TSA’s history of double standards

by Bill Fisher on October 23, 2012


Last week we had headlines about the TSA firing 25 workers and suspending 19 others at Newark airport for not confiscating 4-ounce containers of liquid or sufficiently delaying travelers. In addition, NBC 7 San Diego reported that Federal Security Director Michael Aguilar was retiring amidst reports of misconduct.

In a bit of irony, the TSA declined comment, citing confidentiality and privacy on personnel matters, despite the fact that Aguilar is a public employee. The agency instead issued a press release, saying:

San Diego International Airport Federal Security Director Michael Aguilar announced his retirement from federal service October 4, after leading the Transportation Security Administration for the past ten years at SAN. Ontario International Airport Federal Security Director Shannon Garcia-Hamilton will serve in an acting capacity, until a permanent replacement is named.

While details were sketchy, the station noted that “a handful of TSA officers were fired and two employees directly below Aguilar in ranking were apparently transferred to different locations.” NBC 7 added:

Someone had filed a complaint against Aguilar for a hostile work environment. The headquarters came to inspect the operation and from there she says everything ‘spiraled out of control’.

The TSA has demonstrated its attitude of applying double standards in its treatment of passengers and employees alike. The agency insists that everyone be subjected to its secret security procedures, but these become flexible when public opinion or airline complaints threaten their existence. The TSA had no problem exempting travelers from its policies when it instituted the Pre-Check program for elite frequent fliers, and when it added exclusions for the military, the elderly, and children. The TSA is willing to bend its rules, lie to Congress, and engage in cover-ups when incidents embarrass the agency.

When it comes to corrupt employees, the rank-and-file workers can be publicly exposed and summarily fired, but those in the upper levels of the agency are protected. As with Pre-Check, rank has its privileges. And the elites are not to be treated as shabbily as the unwashed masses. If this were an isolated incident it might be excusable as inadvertent mismanagement, but it’s not. It’s consistent with a pattern of conduct.

In 2011, Newark Federal Security Barbara Bonn Powell stepped down amid controversy over thefts, racial profiling, and screening errors at that facility. She was replaced by Assistant Director Donald Drummer, but she was still given “a senior leadership position with TSA’s Office of Human Capital at the agency’s headquarters in Arlington, VA.” 

Receiving less coverage was the announcement that Powell’s supervisor, Northeastern Area Director James Blair, was also being replaced. The agency said that Blair was taking an undisclosed position at TSA headquarters and being replaced by William Hall, a former security director at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

A similar scenario played out at Honolulu airport, when a TSA worker involved in the behavior detection program was implicated in a racial profiling scandal, similar to the one at Newark, yet was being promoted while under investigation by the DHS Inspector General. The initial report indicated that “one of the screeners accused is being promoted and will get a raise when he becomes a TSA trainer, traveling the country to teach others in the behavior detection program.”

When this was made public, the TSA hurriedly postponed the promotion, issuing a statement that “the man’s promotion has been delayed until the outcome of an investigation.” Since the worker’s name was withheld, there’s no way to tell if the promotion went through after the press coverage stopped.

In yet another case, a TSA manager at Dulles International Airport was arrested at a Maryland hotel and charged with operating a prostitution ring. TSA supervisor Bryant Jermaine Livingston was arrested while on the job at Dulles. Documents revealed that the TSA had received similar complaints as far back as 2009 and failed to act on them.

So what is the message when TSA management is implicated in serious misconduct and the TSA takes no action, but dozens of low level TSA screeners at HonoluluFt. MyersPhiladelphia, and Newark are fired, some for not following vague and sometimes contradictory procedures?

The one conclusion is that TSA’s management needs a major housecleaning. Perhaps Congress should concentrate on investigating the managers in addition to the abusive and often criminal screeners who are a symptom of the larger problems within the agency.

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Tex Texin)

Previous post:

Next post: