In our last episode about the woes of the Transportation Security Administration at Orlando International Airport, aka the people who keep crazy bastards from making a bomb out of hair spray and Tab on your flight to Poughkeepsie, we discovered that a lot of screeners secretly think their bosses are incompetent, inept and unqualified ("Why OIA screeners hate their jobs," Slug, Sept. 21). We also discovered that there are serious security issues at OIA, including screeners who can't pass proficiency tests, some of which have been found open on unsecured computers.
It's kind of a bad situation at the state's busiest airport.
We also discovered that the new person in charge of TSA at the airport, Lee Kair, seems like a decent guy with a lot of work ahead of him. He's inherited an organization with many longstanding problems, which you can read about from the screeners themselves at www.tsa-at-mco.netfirms.com. Better do it quickly, though, because TSA wants to shut down public criticism of itself.
Shortly after my last column was published I got a fat envelope in the mail, sent anonymously, containing an updated version of TSA Management Directive No. 1100.73-5, "Employee Responsibilities and Conduct." On page eight it clearly states that badmouthing TSA in your off hours is a no-no:
"An employee's off-duty Internet access/use must not adversely reflect on TSA or negatively impact its ability to discharge its mission, cause embarrassment to the agency, or cause the public and/or TSA to question the employee's reliability, judgment or trustworthiness."
Want to work for the Department of Homeland Security, TSA's parent organization? Check your First Amendment rights at the door.
Of course TSA officials will say that they are simply trying to keep Sensitive Security Information (SSI) under wraps to help protect the flying public. That's what Kair told me when I asked for specifics on why 501 screeners had scored poorly on the Threat Image Projection test, designed to keep them proficient at spotting dangerous items in luggage, and when I asked for specifics on how another training device, the Image Mastery Test, had been left open on unsecured computers even though it is supposed to be accessible by only a few people.
But that's a tough argument to make when TSA's own policies allow SSI to be taken home by employees, with a supervisor's approval, and put on their own laptops. According to a July 10 memo put out by TSA's national office of Sensitive Security Information, TSA employees can take sensitive information home with them as long as it's "placed in a locked drawer," and "electronic SSI should be password protected."
In other words, documents detailing how TSA trains its staff to look for contraband MUST be secured with a skeleton key at all times, or protected by a password, like "password." You don't want this stuff falling into the wrong hands, after all.
Nationally, TSA is an agency with a lot of problems. Its attrition rate is among the highest of any federal agency, as is its rate of on-the-job injuries; and its screeners are not covered by the same labor laws that protect other federal workers.
The Government Accountability Office has criticized TSA for being unable to develop a federal passenger pre-screening program, despite having worked on it for three years; and also for not keeping track of how often it uses backup security methods to help alleviate congestion. In Jackson, Miss., the TSA is now investigating whether airport management tipped off screeners to undercover probes so that security would look like it was doing its job. Two years ago, four top TSA officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport were fired because "screeners were not receiving the best possible leadership they deserve," according to a TSA spokesman. The shakeup came after an investigation by The Seattle Times newspaper that found "overworked employees at understaffed checkpoints; breakdowns in the screening of passengers and luggage; shortcuts taken by screeners; and failures by supervisors to follow standard procedures."
Seattle is a long way from Orlando, but complaints from screeners sound eerily similar.
Security officers I've talked to — none of whom would go on the record for fear of losing their jobs — say it's common for screeners to call in sick to avoid coming to work. Turnover is high. Information provided by an OIA screener puts the figure at 741 screeners who have left their jobs at OIA since the agency took over in 2001. For every screener that leaves, TSA spends about $12,000 training a replacement, meaning that turnover has cost the federal government about $8.8 million at OIA alone.
"What you are hearing from us locally is pretty much nationwide," says one OIA screener. Happy flying.