Your Safety, Their Punch Line

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

But all that sensitive stuff? There's no secret about the basic means of explosives detection. Even the TSA Website describes the ETDs (explosives trace detectors) and EDSs (explosives detection systems) we use. The government's real problem in this case was TSA mismanagement.

Prosecutors had a flimsy case against Washington because TSA officials purportedly delayed and bungled a sting operation that should have been taken over by the FBI from the first day TSA learned of a possible theft ring. People on the scene told me that about three weeks before the arrests, a few screeners found the nerve to report that not just two but seven or eight of their co-workers had been stealing from suitcases for months.

The songbirds were told to carry on as usual and to ignore the plundering. TSA officials dallied for weeks while passengers continued to be ripped off. Finally the Miami-Dade Police Department airport detail came up with videotape of the ramp workers, and on June 23 officers swooped in. But why only two arrests? There are conflicting claims over just how much on-screen evidence implicates the rest of the alleged ring. One fact, though, is clear: The two arrestees are black, and at least one other member of the "ring" who was fired is black. The screeners who seem to have escaped punishment are all white Hispanics.

The Heads of State
The Heads of State

It's hard to figure how many screeners at MIA have actually been caught with diamond-studded watches or gold chains stuffed into their shirts or pants. Many times the screener will be fired but not arrested. "The TSA people usually tell us they prefer to handle it administratively," says one Miami-Dade police officer stationed at the airport.

Just as this current holiday season started, for example, two screeners at different MIA checkpoints were caught with cash and an expensive corkscrew lifted from passengers. Neither was arrested. I know of at least two expensive watches grabbed right under passengers' noses at checkpoints. In both cases the watches were found in the screeners' possession but the jewelry was returned to its owners and the screeners walked. One of the few arrests was that of checkpoint screener Frederick Johnson, who is black. He was taken to jail a few days before Christmas last year. A traveler accused him of swiping $1300 from her purse while he was searching it. Police found $2000 on him, but prosecutors ended up dropping theft charges.

It's anyone's guess how many objects have disappeared from checked baggage when passengers aren't present to watch it being searched. At the time Johnson was nabbed, when most MIA screeners had been on the job for a year or longer, TSA still hadn't completed background checks on thousands of us. (County court documents show that Johnson didn't have a criminal record, at least not until his arrest.) Complaints and embarrassing revelations had been mounting since the agency's inception, and in June 2003 the two officials in Washington overseeing TSA background checks both resigned.

Then WTVJ-TV (Channel 6) broke the news that a convicted pedophile and a child molester were working as TSA screeners, their background checks incomplete. They were quickly fired, and later more felons were discovered. Now we hear that all the MIA background checks are really completed -- but our original ranks have been decimated by firings and attrition, and checks on hundreds of new hires have just begun. I know of one (white) screener who has a seventeen-year-old felony on his record but who was recently promoted. Another (black) screener was dismissed because of a recent drug-possession conviction. At the same time, a surprising number of screeners have been booted because of mistaken identity or clerical errors. A former NYPD officer, for example, was found to have a long rap sheet -- except it belonged to someone else with the same name. He has told friends he intends to sue for back pay and damages, but he's not returning to work at the TSA, even though he could.

Screeners earn between $30,000 and $60,000, depending on job level and overtime -- not bad considering the only qualifications, besides no unacceptable felonies, are U.S. citizenship, a high school diploma, ability to read fifth-grade English, and a credit rating not irreparably ruined. We had to take a psychological test, seemingly the standard type used by many prospective employers, but so transparent that a sociopath could look like a saint. We responded to such questions as "Yes or No: It's okay to occasionally steal supplies from my employer" and "Sometimes I get so angry I want to hurt other people." Obviously the screener who punched out his supervisor two years ago and the supervisor who punched out a screener a year ago lied on that question.

I don't think anyone at TSA read the initial job applications we filed electronically. Past experience and special abilities are seemingly ignored. I know several bilingual or trilingual people old enough to have had experience as professional managers who were told they didn't qualify for supervisory jobs and who continue to be passed over for promotion. Other screeners, who happen to be good-looking men in their twenties, are suddenly promoted from their entry-level jobs to positions as supervisors or administrative assistants. These types of promotions are never explained other than "he deserves it."

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