TSA gets a holiday surprise: another lapdog in the House

by Bill Fisher on December 3, 2012


On December 29, 2012 Politico reported that Representative Michael McCaul (R-Texas) was chosen to be the next chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, succeeding Peter King (R-N.Y.), who stepped down in November.

King has demonstrated that he’s no friend of airline passengers, often defending even the most egregious of abuses by TSA workers and the agency as a whole. He has also served as John Pistole’s lap dog, writing an article in the NY Post saying, in part:

“As a conservative, I find it disappointing that so many on the right taking issue with the TSA sound like left-wing liberals. I have enough faith in TSA chief John Pistole — as nonpartisan a person you can find in government — that he wouldn’t be doing it if he didn’t think it right. But for now let’s at least assume that John Pistole and the TSA are well intentioned and they are doing the right thing based on the information available to them right now.”

King also wavered on racial profiling. When TSA screeners at Boston’s Logan Airport admitted to profiling Hispanics, King paid lip service to the issue, saying, “If it is going on, it is wrong and can’t be defended,” while at the same time defending New York City’s stop and frisk program:

“It reminds me of when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani stepped up police activity in New York City. Liberals were against it and argued that stop-and-frisks violated people’s civil rights. But conservatives knew that it was necessary to bring law and order to New York. We were right, and it saved lives.”

As if to punctuate his disdain for travelers’ objections to being afforded less respect than a box of paper clips, King went so far in October 2011 as to propose legislation to criminalize criticism of TSA workers. A provision in Section 295, located on page 61 of H.R. 3011, would have made it a crime to make fun of the TSA or even the jokey epithet “Thousands Standing Around.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

As recently as November 28th, Washington pundits agreed that Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) was thought to be the most likely of three candidates, who included Candice Miller (R-Michigan) and McCaul, to assume King’s role. Miller, a former military officer, is an enigmatic figure who has maintained a low profile relative to the TSA, instead focusing on programmatic transportation efforts such as Transportation Worker Identification Credentials (TWIC) and Securing Maritime Activities through Risk-Based Targeting (SMART). It’s likely that she was never a serious contender for the post. There’s no indication as to whether she would have advocated for passengers or not.

Mike Rogers, on the other hand, has been vociferous and somewhat schizophrenic on TSA issues, often lurching between criticism and praise of the TSA, leaving observers wondering where he stands on travelers’ rights.

When a Congressional investigation revealed rampant misconduct by TSA workers, including theft, drinking, and taking drugs while on duty, Rogers held a hearing called “Breach of Trust: Addressing Misconduct Among TSA Screeners.” His opening statement started strongly:

“Stealing from checked luggage; accepting bribes from drug smugglers; sleeping or drinking while on duty — this kind of criminal behavior and negligence has contributed significantly to TSA’s shattered public image.”

But then he softened his tone, offering almost apologetic excuses for criminal actions:

“It is true that other federal departments struggle with criminal cases against their employees, but the TSA, unlike most agencies, interacts with the general public in a very frequent and personal manner.”

Rogers added that only a small percentage of the TSA’s 45,000 airport screeners were “bad apples.”

In the same hearing he then proposed a smaller TSA, saying “I think the number of employees could be reduced dramatically, with significantly more attention paid to qualifications and training.” Presumably this would be the same training that the TSA has employed over the past two years whenever a TSA screener strip-searches or exposes a passenger, destroys a medical device, or otherwise violates publicly stated procedures. Rogers failed to note that this “training” has not reduced the recurrence of these problems.

In another instance Rogers called for reforming the TSA, but stopped short of calling for TSA Administrator John Pistole’s resignation, a position taken by Georgia Representative Paul Broun. Broun, who was not in contention for King’s position, demanded Pistole’s resignation, stating that Pistole had been ”totally incompetent in his position” and “needs to be gone.”

In a seemingly contradictory statement, Rogers, when asked to give the agency a performance grade, said the TSA is doing “an acceptable job.”

As Congressional efforts to reform or preserve the TSA fade into memory, at least we know that the 113th Congress will commence with Mike McCaul assuming the powerful role of chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. For now, one can only speculate on whether he’ll follow King’s path of only paying lip service to traveler concerns or take action to force change within the agency.

There are both promising and troubling aspects of McCaul’s past that prevent a forecast of his actions.

He has criticized DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, saying the department is “mismanaged, dysfunctional, and wasting money. It’s an important and difficult job to run this department, but I think she can be doing a better job.” He called Napolitano immediately after his appointment to schedule a sit-down next week. He’s also on record as saying that TSA and ICE are failing to take corruption seriously.

McCaul has supported expanding the use of private screening firms:

“They [the privately operated airports] still look like TSA; they fulfill the same responsibilities. They’re not union. So I think they work more effectively, cost-effectively, as well . . . we’ve had 16 airports experiment with this. And I think we need to take a look at those 16 airports and see if we want to pass legislation to ease that up with other airports so they can do the same.”

In May of this year McCaul led a hearing into corruption within both TSA and ICE, noting that many workers in both agencies had been implicated in drug trafficking and abuses of their positions. He cited a 22-count indictment, saying that it “alleges TSA employees took payments to provide drug couriers unfettered access through Los Angeles International Airport so that drugs could be smuggled into the United States. Even though there are stacks of [federal] government manuals, training materials, and yearly briefings about ethics, lapses continue.”

In a positive move, McCaul said he hopes to avoid situations like November’s Transportation and Infrastructure hearing on how TSA regulations affect the passenger experience, a hearing that the TSA refused attend. TSA Administrator John Pistole claimed that Mica’s committee had “no jurisdiction” on the matter. Pistole said his agency would “continue to work with its committees of jurisdiction.” McCaul has said he’s prepared to work closely with Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who will assume Mica’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair next year.

McCaul has also called for regular polygraph testing of TSA, CBP, and ICE employees:

“The problem is, they don’t administer polygraphs after they get hired, which is where they are probably the most vulnerable to corruption.  That would be a practice that the FBI usually does, weeding out corrupt agents, and that, I think is what we need to do”

The negatives on McCaul are both personal and official. First of all he was the second wealthiest member of Congress in 2010, with an estimated net worth of $380 million. While his wealth is not an indictment of his character, he has scored a dismal 7% on supporting middle-income-friendly legislation by TheMiddleClass.org.

His wealth is, however, germane to his appointment in that affords him the ability to fly privately, thus enabling him and his family to avoid having to undergo TSA screening. There’s no word on whether he flies commercial airlines regularly, but his privilege should be questioned in the media as the 2013 session approaches.

McCaul also has been accused of engaging in corrupt stock trading practices, including a revelation that his family bought between $286,000 and $690,000 in a high-tech company interested in a bill under his committee’s jurisdiction.

The most troubling aspect is that he’s on the record saying that he’s “not in the same camp as those who have suggested blowing up the entire organization or the resignation of TSA Administrator John Pistole” and that the TSA needs to focus on better public relations rather than actual reform.

McCaul also opposed calls to restrict screening of passengers at airports, to establish boundaries for the authority of TSA agents to conduct searches, or to limit the use of body scanners.

He said, upon being selected for the position last week:

“They’ve (TSA) got a public image problem, a public perception problem. They ought to be targeting terrorists and be more passenger-friendly. Are you going to take away the machines? No. But I think having a little better marketing (and) public relations program would go a long way.”

It appears that the TSA and John Pistole might be anticipating that McCaul will follow his predecessor’s lead and continue to offer platitudes to consumers while avoiding any meaningful restraint of TSA policies and conduct.

For now, travelers who were waiting for improvement in the airport security experience before flying in 2013 may want to consider fully refundable fares or ground transportation alternatives.

(Photo: Cover Creations)

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