TSA Watch: Confronting an out-of-control agency

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By Christopher Elliott

It’s been a week of run-ins between the TSA and its critics. Maybe the most interesting one was Sen. Rand Paul’s confrontation with Transportation Security Administration Chief John Pistole during a Congressional hearing.

“You’ve gone overboard and you’re missing the boat on terrorism because you’re doing these invasive searches on six-year-old girls,” Paul said of the TSA’s searches, pointing to a poster-size image of a young girl from his state being patted down. “It makes me think you’re clueless if you think she’s going to attack our country.”

Here are Pistole’s prepared statements for the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. (And yes, TSA spelled it “govermental.” Why? Because they can.)

A political standoff

Meanwhile in Texas, legislators are trying to figure out how they intend to confront the TSA. You’ll recall that the anti-groping bill was pulled after the feds threatened to stop flights to the Lone Star State.

The bill was revived thanks to presumed presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry, but late yesterday seemed to be going nowhere, with the House Speaker calling it a “publicity stunt.” But lawmakers may get some traction on the legislation early next week. That ought to be interesting.

So if Perry wins in 2012, will he disband the TSA? Don’t hold your breath.

Oh, and if you think the confrontations are limited to the airport and Congressional hearings, think again. As I’ve already reported in this column, TSA is patting down bus, subway and ferry passengers. But who knew the agency conducted 8,000 such screening operations last year alone? We learned that during last week’s hearings in Washington.

That’s a lot of pat-downs — and a lot of confrontations.

The need for a constructive approach

But are these run-ins with an intransigent, overstaffed, overfunded federal agency getting us anywhere? All the evidence suggests that despite the rhetoric, the outrage and the well-publicized incidents, the answer is “no.” If anything, there’s a siege mentality at TSA. Anyone who dares to criticize the agency and its inept screening practices is seen as the enemy. They’ve circled the wagons and stopped listening to their own constituents, the American taxpayers who pay their salaries.

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The TSA needs more than a stand-up comedian to deflect its critics and defuse confrontations. Something tells me it would benefit from an old-school ombudsman who can ensure every screening complaint is handled professionally and every credible critic is offered an articulate and reasoned response. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

It’s not going to be easy. I’ve been an ombudsman for the last 15 years, and I can promise you, it’s hard work. And no, I do not want that job. But what we have now are angry airline passengers yelling in an echo chamber and bureaucrats dodging questions in Senate hearings, and we have to do better than that.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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