Who’s responsible for these bad TSA agents?

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?

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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.

33 thoughts on “Who’s responsible for these bad TSA agents?

  1. The TSA is without exception responsible for the behavior of their employees while on the job, or in uniform.  Getting them to DO something about said behavior is a whole other issue!

  2. they are just as responsible for their employee’s behavior as a school district is for their teacher’s behavior. if a school district can be sued for a teacher who is accused of wrongdoing off the clock, so can the TSA

  3. Nobody is listening – my fellow passengers are far better than any TSA screening at policing the airplane. Did not that get proved again when the passengers on the plane subdued the out-of-control pilot? The terrorists have already won by fundamentally changing our way of life when it comes to flying, riding in subway cars, etc. Therefore, they will turn to something else because the air system is already screwed up and they will think its time to attack somewhere else so that they can change that facet of life here in the USA.

  4. Congress should be held accountable for TSA and its “bad agents.”  TSA employees grew by nearly 400% in a decade time period when passenger numbers grew by comparably by only 12%.  In its November report, Congress complained that instead of TSA being a “lean” operation that acted on “real” threat information, it had become a “bloated” “human resources” agency that would “react” with a “one size fits all” security screening procedure.  Even Congress derided TSA’s recruitment using the backs of pizza boxes.  (translation: job creator of last resort)

    Since that November report it is now over four months later and Congress has done nothing to reshape TSA into that lean real intelligence-driven organization it wants.  Congress does not believe in the pink slip, did not build a security framework honoring our civil rights and continues pouring money down this rathole, allowing TSA to continue its current practices.  DHS and TSA have run away from Congress and rapidly getting out of control, and Congress is responsible.

    1. I agree hold Congress responsible for TSA. 

      If you have a Member of Congress who supports TSA then vote for someone else.  We all have alternate choices in either party so find the candidate that opposes TSA.  Ask candidates where they stand on the TSA issue and make it clear in communications with your representative that you will not support those who are not opposed to what TSA is doing.

  5. Not only should they be held responsible for their employees, they are also the ones directly responsible for this cluster in the first place.

    The leaders of TSA are the ones who pushed for pornoscanners and groping. They are the ones who pushed for hiring from pizza boxes. They are the ones who have turned security checkpoints into little fiefdoms that they rule from afar. They are the ones that decided that every traveler is a terrorist until proven innocent.

  6. Nothing will be done. The TSA has absolute power, and like all authoritarians with absolute power will abuse it. It’s that simple. And the United Sheeple of America just go “Baaaaaa.”

    1. Not everyone is a sheeple.  It’s just that TSA is abusing power and it seems to be getting harder and harder to do anything about it.

      For that Congressional session earlier in the week, they did solicit input from the public.  But on Facebook.  Poking around on Reddit, there were anecdotes that people were afraid the TSA would put people on the No-Fly list if they commented (or other similar monolithic government entity vs. the individual fears).

      The fact they put the solicitation on FB is also problematic.  While it has impressive market penetration in the US – about 1 in 3 households are on Facebook, based on recent estimates – that still means 2 in 3 households didn’t have a comment vehicle.  No alternate e-mail address or comment form appeared to be provided.  How that was acceptable was beyond me.

      That they got Bruce Schneier eliminated from the witness list at the eleventh hour was utterly reprehensible.  They ended up only having administration mouthpieces, which is utterly ridiculous.

      I think more people are upset than you give them credit for.  (Though I concede, there are tons of people who think TSA is fine and dandy, and I wonder if they ever fly, or simply have gone through AIT too often.)  But if TSA/DHS can manipulate the oversight method in such a gross and obvious manner, it makes it hard for the populace to effect change.  No amount of letters to Senators or Congressmen or other elected or appointed officials are going to help, because they don’t DO anything to TSA.  Except give them more money.

      So at this point, what do you recommend people do?  Seriously.  I’m all out of ideas, and I grew up in that town and have worked in or for half a dozen non-profit advocacy and lobbying groups over the years.

        1. I know those answers Lisa – we go back and forth enough. You should know that.

          I think we need new ideas because an economic boycott is simply unrealistic.  If for no other reason than the regiments of business travelers who pretty much have no choice but to fly or lose their jobs.  That also falls under the “walk away” concept.  (Was Sommer the subject of your second link?  In her case, she could walk away from Dulles but rebook through the AIT-free DCA Terminal 1 – many people simply don’t have that option.) 

          I opt out all the time.  That has made not one lick of difference.  And making noise during a pat-down is what I’ve taken to calling “checkpoint theater”.  TSA and DHS engage in security theater which results in no real improvement in security.  Being groped loudly is no less theatrical with no real impact on policy.  Unless you are actually in pain, a patient of some form for whom the searches are problematic, or a victim of sexual assault, all you are doing is dulling the impact.  If everyone is crying out, then it becomes commonplace and the necessary outrage is harder to rile up.  You have to pat down kids in wheelchairs these days as it is to get wide attention.

          And opting out in non-airport venues is something I plan on doing…but it’s not widespread enough yet for those types opt outs to make a difference.  And for situations like NFL games, people are not going to throw away the expensive tickets for the inconvenience of a TSA scan (kind of like flying), so we’re back where we started from.

          We need something new.  Maybe something similar to the SOPA/PIPA protests – a grass roots effort that is too wide to ignore. (Though honestly, now they’re trying to go through a back door with the same type of things, so I don’t know how successful it was in the long run,)  But I am tapped out of ideas at this point.  We live in such an ADD society that it’s hard to keep anyone’s attention for long.

          And I do agree with you that there are too many sheeple.  They will overwhelm the people who are angry.  Are there any good ideas coming out of the TravelUnderground boards?  The only thing I can think is focusing efforts on getting the attention of the airport authorities – consider it an adjunct or corollary to economic boycott.

          Something along the lines of “we don’t like security at LAX, so we’ll start going to SNA or LGB.”  (I’m not from California, so forgive me if this isn’t logistically realistic, but they are three airports that serve the LA area that are owned by three separate authorities, so a good theoretical example.)

          So not a flat-out boycott on flying, but a boycott on airport authorities that don’t appear to give a flying [email protected]#$%^& how bad the security experience is.  This is unrealistic in itself though – the tickets would probably be more expensive and schedules less flexible.  We have to find something that works on many levels.

          1. Chasmosaur, no, Sommer’s not the subject of the 2nd link.  And as I’ve said many times, I know that not everyone can choose not to fly. I listed half a dozen suggestions. I’m sure other people can come up with other ones.  Again, there are many ways to resist, not just one.  Many ways to protest, not just one.

            We are not going to win this battle — if we ever win it — quickly.  Just as the civil rights movement took years (decades, actually), so will this.  But we have to start somewhere.

            Awareness, for every injustice in life, is always the first most important thing.  Everything else follows from there.  At this point, with so many naysayers, deniers, apologists, and evidence-averse people out there, we have to keep working on awareness.  I do what I can.  That’s all I can do.

  7. If you have a Rogue Accounting flunkie who embezzles from you and from your clients, then cheats on your tax filings to cover it up . . .

    YOU GET TO PAY back your customers and YOU GET TO PAY the IRS.  You get to take full responsibility, 100%, like it or not.

    You can say anything you want about how this was just an anomalie, but still, you get hit in the wallet and YOU COULD GO TO PRISON for tax fraud since you signed the filings.

  8. Great article, Mr. Elliot.  I couldn’t help but think that the explicitly criminal activities of the TSA clerks you mentioned are dwarfed by the “legal” abuse the TSA visits on the traveling public, as recounted by Congressman Issa. At least the TSA’s pimp clerk is only facilitating transactions between willing participants. 

    The sexual fondling and clothing removals, and the voyeurism performed by the TSA clerks are all done to UNwilling participants, and damages them, in some cases severely. The TSA is showing itself to be sadistic and because it refuses to consider its own misdeeds, shows itself to be beyond remedy. 

  9. When the person at the top of the agency behaves as he does – I’m talking about you, John Pistole – defying Congress, being dishonest with the citizens he is supposed to serve, etc., etc. – is it any wonder TSA clerks behave as they do and get away with it?

    It starts at the top and migrates downwards.  Pistole (and Napolitano) need to go.

  10. Don’t mean to be offensive but, why is this even a question? Of course they should be held accountable. I know there are probably good folks with the TSA but the black eyes they have suffered with all these rouge agents, and I think the TSA is one huge rouge agency, outweigh any good they might have done, or think they have done. 

    Why is TSA the only agency that still has the blank checkbook (and is now probably more universally hated than the IRS!)

  11. This is the core problem with TSA. When TSA screeners grope, strip search or otherwise abuse a passenger, there are no repercussions.  if a trained police officer does the same , they are fired and sometimes imprisoned.

    When TSA screeners get caught committing crimes, some are fired but often TSA management says they are “reviewing the situation”. The TSA Manager arrested this week for running a prostitution ring was reported to TSA is 2009 and they not only left him on at Dulles, they promoted him to Manager.

    Virtually every one of the 82 TSA workers arrested in the last 16 months have had prior arrests or convictions, including child molesting, but are left in place with authority to grope children and view naked images of young women.

    Unless TSA management is held accountable these travesties will continue to occur.

  12. February Statistics On Airport Screening From The Department Of Homeland Security:

    Terrorists Discovered 0

    Transvestites 133

    Hernias 1,485

    Hemorrhoid Cases 3,172

    Enlarged Prostates 8,249

    Breast Implants 59,350

    Natural Blondes 3

    I couldn’t resist this humor.

  13. We do not hear story after story after story like this concerning federal or state law enforcement, or the DMV, or the post office [not so much any more] or anyone of a hundred other governmental organizations with thousands of employees – yet – there is a TSA story every week, sometimes twice.  

    These events speak volumes about the applicant pool and the selection process – or lack of one] at the organization.  The TSA IS responsible for these events, like the thefts that  happen, the over zealous rule making seemingly at random and the thousands [literally] of other events that occur monthly from the Hitler Youth redux.  

    TSA is responsible for creating a pool of individuals who collectively would be in jail for much of what they do.

    TSA is responsible for its selection criteria that put these folks together in the same room and allow them to scheme and shoot guns and cover for each other. 

    I see some light at the end of the tunnel – if we allow people like Issa and Mica some room here there is a significant possibility that we will get rid of TSA as we presently know it in the next 5 years.  

    The easiest method of taming TSA is to pass a two paragraph law as it pertains to commercial air travel:

    1.  Every Part 139 airport shall re-authorize its passenger pre-boarding boarding inspection program within 36 months of the effective date of this law . . . 

    2.  TSA and private contractors agreeing to maintain standards currently in effect by TSA for the protection of commercial air travel shall be permitted to compete for screening contracts with TSA. 

    1. Joe Farrell, sorry, but I’m not as sanguine as you. Congress is not going to get rid of the TSA. Congressional reps — of both parties — are too cowardly and corrupt, and too beholden to millions of dollars in corporate bribes –er, I mean contributions — to do anything to rein in the TSA. 

      As for the millions of TSA apologists out there, they’re already wetting their pants at the thought that A Terrorist Is Hiding Around Every Corner.  Not only are they willingly putting up with this sh*t, but all it would take is one real — or false flag — attack, and they would fall right into line.  Think things are bad now? Ha! You have no idea the depths to which the sheeple will sink.  Nothing — and I do mean nothing — will be too base and degrading for them.  Hell, they already tolerate — and even defend — outright sexual assault.

      Unbelievable what’s going on in this country.

    2. I don’t believe they are going to change things significantly to our benefit. Mica is the one who foisted this whole mess onto us to start with. Now he is leading the charge to change over to private screeners.

      That sounds like a good idea, right? Only one problem, TSA would still be setting the requirements for these screeners to follow so nothing would really change.

      And why is Mica doing all this? For the good of the American people? No. Turns out he has financial interests in the private screener companies that would be competing for contracts.

      As for Issa, I don’t know what his motive is. Hopefully, he really is trying to do something to help us. If so, he must be one of about three knights in shining armor in that cesspool known as Congress. (I’m referring to Ron and Rand Paul who seem to be the only Congressmen dedicated to taking down TSA).

      All the other Congressmen have significant financial stakes in maintaining the status quo.

  14. Tell the administration to withhold funding from TSA until they respect the Constitution and the public:


    1. Remove and destroy all imaging machines that potentially can “see” under our clothing.
    2. Cease and desist all invasive patdowns that involve touching genitalia unless there is probable cause to believe that the individual has committed a crime.
    3. Cease immediately harassment of people who assert their constitutional rights during airport screening.


  15. Of course the agents believe they are above the law.  Their leaders believe they are above having to answer to anyone, including Congress, and are secretive beyond belief.  The fish does indeed rot from the head down.

  16. Certainly the leadership is responsible for the actions of their employees, if not who is then? It is insufficient to just react to inappropriate actions under public pressure, the leadership should engage in preventive actions that ensures these actions don’t happen again.

  17. Quoting Frederick Douglass, again: “Find out just what the people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

    1. “C. While on or off-duty, employees are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that does 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.”

      From “TSA MANAGEMENT DIRECTIVE No. 1100.73-5

  18. Except TSA has no leadership!! They definitely do not lead by example, are able to treat those below them like garbage, make up the rules as they go, and use their position as the reason. Those of us at the bottom are in fear of not having a job to support our families if we use FMLA or our leave we get written up and end up in a hostile work environment. And I will tell you, longevity means nothing to this agency. It is sad. Seems the longer and more committed you are, the harder they want you gone! All you TSA haters should really think twice about how you treat TSA when you go through an airport. Most had good intentions when they took the job, many have done the job and done it well for years and have families just like all of you to support and many are treated like crap and have no support from their leadership. It’s not the job that brings us down, or even the passengers, it’s who we work for. I realize not all have this problem, but a majority do. It is really sad. Until it is fixed from the top down, nothing will change!

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