Your Safety, Their Punch Line

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

Internal mistakes and misjudgments in day-to-day operations are even harder to root out, since the rare fool employee who might criticize, even constructively, is immediately dispatched. From the TSA's earliest days, screeners have complained of ongoing breaches of security at their workplaces, the result of improper inspection procedures. I know of several instances, both here and at other airports, in which the employees responsible for violations were never corrected or reprimanded. But the whistleblowers -- who committed the unpardonable sin of not just telling the truth, but of telling the truth about bosses or co-workers -- were fired. Some have also asserted that in the weeks leading up to their dismissals, their personnel files suddenly began bristling with fabricated documentation of inappropriate or illegal activities.

Repressing criticism might be a way of streamlining operations, but it conceals security problems that sooner or later, one way or another, will be revealed. Even the greenest screener at MIA knows that an alert terrorist would have little trouble slipping past a checkpoint. And passing through deadly objects? Child's play. That's partly because humans err, but also because TSA rewards those who can look efficient and do nothing, all the while punishing honesty and diligence, which can complicate things. I have to keep reminding myself: TSA management is motivated by priorities that have nothing to do with our job performance. As long as everything looks good and runs smoothly, the airlines will stay in business and we'll be employed. What I have observed over the past two years is a big fat corrupt bureaucracy wallowing in cronyism and coverups -- a self-protection racket mercilessly maintained by a tight-knit cabal of managers.

Miranda's fall is the latest of several sex-related firings and forced resignations at TSA Miami. Gone is the manager caught giving a screener a blowjob on the job, as is the manager who spent much of her workday stalking her ex-boyfriend. Another manager, a much more powerful man facing an ever-growing stack of sexual harassment complaints against him, will probably survive the current upheaval. These complaints, which are not lawsuits, have been filed with TSA's understaffed Office of Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. Since the OCR is overwhelmed by huge numbers of discrimination and harassment complaints, very few cases are ever addressed or resolved. But aggrieved TSA employees really have nowhere else to go unless they can pay, at minimum, the $150 filing fee in federal court. Unions cannot advocate on our behalf, and most of the labor laws protecting federal workers don't apply to us because Congress didn't want its newborn TSA to turn into another regulation-bound bureaucracy.

The Heads of State

Teeming with sexual intrigue and power plays, TSA is more dating service than disciplined "security administration." So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised this past week to hear a manager cryptically refer to some "investigation" of TSA employees who've allegedly been offering money to airline employees in exchange for "sexual favors," or of the departure of two more top managers, Paul Diener and William Morrison, owing to allegations of sexual harassment. (See "Korten," page 19 this issue.)

One day early on, just before the Iraq war began, I arrived at work to find a guy on the morning crew holding up a book with Saddam Hussein's face all over the cover. The screener had discovered the book as he searched the opened suitcase before him. The title was something like The Life of a Dictator.

"Should I let this fly?" the crew-cut kid wondered. Work around him came to a halt.

"Dog, it's not gonna blow up," someone said.

"Uh, guess not."

Another screener concluded, "It shouldn't be a problem."

I was amazed to see everyone taking the possible "threat" seriously, or at least appearing oblivious to its absurdity. But that's because back then I was still dedicated. I believed we were doing our part in the War on Terror. I took screening seriously, so maybe, I was thinking, ignorance is excusable if it's accompanied by dedication.

I had no clue. That screener today wouldn't exert the effort even to glance at any book not containing pornographic pictures -- although, I've since realized, there are zealots who would have praised him and put the book-bearing passenger's name on any of several watch lists maintained by airlines, TSA, and other federal agencies. The young screener, like those of us who once harbored some curiosity and desire to learn, has been repeatedly discouraged from showing initiative, or even interest, in his job.

We were touted as the highly trained, better-paid alternatives to the old privately employed airport screeners who, in the wake of September 11, were found seriously wanting. Some even had criminal histories. The TSA's chosen ones, on the other hand -- well, hadn't we just passed computerized psychological and reading-comprehension tests, background checks, and weeks of explosives-detection training? We felt damn fortunate to have landed a job with good benefits in a jobless economic recovery, and excited to be in on the ground floor of a brand-new agency where -- our superiors kept reminding us -- opportunities for professional advancement were almost unlimited.

And so we thought we were da bomb. Of course, we couldn't say the word "bomb," but we were it anyway. We were arrogant, pretentious, and paid less than our counterparts in Customs and the Border Patrol, who were not impressed with us at all. They could see how wide the net had been cast by recruiters rushing to meet congressional deadlines for hiring and deploying the airport security force demanded by devastated airlines. And indeed a large number of our new managers and supervisors (including Alex Miranda, formerly a fifteen-year executive with American Airlines) were transfers from the private companies and airlines that had given airport security a bad name in the past. Far from tossing the flotsam caught in the net and keeping the treasure, TSA management did just the opposite, time after time.

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