A tale of two agencies

by Philip Weber on August 20, 2012


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

It was April, but it was already hot out. In a few months drought would grip much of the nation, and the National Weather Service would ultimately declare it the 9th hottest summer on record. But across America what really had people steamed was an out-of-control federal agency that had been conducting heavy-handed searches of US citizens.

Law-abiding Americans who had done nothing wrong were being branded as criminals. Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK) called the agency’s actions “Gestapo-like.” Sen. Don Nickles (R-OK) decried, “police state tactics.” Citing privacy concerns, the head of the agency refused to discuss the allegations with a Senate committee. But his agency investigated itself and decided that all of the complaints against it were “unfounded.”

It was 1998, and the agency was the Internal Revenue Service.

Those were heady days for IRS employees. There was a “war on drugs,” which the agency was determined to win by ferreting out money launderers and tax cheats. Agents were permitted to place harassing phone calls at almost any hour. They could slap liens on property with little or no supervisory approval. Homes could be seized to satisfy a liability of as little as $5,000. Divorced taxpayers were liable for filing mistakes, even innocent ones, of their former spouses. Once accused of cheating, the taxpayer bore the burden of proof, not the government. (For reference, see the analysis by tax attorney Tony Mankus.)

As taxpayers seethed, horror stories abounded. The LA Times reported:

John Colaprete, a Virginia restaurant owner, said that his home and two of his restaurants were raided by dozens of armed IRS agents because of phony allegations from a bookkeeper who was later convicted of cheating his business.

W.A. “Tex” Moncrief Jr., a Texas oil millionaire, testified that 64 armed IRS agents–two for each of his employees–stormed through the door of his Fort Worth oil firm shouting “IRS! This business is under criminal investigation. Remove your hands from the keyboard and back away from the computers!”

Moncrief said that he eventually paid the IRS $23 million to end the harassment of his family, despite the fact that the IRS never established that he owed back taxes.

IRS agents were, perhaps, more feared than respected, but the distinction mattered little to the agency, which seemed to have unlimited reach and power. There was an Ombudsman, but he could do little to curb the abuse, and a timid Congress could only muster enough votes for a toothless Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which tax attorney Mankus remembers as ineffectual.

Many of [the] provisions were weak versions of what could have been bold reforms, watered down by the influential managers of IRS who warned Congress of massive non-compliance and reduction in tax collections if the proposed provisions were implemented.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Flash forward 14 years. It’s another hot summer, and there’s another overreaching federal agency using another faceless “war” to justify its heavy-handed approach. This time we’re fighting a “war on terror” and the agency is the TSA.

Americans are no longer subject to fiscal inspections; now theyr’re physical. The TSA doesn’t raid businesses, it raids suitcases and human bodies, looking for whatever it wants, all of it justified by unspecified threats of a terrorist attack. Another pusillanimous Congress, afraid of being called “soft on terror,” looks the other way or toys with the idea of a toothless “Traveler’s Bill of Rights” instead of actual reform.

Americans are angered by agency bungling and abuse. When the clamor grows too loud, the TSA investigates itself and gives itself the all-clear, or else the agency’s head, like the leader of the IRS before him, simply declines to answer questions, even from the Congress that provides his funding.

I could go on, but you get the idea: while the analogy isn’t exact, there are disturbing parallels between the IRS of 1998 and the TSA of today. But that’s not the story. The story is what the IRS has done since then.

In the estimation of current Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman, in 1998 “the IRS had hit rock bottom.” Today the agency’s approval rating has bounced back to 73%  – the highest score since 1994. The workforce is more professional than ever, and taxpayers generally view the IRS as far more fair and easier to work with than it has been in nearly 20 years. To be sure, there are places where the IRS can still improve, highlighted this summer in a GAO report, but the agency has become more responsible without the fiscal Armageddon that its former leadership predicted. The TSA could use such an image boost. They might learn a few lessons from the recovery and redemption of the IRS.

Lesson #1: Et Tu, Underpaid Underling?  In the years before 1998 there were plenty of complaints about the IRS, but it wasn’t until the agency’s own employees spoke out that the tide started to turn. One of the first to testify before Congress was a 25-year veteran of the agency’s Collection Division, who told Senators, “If the true number of incidences of taxpayer abuse were ever known, the public would be appalled. If the public also ever knew the number of abuses covered up by the IRS, there could be a tax revolt.”

Other employees followed suit, testifying under oath that managers pressured them to fabricate evidence against taxpayers. After years of complaints, finally no one could deny that the IRS had lost its way. Within months, Congress passed the Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998, the RRA. President Bill Clinton, halfway through his second term with no more elections ahead of him, signed the Act into law on July 22, 1998.

In this election year a polarized Congress shows little interest in reforming the TSA, but political winds can shift quickly after an election. Pressure and the list of complaints continues to grow, and this month a group of the TSA’s own employees blew the whistle on illegal instructions given to them by supervisors in Boston.

Memo from the IRS: when your own team starts to turn on you, it’s time to get concerned.

Lesson #2: Do Your Spinning at the Gym. Last month TSA Deputy Administrator John Halinksi told a House Committee that “overall, most travelers have a positive experience at the airport.” Pressed by Mike Rogers (R-AL), a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Halinski added, “I haven’t seen a lot of statistics about criticism.” Incredulous, Rogers shot back, “Have you been out in public lately?”

Here again, the TSA could learn a little something from the IRS. Faced with criticism in 1998, the agency investigated itself but did not find “areas of concern.” Congress didn’t buy it, and was arguably more angry at the dissembling. TSA head John Pistole might disarm some critics if he would simply stand up and say, “We have some real problems and we’ve made some serious mistakes. This agency is still relatively young and the threats are constantly evolving but, to be honest, we haven’t managed as well as we should. I’m committed to fixing that.”

Instead, he grasps at straws. This week a man breached the $100 million security system at JFK international airport and Pistole was silent. When he spoke up in USA Today it was to argue that TSA officers in Florida had disrupted a kidnapping through their “Behavior Detection” skills. Talk about a weak argument: the bruised and beaten woman the TSA screeners supposedly “spotted” actually asked for help.

Like Pistole, TSA’s “Blogger Bob” Burns regularly ignores criticism of the agency and spins the news like a political pro. Burns has been dubbed “Bloghdad Bob” after the former Iraqi Information Minister who insisted on the invincibility of Saddam Hussein’s army, even as coalition troops were marching into Baghdad. (Take a look a Bob’s cheerful mid-year pep-talk. He begins, “It’s been a busy year so far with 375,432,402 passengers traveling through TSA checkpoints since January! That is approximately 1.8 million passengers screened per day!”

Commenters on the blog ignored the happy talk and hammered home the agency’s failed record: “Bob, will you address the allegations of discrimination by Boston’s screeners?” and “Why do you continue to ignore the REAL performance problems your agency has? You post nothing of substance, ever” and “What about the racial profiling and quota system to catch drugs . . . ?”)

Even Pistole’s predecessor, Kip Hawley, said bluntly this spring, “Airport security in America is broken. I should know.” Of course, Hawley didn’t speak up until he had a book to sell, but at least he’s being honest now.

John Pistole, your sponsor called. He said to remind you that recovery can’t begin until you admit that you have a problem.

Lesson #3: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  There’s something else about Bob Burns. The TSA’s most prominent spokesman is often downright contemptuous of the traveling public. I don’t see a lot of IRS news releases touting “The Dumbest Things People Have Tried to Deduct,” but Hey-Look-at-the-Idiot-Traveler postings are Bob’s stock-in-trade. Yes, people often try to bring unusual things onto airplanes, but affecting an air of superiority as you rub the traveling public’s nose in their collective mistakes is not endearing, Bob. Just sayin’.

In a posting entitled “How Not to Use a Blog and Facebook for PR,” Visual Media took Bob to task for his response to allegations that an eight-year-old boy had been added to the terrorist “no fly” list. Here’s what Bob said about the issue:

It’s inevitable that every several months or so, some cute kid gets their [sic] mug posted on a major news publication with a headline reading something like: ‘Does this look like a terrorist to you?’ Anything involving kids and cats gets tons of mileage and everybody starts tweeting and retweeting that there’s an 8-year-old on the no fly list.

Yup, Bob dismissively compared the pat-down of someone’s son to a YouTube kitten video. Visual Media rightly criticized him for pouring fuel on a fire.

Allegations of disrespectful behavior by TSA employees abound: the alleged mishandling of human remains, the alleged mocking of a deaf traveler, and the allegations that attractive women are targeted for extra scrutiny. And that’s just in the last few months.

Lesson #4: Be Yourself. IRS agents must give their name and ID number at the start of any contact with a taxpayer. It sounds pretty basic, but it wasn’t always that way; the change is a welcome one. A conversation that begins, “Thank you for calling, my name is ____ and my ID number is ____” sends a signal that the person on the other end of the line is willing to be accountable for his or her actions. By the same logic, all TSA screeners are required to wear nametags, but this week Southwest Airlines pilot John Mcghie alleges that a supervisor in Manchester, NH — a supervisor – refused to give his name during an altercation. Mcghie isn’t the first person to have this experience.

If it’s unacceptable for a TSA employee to withhold his name, imagine if he pretended to be someone else. Critics charge that by wearing official badges TSA employees do just that. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) declares, “The least we can do is end this impersonation, which is an insult to real cops.”

TSA issues a badge to every screener after 180 hours of training. Police training requirements vary widely, but in most large cities it takes 6 months of academy training to earn a badge. Still, TSA defends its practice:

As part of the organization’s continued efforts to transition the workforce to a cadre of well-trained, professional transportation security officers, TSA introduced uniforms more reflective of the critical nature of their work and of the high standards they uphold.  [T]this new uniform represents the highly skilled and tested nature of TSA’s frontline workforce.

Newsflash: clothes do not make the man, nor does a uniform make screeners highly skilled. Training, experience, and expertise make screeners highly skilled. See Lesson #2.

Lesson #5: Be Above Reproach. I got a letter from the IRS a couple of years ago. The agency thought they had found an error in my tax return. With great trepidation, I called the number provided. At the start of the conversation I told the IRS agent that I had been dreading the call. After she gave her name and ID number (see Lesson #4) she said “Oh, you shouldn’t dread talking to us!” I replied, “That’s easy for you to say — you don’t owe back taxes!” She laughed and said, “Well that’s true. I work for The Agency; we’re professional, we’re not allowed to owe back taxes. We follow the rules, and even the appearance of impropriety will not be tolerated.”

Now let’s not be Pollyanna. There are almost certainly some crooks among the 100,000 employees of the IRS, but I’d wager that the percentage is far lower than among the 60,000 people who work at TSA. At the same Congressional hearing where he said that he knew of no complaints, John Halinksi “shrugged off critiques of TSA,” saying Americans shouldn’t expect airport screeners to be any more accountable than the average guy on the street.

If you have an organization of 60,000 people, that’s like a city. You’re always going to have crime in a city. You’re always going to have people who don’t do things that are proper and make mistakes. I’m not saying we are different from any other group of Americans; I’m saying we are exactly like every group of Americans.

I think most of us do expect more from people in authority. I think we have a right to expect more. But even if you agree with Halinski, no one can condone an agency that employs an acknowledged pedophile in a position where he could pat down children. I’m speaking of former priest Thomas Harkin, who is still employed at Philadelphia airport after the diocese of Camden, New Jersey defrocked him for sexually abusing two young girls.

I’m sorry, Mr. Harkin. You may be a decent man with just one foible. Maybe you’ve even overcome this failing. I don’t want to deny you a chance to earn a living; but given your history, there is no place for you at the TSA, not in any capacity. If John Pistole had any integrity whatsoever, he’d have you terminated. Work out a separation agreement; I wouldn’t complain if you were paid to go away. You shouldn’t have applied for the job in the first place, but it’s the TSA’s fault for offering it to you. Whatever way you do it, you need to go. There is Simply No Excuse to do otherwise.

Lesson #6: Give the benefit of the doubt. Now, I don’t mean to give the impression that the IRS can’t get nasty. They still place liens, garnish wages, and put people in jail. But for the most part, the agency first attempts to work with taxpayers collaboratively to resolve problems. (That’s common sense; anyone sitting in a jail cell isn’t going to be able to earn money to satisfy his tax debts.) More importantly, they begin with the assumption that you have filed honestly and accurately. Sure, every return is subject to some rudimentary computer analysis, but a paltry 1% of all returns get audited. The TSA won’t say how many people it body-searches each year, but you can count the next time you’re in line: it’ll almost certainly be more than 1 in 100. And the moment a traveler is pulled out of line, he’s guilty-until-proven-innocent.

For evidence, look no further than the case of four-year-old Isabella Brademeyer. Isabella was terrorized by the TSA last year when she hugged her grandmother at the checkpoint. Her mother wrote in a Facebook post, “The Transportation Security Officers who were present responded to this very simple action in the worst way imaginable.” A screener began yelling at her daughter, would not permit her to pass through the scanner again and said that a pat-down was necessary. Isabella, according to her mother, was wearing Mary Jane shoes, a short-sleeve shirt, and leggings that didn’t have pockets.

“It was implied, several times, that my mother, in their brief two-second embrace, had passed a handgun to my daughter,” Brademeyer said. In addition, the TSA actually wanted to take the little girl to a private room, alone, to be searched.

The TSA, of course, defended its actions.

If that’s how the TSA approaches a four-year-old, how do they view you? And don’t try to say that this was one rogue agent. Other TSA clerks saw it; no one stopped it; and the details are remarkably consistent when the TSA has screened other kids.

At every opportunity the TSA insists that it’s “working to reduce the number of pat-downs.” But that doesn’t seem to be happening. Even travelers in the TSA Pre-Check program, who have already submitted to a more invasive background check, can’t be trusted. On any given flight, Program participants never know until they arrive at the airport if they’ll be able to take the fast lane. And while the Pre-Check program is being rolled out at more and more airports, the criteria remain the same: you have to be a frequent flier of a handful of airlines, you have to fly from certain designated airports, you have to pay to participate, and even then you aren’t guaranteed expedited or grope-free screening.

It’s time for TSA to acknowledge that the vast majority of screeners will never encounter a terrorist. It’s time for the agency to begin with the assumption that every traveler is innocent. Pre-Check should be open to anyone, it should be free, and once cleared the traveler should be allowed to skip screening every time. Re-screen periodically or do spot-checks if you must, but let’s stop pretending that the nation’s traveling sales force is the biggest threat to security and that you have to screen the same frequent fliers week after week.

But, you say, this isn’t a matter of cheating on taxes, this could be life or death! If the TSA misses a terrorist, what then? As Sommer Gentry beautifully illustrates in her article on the base rate fallacy, the more travelers screened, the greater the odds that an actual terrorist will simply be regarded as a false positive. TSA’s ongoing Easter-egg-hunt for scissors and oversize toothpaste tubes detracts from the actual job of keeping airports secure. NPR’s Peter Sagal quipped of the jet skier who breached security at JFK: How did he manage to cross two runways in a bright yellow life vest without anyone noticing? Security was busy taking down a woman in the adjoining terminal who had five ounces of shampoo.

Most people are not security risks. Whisking them through after a simple x-ray of their bags (like in the old days) isn’t just good PR, it reduces the likelihood of missing an actual terrorist, because you’re not spending your time and attention on innocent people. As Gentry points out, “the only counterterrorism successes we’ve ever seen are those where intelligence and police resources are focused on finding extremists and targeting their plots at the planning stages.” In other words, long before they get to the airport.

Lesson #7: Provide Real Customer Advocates. When there are allegations of impropriety, what options does a traveler have? In many cases he can’t sue, he can only appeal TSA abuse to the TSA itself. In contrast, the RRA, passed at the height of America’s disgust with the IRS, established an oversight board for the IRS as well as the Taxpayer Advocate Service. While a part of the IRS, the TAS has the power to intercede to help assist taxpayers in disputes with the agency. It’s far from perfect, but TAS is an independent voice advocating on behalf of taxpayers.

Beginning last year, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and state Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens started calling for similar customer advocates at American airports. Not surprisingly, the TSA has vigorously resisted these efforts. Instead, the agency installed a phone line. Compare what IRS advocates can do (from the IRS website and from the TAS’s own detailed website) with the help you can get if you think you’ve been assaulted by a TSA agent: “[The] hotline will give passengers direct access to guidance and information.” No advocacy, no help; just advice and information. After that, you’re on your own.

Is it any wonder so many Americans despise the TSA?

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons: Ben Popken)

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