Transportation Insecurity Administration

Over the holiday break many of us took to the friendly skies to return home and see our families. Waiting to board our planes, we are greeted by one of the worst government organizations-the Transportation Security Administration. Created by the maelstrom caused by Sept. 11, 2001, this organization was hastily formed to better screen passengers and help prevent another terrorist attack. Prior to the TSA, airport security was largely handled by poorly trained private contractors. Today, airports are protected by what I find to be poorly trained, federal employees.

In his 2002 standup special, Robin Williams joked about the new agency, saying, “Airport security used to be like, BEEP, ‘Okay, get on the plane. What’s that? Oh, that’s a gun. Okay, get on the plane!’ You could carry a four-inch blade on a plane. That’s about that long. Now, you can’t even take a nail-clipper on a plane.” Now passengers face long lines, racial profiling and unpleasant screeners.

Most people who fly have at least one story of an encounter with airport security. As a person who flies rather frequently, I have several. As I was about to fly home in December, an elderly man behind me in the screening line appeared to be confused and had a question, so he approached one of the TSA screeners. As he approached the screener, he was met with shouts to get back in line, and the man refused to answer his question. Now, it appears that every time one visits the airport, the rules of what can and cannot be brought on have changed: sometimes you can have a sweatshirt on and sometimes not, and if we are wearing flip-flops, do we really have to send them through the conveyor belt?

Personally, I have had an experience with TSA that makes me criticize this mismanaged and ineffective organization that provides the “illusion” of security for our airports. As I approached the gate one day last spring, I looked at my ticket and noticed I was fortunate enough to have been selected for “further screening,” which was indicated by a lot of “S” characters lining the bottom of my ticket. This was my lucky day! When one goes for further screening, they face “The Puffer.” This machine is like a time portal that has doors that lock you in. Instead of being like Doc’s DeLorean in “Back to the Future,” the Puffer will blast air at you and see if any bomb-making materials blow off of your clothing or skin, and, if any are detected, I assume the airport goes on lockdown mode, and you are likely to need a lawyer.

However, on this particular day, the “Puffer” was out of order. Instead of being blasted with air, I was blasted by the incompetence of two highly-trained TSA agents. They went through my carry-on, sent my shoes and belt and watch and phone through the x-ray machine and then thoroughly investigated those items too. But because the Puffer was down, they debated whether I needed to be frisked or “wanded” with their metal detector, or both. For what seemed like an hour but was probably over in a matter of minutes, I stood there, listening to the two decide what they needed to do. I think they decided on the frisk, but as I walked away I realized that this organization is, like most other government agencies, ineffective and probably not doing a whole lot more to protect the skies than was done before 9/11.

But the problems don’t end with me. A Dec. 17 article in the New York Times, “Theater of the Absurd at the TSA,” mentioned how computer science Ph.D. student Christopher Soghoian created a website that could foil the security line so people could generate their own Northwest Airlines boarding pass so they could meet loved ones at the gate. As many people now print their boarding passes from home, his program allowed one to enter his or her name, airport and date so they could pass the grueling ID check to pass through security. An idea not thought of by a terrorist but somebody who is just as fed up with this organization. Well, the TSA likely got tipped off about such a program, and Christopher received “a letter warning of possible felony criminal charges and fines, and ordered him to cease operations, which he promptly did. It was too late, however, to spare his apartment from an F.B.I. raid.” Was Christopher a terrorist and criminal, or just an average American who noticed an easy-to-breach hole in airport security? I would argue the latter, and instead of having charges brought against him, the TSA should thank him for bringing the flaw to their attention.

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