Like Alan Rickman in Die Hard or Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, the fine men and women of the TSA — mostly the men, actually — are really good at being bad.
How else do you explain the bizarre events of the last few days — the kind of behavior even a seasoned Hollywood screenwriter hesitates to assign a federal employee charged with protecting America’s transportation systems?
It started last Monday with a possible explanation for the TSA agents’ transgressions: their own leaders. The highlight of a congressional oversight committee hearing was Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asking TSA officials about several unusual and invasive screening incidents.
The agency appeared to dodge just about every question put to it by the committee, including the one from a marine flying in uniform who was forced to remove his pants in full view of other passengers, and woman with an artificial leg who repeatedly had her breasts fondled by agents (see video).
It also managed to delete Bruce Schneier, the snarky security critic, from the witness list. Impressive.
In the end, the hearing amounted to little more than grandstanding, according to one observer. But it was illuminating in another way: Officials hardly veered from their carefully-prepared talking points. They weren’t there to answer questions.
Remember, these are the same folks who help create the TSA’s institutional culture, and who define what is — and isn’t — allowed. And they basically told Congress to stick it.
This was security theater of a different kind. And damn, these actors were good.
But they weren’t the only players.
Just a few hours later, two part-time TSA officers at Palm Beach International Airport allegedly trashed a Miami Beach hotel room and shot a gun out a window.
Jeffrey Piccolella and Nicholas Anthony Puccio were charged with criminal mischief and use of a firearm while under the influence. Police said they tossed furniture and other objects from a second-floor room at the Hotel Shelley on Collins Avenue. They then took turns firing a .380-caliber pistol out the window. Piccolella has been terminated.
Then there was the report of a TSA agent, still in uniform, arrested for selling heroin just around the corner from an elementary school in Newark, NJ. Although the incident happened earlier in the month, it was only reported a week before, and public outrage was hitting its peak.
Things took an even stranger twist when a TSA supervisor (yes, a supervisor) was charged with running a prostitution ring.
The details are pretty unbelievable. Bryant Jermaine Livingston allegedly used cash to rent a room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Silver Spring, Md. A hotel manager said he saw “groups of males and females frequently entering and exiting Livingston’s room.” One man said he paid Livingston $100 to enter the hotel room to engage in sexual activities.
TSA agents certainly pushed the limits, when it comes to perverted behavior. Late in the week, we got word that Andrew Cheever, a former TSA agent, from Lowell, Mass., was sentenced to nearly three and a half years in prison for possessing child pornography.
Investigators say Cheever had thousands of child pornography images and videos on his home computer and made them available on the Internet using peer-to-peer file sharing software. Cheever pleaded guilty to the charges in December.
What the hell is going on here?
Do TSA agents really feel as if they are rogue cops that have to break a few eggs to get the job done? After last week’s events, you might be forgiven for thinking that at least some of TSA’s 58,000 employees believe they’re above the law. That they can do whatever they wanna do — whether it’s firing a gun in a hotel room, running a prostitution ring or misleading Congress.
I see a pattern. And it’s not just from one week’s worth of incidents. The TSA has a 10-year history of acting like a movie villain who is absolutely convinced by the rightness of his cause, who has no moral conflicts about the terrible things he does, and who even enjoys being bad.
This looks like an institutional problem pushed from the top levels through the many layers of middle management down to the airport screeners. (A Sicilian proverb sums it up nicely: “The fish rots from the head down.”)
I really want to be wrong about this. I want to believe that the TSA feels its behavior is “unacceptable” and to use the words of its own spokesman, “in no way reflect the integrity and professionalism of the more than 50,000 security officers who strive every day to ensure the security of the traveling public.”
But I’m becoming increasingly skeptical that the TSA is as blameless as it says. Nor do I think it is capable of fixing its own problems without help.
I hope it doesn’t take another 9/11 to reform this corrupt and ineffective federal agency.