The TSA And The Teddy Bear

Let’s face it:  a lot of people really don’t like the Transportation Security Administration.  They don’t like waiting in lines to go through security, they don’t like the uniformed officers telling them to take their laptops out of bags and to remove their shoes, and belts, and overcoats before they go through screening, and they don’t like having to madly scramble around to reassemble their attire and gather their things after they come rolling out of the x-ray machine.

https3a2f2fblueprint-api-production-s3-amazonaws-com2fuploads2fcard2fimage2f3196242f0a03fd4a-0903-4e30-921d-6a63a0fb3fd8So when people heard about TSA officers taking steps that kept a gigantic teddy bear off a plane, and then posting, on Instagram, a sad photo of the bear, slumped over next to a trash can, people were quick to label the TSA this year’s Grinch.  They assumed the bear was a gift for a kid and thought the TSA was heartless.

The real story, though, is that the TSA was just doing its job — and the bear wasn’t a gift for a kid at all, it was part of an effort by an adult man to make a YouTube video.  After the outcry about the pathetic abandoned bear, the TSA explained that even though the YouTuber had a ticket for the bear, the bear was simply too large and too dense to be effectively screened.  In fact, the TSA has previously found a disassembled gun and ammunition hidden in stuffed animals.  If the TSA can’t effectively screen a carry-on item, then obviously that item shouldn’t go onto a plane.  And the airline also determined that the bear was too big to go into the cabin of the airplane, anyway.

So I’m with the TSA on this one.  Going through security at airports is a pain, but the vast majority of the TSA officers I’ve encountered in my travels are friendly, professional, and just trying to do their job.  If anybody deserves the blame for the pathetic Teddy Bear Tale, it’s the guy who thought it would be a good idea to create a potential problem for the TSA and an airline just to make a YouTube video.  It’s totally inconsiderate — toward the TSA, toward the airline, and toward other travelers who might have found themselves on a plane with a guy who’s trying to carry an oversized teddy bear down the crowded aisle and then seat the bear next to some unsuspecting traveler who’s just trying to get home.

Does everybody have to make YouTube videos about everything these days?  We’ve got enough to worry about without self-absorbed people trying to get a few minutes of internet attention coming up with stunts that inconvenience the rest of the world.

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Insecure About Homeland Security

The Washington Post has an interesting, and troubling, story about the problems at the Department of Homeland Security.  According to the article, the agency is faced with tremendously low morale, high employee turnover, and a toxic bureaucratic environment.

The DHS was created after 9/11 and was supposed to unite a host of separate agencies that had some security role.  Its constituent agencies include the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Coordinating the different cultures and practices of such diverse agencies would be a challenge, and the Post piece indicates that the DHS has made a hash of it, creating a highly bureaucratic environment that frustrates employees and managers.

A dysfunctional, overly bureaucratic federal agency — who could imagine such a thing?  It may be the norm, but in the case of the DHS the constant turnover, unfilled positions, and bureaucratic gamesmanship could easily have real world consequences.  The Post article notes, for example, that recent testing has shown that the blue-uniformed TSA employees at who operate all of those scanners are increasingly missing weapons or explosives being brought through security.  What is the point of spending billions for high-tech scanners at airports if the TSA employees can’t properly interpret the scanning data?  In the modern world where so many terrorist groups are looking to launch another deadly operation, we simply cannot afford security agencies who aren’t properly performing their jobs.

The TSA is only one example of a problem agency within the DHS.  Whether it is defense against cybersecurity attacks, or securing the border, or dealing with the influx of immigrant minors, the DHS is tasked with tough assignments and is widely perceived as botching them.  The plummeting morale at the DHS isn’t helping matters, either.  A survey performed last year showed that the DHS ranked dead last among large agencies.

The DHS has an important job.  With the constant threats made against America by the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda, you would think that effective leaders could generate energized agencies where employees understood the significance of their roles and had high morale because of the crucial nature of their work in protecting their families and friends from attack.  Instead, the DHS is a morass of infighting and leaden bureaucratic procedures that hinder effective performance.

The Post article paints an ugly picture, one that should make us all feel less secure about the Department of Homeland Security.

Pre-Checked

When I printed out my boarding pass yesterday, I noticed a new legend at the top that indicated I had been “pre-checked” by the Transportation Security Administration.

IMG_5094I didn’t know what it meant, so when I got to the airport I got in the standard line to show my boarding pass and driver’s license.  The TSA officer who checked me explained that the “pre-check” program meant I didn’t need to wait in the normal line and could go through security without removing my shoes, belt, bag of toothpaste, and laptop.  He gave me a pre-printed card that explains the program, which also is described here.  It appears that, because I’m a frequent traveler, the TSA thinks they have sufficient information about me to waive certain of the security protocols.

So, I dropped my keys, cellphone, and other electronic gizmos in the plastic bin and put it on the conveyor belt and went through the scanner belt, shoes, suit coat, and all.  It was a whiff of the heady old days, before the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber and other would-be terrorists added new rules and new steps to the security process.

Going through security took about two minutes.  I enjoyed not having to partially disrobe, and I particular appreciated not having to hurriedly belt up, don shoes, fish out keys, and reinsert laptop in the scrum of passengers who’ve passed through the scanner, as bag after bin after bag come slamming off the conveyor.

I’m all for the pre-check program.

On The Road (Again)

Back on the road and in the skies today.  More time for me to appreciate the wonders of air travel, the sturdy beauty of our modern jet aircraft, and the inner workings of airports, with their finely timed dance of baggage handlers, runway workers, and cockpit crews.  More time for me to consider just how many people work for the TSA, and how much all of those blue-shirted uniforms and shoulder walkie-talkies cost, anyway.  More time for me to appreciate the simple joy of sleeping soundly in my own bed again, with my lovely wife beside me.

TSA Roulette

This week I was in St. Louis overnight, so I went through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Port Columbus on Thursday and the TSA checkpoint at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Friday.  I therefore must ask:  why are the checkpoint procedures so different from airport to airport?

In Columbus there are separate lines for “expert travelers,” casual travelers, and families in order to improve the flow through security.  In St. Louis everyone gets in the same, slow-moving line.  In St. Louis you can’t put your shoes in the plastic tub, you need to put them on the belt separately.  In Columbus, shoes can go in the tub with everything else.  In some airports you seem to need to hold your boarding pass as you go through the scanner, in others you don’t.  In some airports laptops need to be placed in their own bin, in others that is not the case.

Maybe the TSA procedures are ever-changing and that is the reason for the discrepancies, but I doubt it.  It seems like every airport has its own special procedures, and I think that is a mistake.  The TSA is a federal agency, and as a federal agency should enforce uniform procedures on a nationwide basis.  Having different, seemingly weird procedures — like placing your shoes directly on the belt in St. Louis — just slows down the security check-through process.  Passengers are already on edge because of the slowness of the process and the prospect of missing their plane, and it just makes them mad when they get yelled at by a TSA officer for not following a completely unknown requirement.

Is it too much to ask for some consistency in what is supposed to be an important security process?

The U-Trou Bomber

The recent story about the failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit can’t help but send a collective shudder through the minds of holiday travelers.  The would-be terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to detonate some high explosives strapped to his leg.  Fortunately, his device failed, and our country was spared the trauma of a Christmas Day attack that likely would have killed hundreds.  Credit also should be given to the brave fellow passengers who subdued the terrorist and put out the fire started by his device before he was able to do any further damage.

The terrorist’s backstory is, by now, disturbingly familiar.  Abdulmutallab comes from a privileged background and had been living in a fancy apartment and attending college in London.  Somewhere, somehow, he was introduced to radical Islamic views, joined al Qaeda, and received the training and device needed to carry out the plot.  He became disengaged from his family, which noticed the change in his personality and his religious and political views.  Indeed, his own father warned authorities that his son was a potential terrorist. His story should remind all of us that there still are people out there who want to harm the United States and kill innocent Americans and don’t mind dying in the attempt.

This incident should cause the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, and other American authorities to immediately revisit and tighten air travel security procedures.  Abdulmutallab apparently was on some kind of security watch list.  It is mind-boggling that he was able to carry a syringe and some form of high explosives through security.  It also appears that no one noticed other telltale signs of potential terrorist activity.  Abdulmutallab bought his ticket with cash.  Although he supposedly planned a two-week stay in Detroit, he did not check any luggage and had only a carry-on bag.  How was this guy not an obvious candidate for a careful physical search before he was allowed to board a plane to the United States?

The next time we travel by plane we no doubt will be inconvenienced by some new security procedures designed to prevent a similar attempt.  I don’t mind being inconvenienced if there is a realistic chance that the new procedures will foil the next terrorist plot.  And when I am in the TSA line, waiting, I may think of Abdulmutallab and smile at the thought that, when the explosive device strapped to his leg caught fire, he likely was badly burned in some tender areas.  Allah must have a sense of humor.