Inside the TSA at MIA

This account of the goings-on at the MIA TSA branch, brought to you by the feisty local Miami New Times, is worse than not pretty. It's pretty ugly: allegations of theft from passengers' bags, sexual harassment (of other TSA employees), massive featherbedding, internal racism, and general incompetence.

Your Safety, Their Punch Line: 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.

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.

One screener describes her checkpoint: “There's a group who's always standing around talking or going on breaks whenever it's their time to [do certain tasks]. So a few screeners end up doing everything. Whenever we complain to supervisors, they say, 'Oh yeah, I'll have to talk to him or her.' But then nothing changes. … Nobody complains anymore — we just have to accept it.”

I've heard some screeners boast of purposely making mistakes on tasks they hate so they'll be taken off those jobs. Instead of ordering them to shape up, their superiors generally let them go back to standing around. A few months ago at one of our periodic Town Hall meetings, I was surprised to hear an offhand remark by FSD Richard Thomas (who must be praised for holding Town Hall meetings in the first place, even though everyone is too scared to tell him anything of substance). Thomas said Washington had authorized him to hire additional screeners but that he really needs to fill even more positions — “to take into account the sick and the lazy.”

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? …

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.

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