Al Airlines has had a rather impressive security record and it does not rely on humiliating elderly widows or terrorizing toddlers.

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About the Author
Mark Hyman hosts "Behind the Headlines," a commentary program for Sinclair Broadcast Group. You can follow him on Twitter at @markhyman.