So You Want to Privatize the TSA?

Anyone who has passed through an airport recently has experienced the vicissitudes of the post-September 11 Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  Destructive articles highlighting children being strip-searched, little old ladies being harassed, and the molestation of beauty queens under the pretext that they require "additional screening" have not served the image of the TSA very well for the traveling public.

It wasn't always like that.  Air carriers used to be responsible for the security of their passengers.  After several high-profile hijackings in the late 1960s (D.B. Cooper, et al), terrorist threats (hijackers threatened to fly Southern Airways Flight 49 into a nuclear reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory), and terrorist attacks (e.g., a bomb on PanAm Flight 103 killed 270 passengers), the Federal Aviation Administration required in 1973 that all airlines screen passengers and their carry-on baggage.  Airport security and passenger screening were not core competencies of airlines.  The airlines, in turn, contracted the government-mandated screening functions to private security companies.  Private companies bid on those contracts. 

In 1994, I was the general manager of one of those private security companies, at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.  My company provided passenger screening, skycaps, wheelchair assistants, and a few other contracted services for the eight airlines that operated from the airport.  My "pre-board screeners" performed the same "screening" functions – magnetometer, X-ray machine, hand-held metal detectors – as the TSA does today. 

There are many reasons why pre-September 11 airport screening was less invasive and comprehensive than what we experience with today's TSA.  My 200 employees were paid the minimum wage; supervisors received a little more.  Employee turnover (during some months) approached 300%.  The contract was a losing proposition financially, month over month.  My company had to provide uniforms, conduct mandatory ten-year FAA background investigations, and schedule and pay for mandatory FAA drug tests.  For every ten applicants, one would be able to pass the background investigation and drug test – then, a week later, I'd lose him when he took a job at the McDonalds on the concourse.  Minimum wage plus a nickel. 

It was a revolving door – for every five employees who came in, five employees headed out.  Employees missed some of the easiest operational test pieces – pistols look only like pistols, not hair curlers – that passed through the X-ray machine.  Fail an FAA test, and you were escorted to the door; I'd mail them their check.

One day, over twenty Muslim men in kufis and women in hijabs showed up at our airport office to fill out applications.  My day and night shift managers thought they had died and gone to Heaven – potential new employees motivated to work for minimum wage, and there were over twenty of them.  While we scheduled and paid for mandatory FAA drug tests (at $75 a pop), not a single one of the near two dozen Muslim men and women were able to pass the background check.  Reason: no employment history; no real references other than the same person on twenty-plus applications who answered the telephone at an Islamic center.  The FAA didn't approve a single applicant.  Several of the Muslim men who had applied for a pre-board screener position returned to the airport and complained bitterly that they were not given employment.  That was a first, and the episode set my curiosity afire for months.

Then September 11, 2001 occurred.  From the 9/11 Commission Report: Four men passed through the security checkpoint, owned by United Airlines and operated under contract by Argenbright Security.  Like the checkpoints in Boston, it lacked closed-circuit television surveillance, so there is no documentary evidence to indicate when the hijackers passed through the checkpoint, what alarms may have been triggered, or what security procedures were administered.  The FAA interviewed the screeners later; none recalled anything unusual or suspicious.

The 9/11 Commission Report was virtually silent on how weapons were transferred from the "non-sterile side" of the airport through the security checkpoint to the "sterile side" of the concourse.  From the 9/11 Commission Report (italics mine):

Checkpoint screening was considered the most important and obvious layer of security.  Walk-through metal detectors and X-ray machines operated by trained screeners were employed to stop prohibited items.  Numerous government reports indicated that checkpoints performed poorly, often failing to detect even obvious FAA test items.  Many deadly and dangerous items did not set off metal detectors, or were hard to distinguish in an X-ray machine from innocent everyday items.  9/11 Commission investigators asked a screening expert to review the videotape of the hand-wanding, and he found the quality of the screener's work to have been "marginal at best."  The screener should have "resolved" what set off the alarm; and in the case of both Moqed and Hazmi, it was clear that he did not.

How did the weapons get through the checkpoint?  Did the persons who performed "hand-wanding" in two airports really fail to resolve what set off the first magnetometer alarm and the secondary "hand-wanding"?  Or did the screeners sitting behind the X-ray machine ignore what was in a string of baggage?  Even today's headlines report that screeners perform poorly and fail to detect even obvious FAA test items.  I trained on the X-ray machine – it is hard to distinguish potential weapons from innocent everyday items.  

The episode of Muslim men and women seeking airport security positions, and then complaining that they were not given a job, always made me a little uneasy.  It was more than odd; it was a little suspicious.  While I thought there just had to be "more to it," I didn't have time, nor was I motivated to investigate further.  I had a marvelous relationship with the airport police, and I didn't say anything.  What was there to discuss?  Some obscure feeling?  Was I an Islamophobe?

I was left with the reality that they didn't get the job, and the episode was soon forgotten.  But the feeling that I had witnessed something ethereal and not well defined, like seeing Bigfoot hiding behind a tree, wouldn't go away.

In my novels, when discussing the events of September 11, I have hijab-wearing women behind the X-ray machines where they ignored the obvious weapons that showed up distinctively in the X-ray images.

The weakest link in the airport security chain was a contracted position that paid minimum wage, and the typical pre-board screener was entirely indifferent to doing a good job – to detect weapons or explosives out of a mess of other shapes and images.  This was a year after the 1993 first World Trade Center bombing.  Then September 11 occurred, and in my mind, a former general manager for a contracted airport security company, a former trained aircraft accident investigator, and a college professor for an aviation university teaching aviation history and aviation terrorism, I was convinced I knew exactly what had happened at two airports and what had happened aboard four hijacked jets. 

I would ask my students, "Why did the U.S. government feel compelled to immediately federalize the checkpoint screening process, 'the most important and obvious layer of security'?"  Just as Mohamed Atta and his murderous friends breached the cockpit doors and hijacked the aircraft of September 11, did someone also breach the most important and obvious layer of airport security, the pre-board screener?  Were there sympathetic pre-board screeners in Boston and New York who ignored the X-ray images of weapons on September 11?

The 9/11 Commission reported that in 1998, the FBI assessed the potential use of flight training by terrorists, and in 2000, the Phoenix electronic communication of 2001 warned of radical Middle Easterners attending flight school.  There was no discussion on how the September 11 terrorists were able to smuggle weapons aboard four aircraft with the exception of a vague excuse that the contract screeners were notoriously poor at their job and they missed countless training aids and decoys.

We all want to be safe when we fly.  Those who advocate for replacing the TSA and returning to the pre-9/11 standard of privately contracted airport security argue that the TSA seems to be an agency that is out of control and that its agents do not answer to anyone.  That they have a job to do, that they don't care how intrusive or offensive or ridiculous their procedures are. 

In my world, any private airport security provider would be worse than the heavily regulated TSA.  The problem with the TSA is one of political correctness.  Profiling is a bad word.  Everyone has to be punished equally.  This isn't an issue of the government compelling a security company to establish minimum standards and criteria for airport security; the airlines and the FAA had a long track record of doing just that, from 1973.

The aviation world is a much nastier place than it was in 1973.  If we cannot break the moratorium on profiling terrorists in favor of safer air travel instead of strip-searching, harassing, or molesting children, little old ladies, and beauty queens, then let me leave you with this image.  Private airport security providers would return to the days of half-hearted FAA background investigations and minimum-wage employees.  And with that, I can assure you, you'll trade a little convenience as your safety gets tossed out the window.

There is a phrase in the military lexicon, "inside the wire," where civilians and military are within the confines of a protective wall or fence at a camp or a forward operations base.  In this day of international terrorism, where a terroristic or militant group seeks to find and exploit the weakest link in a security setting, the next time you go through an airport and think the TSA is horrible, instead, imagine that the Muslim Brotherhood or the Black Panthers have weaseled their way "inside the wire" and are manning the airport security checkpoint. 

I'll drive or a take the train.

Mark A. Hewitt is an author of espionage thrillers.

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