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Published: Saturday, 10/26/2002

White House Watch: Mostly turbulence for security agency

WASHINGTON - Most Americans probably haven't heard much about the newest federal alphabet agency - the Transportation Security Administration. That's good. Knowing about the TSA would just make them angry.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Congress set up the agency to make travel - especially airline travel - and transportation of commerce safer. An absolutely first-rate lawman, John Magaw, former head of the Secret Service, was named director. There was a major sigh of relief in Washington. Surely a new agency with a vital mission, launched amid the post-9/11 determination to protect Americans, would be a boon to everybody.

Wrong. The agency immediately got in hot water setting up nice offices and fretting over its seal (it has an eagle) and hiring 118,447 people. Then Mr. Magaw got fired, vaguely accused of not being the right man for the job, basically because there seemed to be no way to make deadlines to screen all baggage for potential bombs. Mr. Magaw also opposed guns in cockpits. (Congress has now decreed that pilots may carry guns.) And he deplored the concept of giving frequent fliers special cards to speed them through security checkpoints.

Things have gone downhill from there. USA Today reported the other day that more than 1,000 federal air marshals called in sick in a three-week period this summer because of low morale and allegations that the agency reneged on promises to give them time off from constant travel. (The agency says, “What promises?”)

Congress and the White House have turned stingy with the fledgling bureaucracy - potentially the largest created since World War II. It cost an estimated $6.5 billion to set up.

With the busy holiday travel season coming up, constant reports of security lapses are undermining confidence in the troubled agency even more. Nightmares of woefully long lines, missed flights, and airport congestion haunt anyone planning to travel over the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.

When gunshots sprayed a Los Angeles airline terminal ticket counter this summer, killing three, the TSA washed its hands, saying it had no authority and no responsibility. A promised computer system supposed to be able to weed out suspicious passengers still isn't up and running. Even as security now demands that passengers keep control of their baggage at all times, the TSA shut down airport lockers as potential sites for hiding bombs.

There are long lines for security checks, with embarrassed passengers having to submit to having belongings pawed through while other passengers watch. Because such searches are random, mothers with crying babies and wheelchair-bound seniors are as likely to be singled out as anybody.

While many TSA employees are experienced law-enforcement agents, few have aviation experience. Appalled airline officials, already confronting losses of $9 billion this year because of fare cuts, declining numbers of passengers, and the cost of fuel, began complaining about the new agency almost from Day One. Such complaints have not slowed. Nor has the volume of consumer complaints from the flying public eased.

On Dec. 31, the TSA is warning, airports have to begin screening all baggage for explosives even though nobody believes this will be at all a feasibly smooth operation.

Airports and airlines are braced for chaos at some of the biggest airports, with long lines of frustrated, frantic passengers and mounds of untested luggage at new machines squeezed into already cramped terminals with new employees operating them.

The bill to give airports a year-long extension for obeying the mandate is in limbo. It is part of the proposal to create another new bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security. But that measure is hung up in the Senate over worker rights.

Meanwhile, other workers are losing their jobs. Thousands of airport security workers have been dismissed as part of the effort to federalize 44,000 workers by Nov. 19 by hiring U.S. citizens only. It's no surprise that the dismissed workers, many of them loyal, longtime immigrants, are mumbling about discrimination in their adopted homeland. But the TSA vows it will meet the deadline, pointing to 1.57 million applications on file.

Oh yes: For the last nine months, passengers have been paying up to $10 per round trip for a new “security service fee” - also called a “Sept. 11 security fee” - that the TSA imposed. Next year, the agency expects to raise $2.2 billion of its budget through fees.

All the turmoil at the TSA brings to mind the sarcastic slogan disgruntled passengers devised for TWA (Trans World Airlines) at the height of its problems: Try Walking Across.

Surprisingly, despite startup costs, TSA doesn't seem to have a slogan. Could we suggest “Tiresome Service Always”? Or “The Stumblebum Agency”? Or “Try Staying At Home”?

I'm sure you'll think of your own the next time you fly.



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