Confession #2: In Defense of the Good TSA Screener, and Some Reasons Why You May See Officers Unfriendly.

TSA does not set itself up to be the kind of place where good, smart workers even think about staying. There are several reasons for the high turnover rate, as well as the high retention rate of the bad apples that the current chief, John Pistole, so often speaks disdainfully of. I cannot emphasize enough my belief that the most fundamental, deeply rooted problem with this vast, expensive, bumbling organization lies within its very premise: its mission to be a highly advanced, effective counter-terrorist organization, when the one thing it will never be is a highly effective, advanced counter-terrorist organization.

The most ridiculous fact is not that the TSA is trying to be this “advanced counter-terrorist organization” in a world where, for the most part, the mere arrival of a terrorist at a crowded transportation hub is already fatal. The unfortunate truth is that if a malicious entity again managed to evade our real intelligence and police agencies and bowl right over the security-theater installed at our airports, we would most likely blame the TSA for not having been more intrusive with their procedures. Passive security such as TSA’s can only do so much (outside of Israel, anyway) setting up what amounts to Maginot Lines that the (exceedingly rare) deadly terrorist can simply opt out of, slip through, or walk right around, with only a little determination and ingenuity.

The good, thinking TSA employee, a few of whom I knew personally, is aware of this damned if you do, damned if you don’t position, and realizes that the best option is to put on the show, officially, but try to do his or her best to drop the magic act for as many people as possible, wherever possible, so long as they don’t get caught betraying this or that specific security theater routine as being just theater, thus outing the “man behind the curtain” and bringing on disciplinary action. And so you have a system where, in actuality, the absolute value of a TSO PAX screener is directly proportional to his or her willingness to break the TSA’s own rules in a non-malicious, non-coercive manner.

The biggest thing that the TSA could do to partially reshape this awkward dynamic that exists within its culture, one where theatrics and illusion are so deeply ingrained and thoroughly rewarded on one hand, and discreetly expected to be done away with at times on the other— an absurd, tension-fraught dynamic that does indeed lower morale and make its precious few good, intelligent front-line screeners far more likely to quit, run to new jobs, or be unfairly removed from service— would be to revamp their yearly assessment system.

As it is, any passenger TSO can keep his or her job so long as they 1. Don’t get caught doing something absurdly stupid and 2. Pass a one hour theatrical routine which takes place annually, the PSE, or “practicals.” That’s about it. A TSA employee can be the most unfriendly, common sense-deficient, uneducated and unskilled person in the world, who consistently does just enough to not get fired all year round, but as long as he or she pulls it together to pass an annual one hour song-and-dance routine, displaying an ability to deliver an on-the-spot performance containing only a superficial connection to a screener’s day-to-day functional duties, they can keep their jobs. While, conversely, it oftentimes happens that a good TSO, of the kind-hearted, pleasant, intelligent variety who leaves passengers smiling while still getting the job done, constantly finds him or herself in danger of being terminated for reasons that have nothing to do with whether they are good all-around employees. I’ve watched many of those good TSA employees get needlessly terminated, in fact, which is one of the main reasons I write this blog: for all the good employees that TSA kicked to the street by its characteristically moronic reasoning. Many of them do find themselves terminated for outrageous reasons (example: “Did you clear the inside meshing of the third pocket of that test suitcase with a patting motion or a sliding motion? Wrong. You fail. Thanks for your 10 years of quality federal service, but you’re fired. A thief will now be taking your place.”)

A more reasonable assessment could be devised, if the fire was lit beneath this enormous bureaucracy whose hands are always supposedly tied; a more holistic assessment of officers. Instead of, for instance, funneling all the time and money that the TSA wastes in their pointless quest to make full body scanners the primary screening method, training and deploying teams of “truth wizards” (Behavior Detection Officers) to patrol airports, and setting up assessment systems that hardly reflect upon their officers’ suitability—esoteric SOP multiple choice tests and purely theoretical one hour performances– a robust covert passenger-officer interaction program could be implemented at airports, something that would include what senator Charles Schumer recently proposed, designed to assess officers on their people skills with members of the public, their trustworthiness, along with their basic procedural competence, in a way that actually reflects on their routine, day-to-day performance as a screener, even when “no one is looking.” This would do two main things. 1. Give PAX screeners a better incentive to be on the same page with all procedures, year-round, as opposed to just once or twice during the year and whenever certain supervisors are looking and 2. Give officers a greater incentive to treat all passengers with respect, as there would be a more palpable chance that any given passenger could be the one determining their job security.

While some degree of security theater is probably a necessary evil in a world where the TSA will ultimately and inevitably be impotent to do anything to stop a determined terrorist, the TSA could at least counterbalance that by doing a much better job of optimizing what they can actually do: provide the least intrusive, least obnoxious and least intelligence-insulting security theater possible, while genuinely making every effort to keep the “good apple employees” in, and the bad ones out.

When questioned about the TSA’s questionable method of yearly assessment and decision-making for recertification (and TSOs are, justifiably, constantly questioning the assessments) I’ve heard many a member of upper management say, in conspiratorial tones, “Don’t complain about our assessment system. Keep your mouths shut. If you know how to work it to your advantage, you can come out far better with this system than with the theoretical, well-rounded system that all of you are always asking for. Be careful what you wish for.”

What TSOs, and what the public would demand if they realized the extent of the absurdity of the PASS system, as TSA calls it, is not a system where people who are adept at gaming the system are rewarded, and genuinely good workers are tossed out without jobs. The TSA may be in a position where it has to do a certain amount of theater, but it can see to it that the actors in the play do not descend into the audience and sneak lewd peeks at them, confiscate their liquids for no good reason, and run off the few perfectly good members of their show’s production for the crime of forgetting a few of the play’s lines once a year.

TSA, tear down that PASS system.

I’m on Twitter here.

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