Your Safety, Their Punch Line

I once thought working for the Transportation Security Administration was serious business. I didn't have a clue

Not long ago a red-white-and-blue flyer appeared on the bulletin board in my work area at Miami International Airport. I'm a baggage screener for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). No doubt the flyer was posted to boost our morale, which desperately needs boosting, or maybe just to reinforce our self-righteousness, which was already insufferable.

The text seemed to be printed from an Internet site. It claimed that the U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein had been prophesied 1200 years ago in the Muslim Koran, or Quran -- and the revelation was found in "Quran 9:11!"

"For it is written that a son of Arabia would awaken a fearsome eagle," the passage began. "The wrath of the eagle would be felt throughout the lands of Allah." But finally the eagle "cleansed the lands of Allah, and there was peace."

I checked with two Quran scholars who noted that the holy book contains no mention of eagles (or of any bird like an eagle) or "the lands of Allah." Besides, Quran passages aren't identified the way Biblical passages are, so Quran 9:11 doesn't exist. But that's not the point. The patriots at the TSA know we've got a job to do. We're on a mission from God to kick some Allah-lovin' ass. Who says we're supposed to know anything about the lands we're cleansing?

By now, two years after starting this job, I finally get it: The TSA is a five-billion-dollar-a-year, post-9/11 illusion of public safety. Maybe that's not all bad. Sometimes the illusion of safety can be as good as the real thing, especially when the public feels it's being cared for. And I have no doubt that the nation's airports, crawling with some 50,000 screeners, are more secure than before 2001. Yet even 50,000 or 60,000 screeners is considered far short of the number needed for the TSA to protect air travelers properly. (TSA's budget was hacked from seven billion dollars last year to five billion this year.) Meanwhile other high-risk sites and industries (chemical, rail, cargo) remain dauntingly vulnerable to terrorism. But the really big money is going to the endangered homeland of Iraq, where TSA's annual budget would last less than a month.

I know from my own experience that the TSA's Miami operation is stretched thin, and even with scores of us working overtime, we don't cover every hole in airport security. We don't have a comprehensive evacuation strategy, either, in the event of an actual threat. A committee of TSA employees developed a plan many months ago, but it has never been implemented.

Among the security gaps we can't close: We inspect luggage but we don't load it onto planes, so ramp workers, airplane cleaners, and other contractors -- many of whom earn less than ten dollars per hour and may or may not have cleared security checks -- have innumerable opportunities to tamper with everything from suitcases to the airliners themselves.

Evaluations at airports nationwide by TSA's parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, have found TSA screeners no more or less effective than privately employed screeners, and that most of us lack even minimal training in at least one aspect of our daily tasks. Locally, though, the TSA has been a godsend. At MIA approximately $50 million in TSA wages keep hundreds of poorly educated, unskilled members of Miami-Dade County's uniquely Third World, blue-collar workforce off unemployment and Medicaid. And although some airports in the United States are now planning to contract private screening companies to replace the TSA, our bosses have assured us that Miami's isn't among those.

Unfortunately almost everything our bosses tell us turns out to be either wholly or partially false. They haven't told us, for example, that the TSA recently extended indefinitely its November 2004 deadline for airports to decide on privatization, so now we're apparently at the mercy of the Miami-Dade aviation department's decision-makers (former aviation department director Angela Gittens wanted to keep the TSA screeners, but she was forced out and a replacement hasn't been installed).

In fact we're almost never told anything about the upper echelons of TSA management, but this past November 24 screeners did hear in official stage whispers (literally) that assistant federal security director Alex Miranda, TSA's second-in-command in Miami, had been put on "administrative leave," no reason given, and that if we discussed this in any way with anyone, we would be suspended without pay.

The administrative leave became a firing two days later when, as expected, the nightly news got hold of it. But the timing of the scandal is curious. Most TSA employees had long been aware of intimations and outright accusations of sexual misconduct against Miranda. True to TSA form, at least one of his accusers, manager Alex Carter, lost his job after he complained, and many of us had known for months about Carter's federal sexual harassment lawsuit against Miranda. I couldn't figure out why his boss, federal security director (FSD) Richard Thomas, kept Miranda on, especially given that the lawsuit was scheduled to go to a potentially sleaze-slinging jury trial early next year. I also found it hypocritical that we were constantly urged to report any instance of sexual harassment, for which the government declares zero tolerance. Now, despite TSA's obsession with presenting an unblemished face to the public, the alleged sexual misconduct in the FSD's office is impossible to keep secret.

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