Tales from the TSA

TSA glove

by Reid Fitzsimons

Any fair discussion about the TSA requires a disclaimer of sorts. The average TSA employee is looking for a paycheck, not confrontation and perhaps to be viewed as doing something meaningful in at least a small way, not just another assistant to the acting chief assistant to the deputy director in charge of special projects; I can assure those inexperienced in the workings of government there are plenty of the latter. Human nature dictates that wherever there is power to be had, running the gamut from petty to absolute, a certain type of person is attracted not to the mission but to the allure of authority. Throw in a uniform and I am sure there are enough TSA employees who derive something from their position other than the satisfaction of doing their job, so to speak, and they are likely well represented in management.  As a point of reference, there are around 56,000 TSA employees and the budget is in the range of 7.4 billion.

I cannot think of any other citizen/government interaction that so routinely expects/ demands the former comport themselves as sheep. I’ve never heard of anyone who loves the TSA but certainly there are those who hate it. I do not hate the TSA and submit to the ovine requirements when necessary, but I have my tale, nothing particularly dramatic, which I am recounting here.

In April 2004 I was giving my son his high school graduation gift in the form of a trip to the Southwestern US, where neither of us had previously been. It was a happy event with no concern given to ambling through security with the rest of the herd. This obliviousness ended abruptly when I was instructed to step aside. Confident I was neither a terrorist nor even a criminal, and once having had a pair of nail-clippers confiscated, I was not overly concerned. The young agent was reasonably polite when he pointed out my combo flashlight/low quality Leatherman like nifty device discovered in my carry-on. I also was polite when I said I had forgotten it was in my bag- in fact it was a staple in my carry-on like nail-clippers (the prior restriction had been lifted) or an extra pair of socks. I even mumbled something about it being a good pick up. A group of TSA agents coalesced around me and I vaguely realized this was not going to be a stern warning and item confiscation scenario. By the time the two cops arrived and brusquely ordered me to remove my hands from my pockets, to which I immediately compiled, I was in kind of a daze.

I had an awareness of the cops being animatedly shown the suspect device and the cops then pulling me off to the side with a significant change in their demeanor. They explained: when they were summoned the TSA reported an elaborate attempt using a home-rigged device to smuggle a weapon onto a plane, but when they actually saw it they realized I not engaged in some nefarious plot of destruction. I perceived a hint of friction between the cops and the TSA. The situation no longer acute, the cops left and the TSA, acting in the manner of a sore loser, ordered me to make an official statement. It was brief- a couple of years previously I bought the flashlight/nifty tool combo on clearance at Wal-Mart ($4 if I recall), put it in my carry-on, and forgot all about it. I signed the official statement and was reluctantly allowed to go on my way. Fortunately we just made the flight.

The really frightening component of this ordeal I learned later. My future spouse (whom
I apparently pointed out to the cops at some point) had been standing outside the secure area observing these transactions. When I next talked with her she told me the cops approached her with the offending nifty tool in hand, gave it to her, and told her to get out of the area- they informed her the TSA had insisted I be arrested, they refused, and they wanted the “evidence” to disappear. Throughout my life I’ve had ambivalent feelings towards the police, but in this case they were everything they should be- able to correctly interpret a situation and respond appropriately with commonsense and reason.

The TSA, like many government entities, was created in the fall of 2001, an understandable reaction to recent events. Perhaps in the haste to do something, wisdom was not a major part of the consideration- no one really knows if the TSA has ever actually prevented a terrorist event- but thankfully some astute thinker (or was it an oversight) did not give the TSA arrest authority.

If the cops had been from Pottersville and not Bedford Falls and acceded to the demands of the TSA, I wonder how my life would have been different. Does being arrested mean I would have been handcuffed, read my rights, and escorted out of the airport in front of my son and spouse to be? Would there have been a booking with mug shots and fingerprinting, then placed in a jail cell? I could imagine some flunky assistant DA, after reviewing the case for 30 seconds, acting tough and informing me I could be charged with conspiracy with a up to 5 years in prison, but if I agreed to plead guilty to (fill in the crime) and pay a $500 fine I could be out shortly, neglecting to mention I would now have a conviction on my record. Perhaps this is all some nightmare fantasy from too much Law and Order but at a minimum, if the TSA had their way, I would have forfeited the hundreds of dollars in ticket costs and a wonderful memory of spending time with my son before he moved on to adult life. What was the thought process behind the TSA demand for my arrest? I don’t specifically know, but I can offer from personal experience some insight into the bureaucratic governmental mindset.

Back in probably 2000, while an employee of New York State, I was asked to fill-in on a committee that reviewed new employees still in the probationary period, there being no appeal process for being terminated. Monthly evaluations were considered and the first or second line supervisor would appear to offer their opinion and answer questions. Up next was some average guy with “meets or exceeds performance standards” type comments, the supervisor reported him to be a good employee, and the august committee recommended his continuation.

For some reason there was a gap before the next review and, as most of the people there would have nothing to do with each other outside of work, there was an uncomfortable silence. Unfortunately someone felt obligated to fill the void with his or her voice, which consisted of something like, “I’m not sure, but I think I might have heard something negative about the person we just reviewed.” Questioning revealed nothing more specific or substantial, but one could see the bureaucratic minds engaging, and in short order the herd had reversed course and concluded this person needed to be fired. I tried to appeal to the fact this decision was based on idle speculation and that moments before he was considered a perfectly fine employee, but to no avail. I still wonder if the poor schmuck had based major life decisions on the fact he had a civil service job buoyed by favorable comments from his supervisors- “now we can finally buy that house, honey”- only to be spontaneously fired by some faceless committee for reasons he would never know.

Epilogue:

I received from the TSA a Warning Notice dated April 23, 2004- “The investigation has concluded that you did in fact possess a Leatherman tool, which was discovered by TSA personnel, in your carry-on luggage, while present for screening at the Albany International airport’s checkpoint contrary to federal regulations. You explained that you had purchased the flashlight/Leatherman as a combination package at Wal-Mart and you had forgotten it was there. You also acknowledged that you should not have possessed the item.”

“The available facts and circumstances surrounding this case have been reviewed. It has been determined that you in fact violated Title 49 Code of Federal Regulations (49CFR), part 1540.111(a)(1). This matter is being closed with a letter of warning. This will be kept on file and reviewed if any other similar violations are committed by you in the future.”

 

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