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If there is one overarching problem with TSA - and we've said this more than once - it's that the agency tries to prevent yesterday's attack tomorrow, and so obnoxiously inconveniences travelers to stop plots that have already happened. That doesn't have anything to do with this post. It's just something we like to repeat.
But if there's another deep-seated institutional problem with the TSA, it's that when the agency is in trouble, which is often, its officials will do damage control by just making things up. Take the fallout from the PDF idiocy, or the controversy over back-scatter machine limitations, or the entire debate over unionization, or the Detroit racial profiling case. All of these are places where the TSA tried to sell the public on explanations that were either false, contradictory, incoherent - and in most cases some combination of the three.
Politics Travel / Travel Politics / Travel News / TSA / Washington DC / Washington DC Travel / → All Tags
The United States federal government has shut down precisely 17 times since 1976, as various elements of the Legislative and Executive branches - which the Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, set in opposition to each other - failed to agree on various measures necessary to keep the government operating. This time around, our elected representatives are fighting over Obamacare. If they don't hammer out something in the next few hours, the government will shut down and only so-called "essential" personnel will be allowed to continue working.
Before you ask why the federal government uses taxpayer money to pay employees who aren't essential, please know that (1) the joke has been made dozens of times in the last few hours on Twitter and (2) if there's a shutdown, they're going to close the gates at the DC Zoo and turn off the pandacam. Not so libertarian now, are we?
Something is not quite right with this story, about the dozens and dozens of TSA employees who were disciplined for participating in what the agency describes as a gambling ring at Pittsburgh International Airport. Five people are set to be fired, 47 people might get suspended, and another 10 got reprimand letters. Some quick back-of-the-napkin calculations indicate that about 20% of TSA employees at PIT are caught up in this mess.
And that's where things begin get muddy.
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Just for the record: yes, we know that quirky airport security stories about weapons confiscations are often a result of TSA's press outreach strategy. We've actually written about how it works. TSA officials want Americans to think that people are trying to bring weapons on board airplanes - because how else are they going to justify their existence - and it's hard to get national reporters interested in one-off stories. So you end up with a bunch of articles in city and state-based outlets that describe city and state-based incidents.
But that doesn't mean that some of the stories aren't genuinely fun. Take this local Baltimore story about BWI workers discovering that a woman was trying to smuggle a pink stun gun on an airplane. Just the visual is kind of giggle-worthy, which is probably how it ended up jumping into national blogs. Well done, TSA PR.
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This week, America observed the 12th Anniversary of September 11 and, as with every passing year, reflecting back on that autumn day still means a somber sadness. This year, one Jaunted contributor took to the skies on September 11, boarding three different planes in three different airports while heading overseas. These are his observations.
· First flight: Delta Connection from Cody, Wyoming to Salt Lake City
This is a small regional airport where there is only one security lane and a grand total of two different flights per day. Check-in was as per normal, but the security line was a bit longer and slower than we're used to seeing. We can't be too sure if this is due to a temporary uptick in traveler numbers or a more vigilant TSA staff for the day.
We first saw this story bubbling up through social media outlets and airport security forums, and we just assumed it was fake. To believe it happened you'd have to believe that people who smuggle nuclear materials across continents and oceans are idiots, and that doesn't seem like a reasonable assumption, now does it? And yet here we are, with documents on The Smoking Gun pretty much proving exactly that.
A year and a half ago, give or take, undercover Homeland Security officials posted ads on a Chinese e-commerce site where they pretended to be Iranian and asked someone to deliver them raw uranium. The West has been trying to stop Iran from acquiring such materialsknown as yellowcakesince it can be enriched and used in bomb-making.
So this was kind of a clever, clever trapone that would work 99% of the time if reality was a Looney Tunes cartoon, but is less likely to succeed in our universe. To make things even better, they would ask sellers to deliver samples to the United States, because that's the only thing that could throw up more red flags.
What do you think happened next?
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We've written more than once that, when it comes to security policies, TSA is damned if they do and damned if they don't. When they scale back their security restrictions, they get slammed for endangering Americans. When they diversify how they approach security, they get blasted for inefficiency.
We've also repeatedly discussed real problems with the politics around how the agency is funded. No one wants to be the politician who cuts off funding for the agency, because that's the politician who will get tagged for the next terror attack. But no one wants to propose increasing the TSA's funding, because in Washington "funding" equals "approval," and politicians prefer to grandstand by criticizing the agency. So we end up with an underfunded agency facing criticism for cutting corners.
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Remember TSA's VIPR program? This is the one that allows TSA agents to go beyond airportsand into places like bus and train stationsand do the same thing to travelers there that they do in airports. That means, very explicitly, that they're allowed to engage in so-called "suspicionless searches" of travelers just because those travelers are... well... traveling.
The objection to the VIPR program is that it sounds very much illegal. Cops can't search citizens just because those citizens are standing close to where a train might soon be. And yet not only are federal agents doing exactly that, butand this is why the program is back in the newsthey're adding new locations for VIPR teams to monitor.
Jaunted Contributor Will McGough has tapped his toe in many a conga line created by the TSA and, despite all the wasted time, has refused to buy into any "fast pass" programs. Here's why:
You're all no doubt familiar with how frustrating the tax-dollar-funded TSA Security Checkpoints can be, especially when returning to the States and funneling through customs. As a result of the TSA's inefficiency, both with customs and security screening in general, many "side businesses" have popped up to allow people to be pre-screened and bypass the lines. These programs, such as Global Entry and Clear, are user-funded, meaning that the individual traveler pays extra for the privilege.
On the surface and in practice, these programs seem like slam dunks for frequent flyers. I mean, why wait in line when there are other options? Why not spend the $20 a year for Global Entry and bypass the peasants waiting in line? Really, it's a no-brainer, right? Well, allow me to present the other side of the coin, a perspective no one seems to be talking about.
Sometimes there are travel journalism stories that aren't unusual or complicated, let alone fun or enlightening. Very little work is needed from our end to unpack them, and very little work from your end is needed to understand them. They just very straightforwardly are what they are.
As an example, take the report pulished yesterday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO is the government's investigative arm, and it was asked to evaluate the number and type of misconduct cases among TSA workers. In 2010 there were 2,691 cases. In 2012 there were 3,408 cases. That's an increase - and we didn't do the math ourselves, we're relying on USA Today for the grade school arithmetic - of 32% over two years.
What a tangled little story this is. It begins with a strange but seemingly confirmed story about how TSA agents are now searching valet-parked cars parked at airports.
We write "strange" because, well, that's a very new thing TSA would be doing. You'd think they would have told have told someone in advance. Yet it's also "seemingly confirmed" because a local news station in New York went to Greater Rochester International Airport, where the car searches occurred, and found a bunch of evidence.
TSA has a press strategy - and we've discussed it before - which isn't very sophisticated but still somehow makes sense in a caveman sort of way. The agency wants American citizens to know that there are people out there trying to carry dangerous weapons onto airplanes. Fair enough. So their media outreach goal has been to show American citizens that there are people out there trying to carry dangerous weapons onto airplanes. See what we meant about not being very sophisticated?
Traditionally the agency has settled for very straightforward press outreach. Every time someone got caught carrying a knife or a gun or a cane with an effing sword in it through security, TSA would reach out to reporters to try to get a story written. That's why if you type in "TSA" on Google News, you'll get a bunch of local outlets writing one-off stories about weapons found in airports.