What do you really know about the TSA?

Hey babe, you on the no-fly list? / Photo by Drewski 2112 - Flickr
When it comes to the TSA, you may know less than you think.

I was reminded of that last week when I heard from Sergei Shevchuk, a reader who was flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco on Delta Air Lines.

“I was pleasantly surprised when an officer advised me not to take out my laptop and liquids and to keep my shoes and jacket on,” he told me. “They said they’ve been doing it for a week or two. Do you know anything about this?”

Well, yes. It sounded a lot like the TSA’s new PreCheck program, which allows certain “trusted” travelers to use an express lane at the airport. Only, Sevchuk says he never applied for PreCheck.

I put the question to Sterling Payne over at the TSA. Look closer, she told me. Sevchuk may have opted into the program without knowing it. “I would suggest he check his Delta [frequent flier] profile to see if he is opted in,” says Payne.

He did. And sure enough, under Sevchuk’s SkyMiles profile, there was a little check box with the following disclaimer:

By checking this box, you consent to Delta storing your Secure Flight Passenger Data consistent with our privacy policy.

For Delta SkyMiles members, by checking this box, you also consent to Delta Air Lines, Inc. sharing your information with TSA to be considered for modified screening at select TSA checkpoints.

The takeaway? You may have applied for PreCheck without even knowing it. Careful which buttons you check online.

It was that kind of week, actually; a week in which I kept saying that when it comes to the TSA, maybe we don’t really know what we think we do.

Take the sequel to the underwear bomber, for example. Not long after the story broke about a foiled plot to blow up a Western airliner by al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, agency apologists began citing it as a reason for keeping the TSA and its objectionable scans and pat-downs.

“Last week’s revelation that terrorists tried — yet again — to blow up an airplane using a bomb sewn into underwear should remind fliers why the pat-downs and scans are necessary,” wrote one New York Post commentator. “If this seems intrusive, it’s only because the madmen are depraved.”

But hang on. Turns out the would-be suicide bomber wasn’t depraved — he was a double agent.

Absolutely nothing wrong with trying to write a story headlined, “In defense of the TSA,” but maybe we should wait until the TSA actually catches a real terrorist before trying to make that case.

But it cuts both ways. Consider what happened when an 18-month-old girl was ordered off a JetBlue flight from Palm Beach, Fla., to New York after she was thought to be on the “no-fly” list of suspected terrorists. All fingers pointed to an inept TSA for suggesting that the toddler could be a jihadist bomber.

Appearances can be deceiving, though. It turns out JetBlue had erroneously flagged the little girl in its system, which it called a computer “glitch.”

The incident raises a bothersome question that JetBlue has yet to answer, but which my colleague Deborah Tornello succinctly put to the airline in an open letter.

“How does it work that someone who has a boarding pass and is already boarded, and seated, magically appears in a ‘computer glitch’ that results in having paying customers yanked from a plane, put on display (TSA, local police, you name it, were all waiting) and humiliated, this way?,” she wondered.

What say you, JetBlue?

Of course, if you read columns like this one, you’d think the TSA is installing its invasive scanning machines at a maddening clip. That’s the conventional wisdom. But Congressional investigators last week revealed that’s not necessarily true.

A report released by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee and Committee on Oversight and Government Reform concluded the TSA is wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars by “inefficiently deploying” screening equipment and technology to commercial airports.

That may be a nice way of saying it. When investigators showed up at a TSA warehouse in Dallas earlier this year, they observed approximately 5,700 pieces of security equipment being “held” at the site. In other words, they were collecting dust.

When it comes to the TSA, maybe we know a lot less than we think we know. I’ll be the first to admit that: the agency’s ways are mysterious, even to folks who work for it. I know a few people who do, as a matter of fact.

Question is, do we know enough? Even with these inconsistencies and contradictions, do we have enough information to do what many say is necessary now: To either reform this troubled federal agency or defund it?

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