TSA incompetence at nation’s busiest airport

In the wake of (yet another) recent barrage of news stories reporting the TSA groping children and elderly couples, smuggling drugs, assaulting Congressmen, and causing their own security breaches, a related story on TSA background checks — or lack thereof — went relatively unnoticed.

The report revealed that the TSA had a mounting backlog of background check requests for airport workers at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson (ATL) airport. Instead of assigning the necessary resources to do these checks, the TSA instead quietly gave permission for unchecked workers to operate in the sacrosanct “sterile” portion of the airport.

When this latest scandal was exposed, TSA hastily issued a statement denying that security is jeopardized by having unscreened workers accessing the “sterile” area. In typical doublespeak, the TSA said that it only supplied interim regulatory relief, meaning it’s hiring people without completed background checks.

It is a statistical certainty that there are now workers freely accessing the airside portion of the terminal who will be found to have criminal records and be denied clearance, even though they will have operated there for months or more. So while children, grandmothers, and even legislators are routinely molested in the name of “assuring our safety,” TSA’s own mismanagement, coupled with pressure from vendors, is apparently ample justification to allow anyone hired off the street to work at Cinnabon or Starbucks to bypass security — unless of course, they intend to board a flight that day.

As recently as October 2011 ATL was implicated in another security scandal when a local television station investigation uncovered security breaches occurring there daily. These involved unsealed catering carts waiting to be loaded onto planes that could be used to smuggle contraband or explosives.

In other words, while TSA agents are busy sticking their hands down your pants, they’re letting all sorts of other stuff go by unchecked.

Expectedly, the TSA has resorted to worn propaganda statements, denying that these omissions constituted security breaches. When Congress demanded answers from TSA Administrator John Pistole, he promised to “look into” it, only to later declare that there were no security violations since unsealed carts aren’t covered in the regulations.

This month an investigation and pictures from the same source, Atlanta’s Channel 2 reporter Aaron Diamant, revealed that the security violations at ATL still exist, despite the warning over six months ago. After U.S. Representative Paul Broun was alerted last week, he vowed to continue pursuing this matter, saying “the American people deserve better than this.”

Sadly, this is not the first time that the TSA has ignored its own regulations when its ineptitude proved to be an obstacle to compliance. When it became clear in 2011 that the agency wasn’t even close to meeting its own regulation requiring 100% cargo inspection on aircraft, it refused to provide a deadline to achieve that compliance, which was mandated by 2007 legislation.

In a related story, an Inspector General report in August 2011 disclosed that the TSA had lost track of nearly one million security credentials that allowed workers access to a critical transportation infrastructure, including airports. Yet nearly a year later, these weaknesses remain.

So while passengers are subjected to invasive searches and their property confiscated before they get on a plane, unchecked freight is being loaded onto those same planes. And the workers who are loading that freight may not have had background checks. Some may even have criminal warrants.

If the terrorist threat were as dire as the TSA would have us believe, attackers would have already exploited any one these gaping vulnerabilities and placed explosives aboard one or more planes. Instead, nothing has happened.

Air travel is now safer because of two things: reinforced cockpit doors and passenger awareness, not because of TSA’s chronic negligence and incompetence.

The agency’s cavalier attitude toward bona fide security concerns belies the fact that not even they believe that any of this charade is necessary. Instead it has become a bureaucratic game of “catch me if you can,” with the TSA going through the motions and requesting increased funding, while reciting platitudes and taglines. If its tongue isn’t planted firmly in its cheek, it should be.

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/hyku Josh Hallett)