BY BOB BARR
Much has been said of the ineffectiveness and intrusiveness of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) over the last decade and a half. However, when newspaper headlines start mocking the agency for asking a passenger “Is that a cookie or a bomb?”, it becomes clear that we have a real problem.
To be sure, there is a vital need for pre-flight security. That has never been in question. What has been questioned is the amount of power granted to a single federal agency for performing functions that can, could, and should be undertaken by private agencies under contract with the federal government. At least private contractors could be fired for the troubling behavior demonstrated by the TSA over the years, including beating-bloody passengers with special needs, humiliating teenagers over choice of clothing, and making incredibly rude remarks about passengers – including U.S. Olympians.
Despite numerous incidents of this nature, the TSA is routinely rewarded each year with billions of taxpayer dollars, out of blind deference to the golden calf of “national security.” And now, federal officials are poised to give the agency even more power over you.
Responding to recent terror threats in the same, often ham-fisted and reactionary methods typical of federal agencies in the post 9/11 world, the TSA currently is testing new screening procedures that require passengers to remove food and reading materials from carry-on bags. In addition to demanding that passengers place their shoes, coats, laptops, “liquids,” and any other bulky items in separate bins, new procedures being applied in several airports require passengers to separate out books, magazines, and snacks for extra inspection by TSA agents.
Where today passengers are advised to arrive at their departure airport at least two hours before a scheduled flight, one can only imagine the additional time delays this will create with TSA screenings; though, this should be the least of passengers’ worries. According to TSA officials, screeners may “fan” reading materials while checking for contraband, but promise they are not actually paying attention to what travelers are reading. Never mind that it was revealed only two years ago that TSA’s SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) program employs subjective behavioral markers such as excessive body odor and sweating, for secret scorings to determine if an individual passenger likely is a terrorist. Yet, have no fear — the content of a person’s reading material is completely off-limits. Sure.
Try as they might to convince us of their trustworthiness, nothing in the TSA’s history of gratuitously punitive, if not deliberately petty behavior, leads us to believe this to be true. Rather, what is more likely is that reading material specifically will become the focal point of TSA screeners’ discretion as to whether passengers warrant additional screening. A passenger’s magazines and books will then be subject also to callous remarks from agents; all of which passengers must silently endure. After all, what other recourse do they have when faced with abuse from federal agents – submit or miss your flight, or find yourself facing criminal charges.
Passengers, who long ago should have abandoned hope for even a modicum of privacy or dignity when attempting to fly, must also endure the embarrassment of pulling out their choice of reading for other passengers to see and judge. Ready to fly? You must also be ready for your fellow passengers to know if you are dealing with marriage issues, depression, or a have a predilection for erotica. It will soon be all on display as agents “fan” through your reading material with the restraint and professionalism demonstrated with other luggage items.
To its credit, TSA’s Pre-Check program, in which passengers apply to be vetted before flying and then are allowed expedited screening without all the dehumanizing antics of going through non-Pre-Check screening, is a significant step in the right direction. However, rather than double-down on what has so far been a relatively successful program, TSA fritters away its budget on other highly questionable projects like SPOT, and now what might be called its “Approved Reading Materials Assessment Program” (“ARMAP” for short).
Congress, of course, should step in and undertake serious oversight of TSA, including this latest foray into inspecting an individual’s reading materials. Unfortunately, considering the deference with which the Congress has approached funding TSA year after year, it is unlikely the legislative branch of our federal government will do more now, than issue some stern warnings followed by approving increased funding for yet another year. And the privacy rights of the citizenry – at least those who wish to exercise their right to travel by commercial air carriers – will have suffered another blow in the name of “national security.”
Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Bob Barr, represented Georgia’s 7th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 -2003 and as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia from 1986-1990.