: Repression or Discretion
By William John Cox (about the author)
Google "TSA stupidity" and you will find that almost
one-and-a-half million websites have something to say about the subject.
If the United States is to avoid another major terrorist attack on its
air transportation system without placing greater restrictions on the
civil liberties of air travelers, the Transportation Security
Administration (TSA) had better get smart.
Everyone who travels by air in the United States has a depressing
story to tell about airport screening. Media stories of a gravely ill
95-year-old grandmother forced to remove her adult diaper before being
allowed on a plane and viral videos showing terrified children being
intimately touched by TSA agents are more than depressing. They are a
chilling commentary on the police state increasingly accepted by the
American public in the name of security.
Air travelers dare not complain. TSA standards focus additional
scrutiny on travelers who are "very arrogant" and express "contempt
against airport passenger procedures."
Is such repression the only choice? Or, can TSA officers be trained
to exercise the necessary discretion to detect would-be terrorists,
while allowing innocent travelers to swiftly and safely pass through
A reasonable and practical balance in airport security screening
policy must be obtained before another terrorist attack results in even
Shocked that poorly-trained airport security guards allowed
terrorists armed with box cutters to board and use four passenger
airplanes as flying missiles of mass destruction, Congress established
the TSA two months after 9-11.
Fifty thousand Transportation Security Officers (TSO) were quickly
hired and rushed through one-week training courses. Although these
officers are now federal employees and receive improved training, they
are still security guards. Even so, as "officers" of Homeland Security,
they exercise great power over the flying public.
TSA transformed contract screening guards into quasi-law enforcement
officers and provided uniform training and policies; however, the TSA
was organized as a top-down directed organization which allows very
little discretion to individual officers. It's "one size fits all"
approach to screening results in well intended, but outrageous conduct
by its agents.
In an attempt to prevent collective bargaining and to avoid adding
Democratic-leaning permanent workers to the federal bureaucracy, the
Republican-controlled Congress exempted TSA employees from most federal
civil service laws. Instead, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the
TSA administrator were given virtually unlimited authority to create a
personnel system. This action was to have a number of unintended
Although legislation has been introduced to bring TSA officers into
the federal civil service, the TSA administrator retains absolute
control over the personnel system. Exercising this power, administrator
John Pistole granted some bargaining rights earlier this year.
While Pistole's order provides greater job protection to officers, it
does nothing to improve the existing TSA personnel selection system.
As presently constituted, the employment process perpetuates mediocrity
and limits the ability of TSA managers to hire and promote the most
Currently TSA job applicants primarily use the Internet to identify
job announcements for TSA airport operations at more than 450 airports,
complete applications and take an online test to measure their ability
to operate screening equipment.
All English-speaking U.S. citizens over the age of 18 with a high
school diploma, a GED, or one year of experience as a security officer
or x-ray technician, meet the basic requirements for TSA officers, as
long as they are current in their payment of income taxes and child
The main problem is that, once applicants meet these minimum
requirements and pass a physical examination, drug screening and
perfunctory background investigation, they are lumped together with all
other applicants in a hiring pool for each job site.
Unlike general civil service rules, there are no ranked lists of the most qualified applicants within these pools.