It’s all your fault, you miserable, lying travelers

by Philip Weber on September 7, 2012


Meet David Castelveter. David Castelveter works for the TSA, and he knows exactly what’s wrong with airport security. You.

While he doesn’t have as high a profile as TSA Administrator John Pistole, if you follow TSA news, you’ve heard from Castelveter quite a bit since he joined the agency. You just don’t know it. He has defended the TSA in the press against charges of racial profiling. He has been instrumental in the release of “good news” stories about the TSA. He has pushed back on allegations that the agency has overstepped its bounds.

What qualifies Castelveter to speak about complex security matters and nuanced claims about privacy and civil liberties? He’s not a security expert, and he doesn’t have a background in counterterrorism. He never worked in customer service. He didn’t come up the ranks of law enforcement, like his boss Pistole, nor has he studied psychology or human behavior. In fact, the majority of his working career was spent at Allegheny Airlines and its successor, US Air, where he eventually became head of the PR office.

David Castelveter is a spokesman.

After joining the TSA in May as TSA’s Director of External Communications, one of Castelveter’s first challenges was the media firestorm over charges that an employee mishandled the cremated remains of an Indiana man’s grandfather. John Gross of Indianapolis claimed that a TSA worker in Orlando opened a jar marked “human remains,” stirred it with a blue-gloved finger, spilled some on the floor, then laughed about it. “I want an apology from TSA. I want an apology from the lady who opened the jar and laughed at me,” Gross said. “I want them to help me understand where they get off treating people like this.”

This was bad. This was a threat. This was a job for David Castelveter.

In a statement to HLN the newly minted spokesman said, “Our initial review concluded that the circumstances as described in some reports are inconsistent with what we believe transpired.” In his first at-bat, the TSA’s newest executive smoothly and effortlessly called John Gross a liar. He made it look easy; not a hair out of place.

You expected anything less? On his LinkedIn profile Castelveter proudly proclaims that at US Air he “coached and counseled senior management on company messages and methods of presentation.” In other words, he helped US Air’s top executives spin the news. Now he’s on the TSA organization chart right underneath John Pistole and Deputy Administrator John Halinski. It’s clear that his job is to help them carry the message that criticisms of the TSA are often overstated and frequently just plain fabricated.

In late July Halinski was called to testify before a Congressional Subcommittee on Transportation. His remarks bore the unmistakable fingerprints of a first-rate spin-doctor. The TSA receives calls from about 750,000 passengers each year, Halinski said, and only 8% are complaints. “This fact belies the near-constant criticism and frequently embellished allegations of improper screening reported in the media and repeated as fact by many individuals despite the evidence to the contrary.”

Translation: travelers lie; the media is complicit.

Two weeks later, at a meeting of the TSA’s Passenger Advocacy Subcommittee, Karin Glasgow, the TSA’s Director of Airline Stakeholder Affairs, repeated the claim. As Committee member Douglas Kidd reports: “The consensus among the TSA staff seemed to be that . . . most press stories of TSA abuse were exaggerated if not unfounded.”

Frequently embellished allegations.

Exaggerated if not unfounded.

Inconsistent with what happened.

Either all TSA employees share a near-identical worldview or someone is feeding them talking points. If you think you were abused, you’re mistaken; if you say the pat-down was traumatic, you’re exaggerating; if you claim that a screener acted unprofessionally, you’re lying. Those things didn’t happen, at least not the way you say they did. The message is clear and consistent. And I’m pretty sure I know where it comes from.

It comes from people like David Castelveter, who assure us in a torrent of happy-talk news releases, carefully crafted quotes, artfully placed editorials, and professionally polished propaganda that their employers are on the side of the angels. The angels would probably disagree, but who cares? They don’t have a Director of External Communications.

Here’s how a member of that Passenger Advocacy Subcommittee remembers Castelveter introducing himself before a talk last month:

Early in his career with Allegheny, Mr. Castelveter had been appalled and incensed by the attitudes and behavior of Allegheny’s airport staff. He told us how he felt these rude employees should be fired; and how he was challenged to spend a day behind the counter as a customer service agent. His opinion changed overnight. He now realized that the employee was not the problem. They had come to work with an honest desire to be helpful, but had been ill used by an unappreciative public whom they were there to serve. He never forgot that lesson. 

An unappreciative public? What Director of Communications for a federal agency–for any employer–would deride his entire customer base in a single stroke? How much hubris does it take to condemn the entire traveling public based on a single day as a customer service agent? How much longer will we allow our government to employ a man who gets paid to belittle its citizens?

Castelveter went on to tell the meeting that the TSA’s biggest problems stem from passengers who don’t understand the screening process, don’t prepare properly for screening, and don’t know what’s prohibited. In other words, if some of the remains of John Gross’s grandfather ended up on the floor of the Orlando airport, Gross has only himself to blame. And David Castelveter, for one, is not going to let him get away with trying to pin the rap on a poor TSA employee who only wanted to do the right thing.

Whatever happened, didn’t happen.
And if it did happen, it wasn’t our fault.
And if it was our fault, it’s not as bad as you say.
And if it’s as bad as you say, that’s regrettable, but it’s only an isolated incident.

Give yourself up to the spin.

Castelveter is a man on a mission. One of the most important things his office does is set the media straight on stories like the claims of a deaf traveler who says he was ridiculed by TSA agents in Louisville. They never called the man a “fu**ing deafie” as he claims. How does Castelveter know? He had a lip-reader review the videotape of the incident. You read that right: a lip-reader. The TSA knows that the passenger lied because they could read the lips of everyone in the screening area, after the fact, on the videotape.

Perhaps you’ve heard that the TSA this week introduced not one, not five, not ten but 18 new Twitter accounts to get the word out about all the good they’re doing. That’s Castelveter’s work too. Forget about collaboration, forget about discussion. This is not a battle of ideas; it’s a question of volume. Castelveter will drown out the critics; he will overwhelm the naysayers. He will marshal the resources of an $8 billion annual budget, and he will tweet you into submission.

And when the media become obsessed with stories like racial profiling in Boston, expect Castelveter to be there to point out all the good things the agency is doing, like faux-saving a woman from kidnapping in Miami. Yup, as he told Kidd and the subcommittee, “his office monitors/tracks news coverage of the TSA . . . generates statistical data on TSA’s ‘image’ in the press,” and actively works to “mediate” negative stories.

That’s Castelveter’s word: mediate. He has perverted the meaning of the word. It means “to settle differences.” But Castelveter isn’t about finding a middle ground; he means to meet every complaint with equal or greater force.

If you can stomach it, read Kidd’s full account of the Castelveter briefing. If you can’t, just review the adjectives Kidd uses to describe the TSA’s new PR pro: unsympathetic, negative, hostile, defensive, not credible, astonishing. But what does Kidd know? He’s just the Executive Director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, and–most likely–another prevaricating, dissembling, lying traveler.

In the meantime, Mr. Castelveter, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that you’re right. Let’s assume that every traumatized toddler, every senior who has complained of groping, every disabled passenger who says he has been abused, is either deluded or, worse, out to get the hard-working men and women of the TSA. Let’s assume that every allegation is false, that every story was cut from whole cloth, that every account of wrongdoing is the product of someone with an axe to grind.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I hereby stipulate that everything you have heard about the TSA is unproven and inadmissible. I move to strike every anti-TSA statement, allegation, and anecdote from the record.

In their place, I humbly submit the following brand new evidence, never aired in public before this week. I direct your attention to 205 pages released by the non-profit website Governmentattic.org, as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request submitted two years ago and, until now, blocked by the TSA. The evidence includes letters to Congressmen and Senators, to the President, and to the TSA itself.

  • You’ll read the first-hand account of an attorney from Louisville who declares that a TSA employee, whom he names, “claimed he was just doing his job, [but] . . . clearly enjoyed exercising his authority, control, and ego” in what the attorney calls a degrading pat-down.
  • You’ll read the words of a 70-year-old insurance executive who calls his pat-down “one of the most degrading, humiliating, repulsive experiences” of his life.
  • You’ll read the complaint of a 60-year-old woman who names the TSA employees who humiliated her by “groping [her] crotch and fondling [her] breasts” then demanding that she lift her shirt, despite the fact that police accompanying them had told her that to do so would be disorderly conduct. “Hostility overflowed and [name redacted] made it clear that I was being punished for having the audacity to object to government employees feeling and groping my body. [Name redacted], the screenings manager, exuded self-importance. Clearly an under-trained man with little grasp of his real responsibilities . . . he was determined to see me grovel.”

These are not letters from crackpots. They are not from hostile people. They are not from the ignorant or under-educated. They may express outrage or sorrow or sadness or horror, but they are, without exception, polite, professional, and deferential. They’re mostly typed, in the proper old-fashioned way we were taught in fifth grade when we all had to learn how to write a formal letter to Someone Very Important. They are on the letterheads of business people, pilots, flight attendants, Congressmen, and Senators. They are pleas of everyday Americans who can’t understand why their government is hurting them. They are prayers for relief.

They are letters that you might very well have written yourself.

Reading them will make your heart ache.

If it doesn’t, you might consider joining David Castelveter and his team. They’re going to need help proving that so many Americans have conspired so completely to fabricate so much.

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