Partisan Divide Greets New Report on Airport Screener Misconduct

Officials from the government organization everyone loves to hate say a few bad apples don’t spoil the whole bunch. The GOP is not so sure.

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Airport Security TSA
Paul Beaty / AP

An Airline passenger is patted down by a TSA agent at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Monday, Nov. 22, 2010.

Federal airport security screeners were investigated for misconduct 9,622 times from 2010 to 2012, after an array incidents, from screeners falling asleep on the job to letting relatives go around screening lines to inappropriately touching airplane passengers. Depending on whom you ask on Capitol Hill, this is either an alarming crisis or an expected footnote for a huge workforce with an enormous task.

“These findings are especially hard to stomach since so many Americans today are sick of being groped, interrogated, and treated like criminals when passing through checkpoints,” said Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, at a hearing on the Transportation Security Agency July 31. “If ‘Integrity’ is truly a core value, then, TSA, prove it.”

“TSA employee misconduct is on the rise — and this is intolerable,” Democratic Rep. Ron Barber said in a statement to TIME. “TSA’s first and foremost responsibility is to ensure the safety and security of travelers in a professional manner — and it is simply unacceptable to allow a single bag or a single person go unscreened.”

Some Democrats at the hearing, however, sided with the TSA officers, who many said were not to be judged by the actions of a few “bad apples.”

Bennie Thompson, a ranking Democratic member of the committee, from Mississippi said, “The vast majority of TSOs are hardworking, dedicated, diligent federal employees.”

The TSA employs about 56,000 security personnel who work at 450 airports across the country. In a July 30 report, the Government Accountability Office found there has been a 26 percent increase in cases of misconduct over the past three years.

According to the report, the majority of the cases fell under two categories of misconduct,  “attendance and leave” and “screening and security.” Unexcused absences, tardiness, and failure to follow leave procedure accounted for 32 %, or 3,117, of the total misconduct cases. Failure to follow screening procedure, bypassing screening, and sleeping on duty made up 20 percent, or 1,936 total cases according to the report.

In one instance in the report, an officer was seen neglecting to stop the conveyor belt after every piece of luggage to review the x-ray images of what’s inside; in another an officer left his or her security checkpoint to assist a family member with a bag, a bag the officer later walked through the security checkpoint without screening and handed to the relative. The bag was found to have contained prohibited items, though the items are not specified in the GAO report.

In a statement, David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents the TSA, said the report has misrepresented the conduct of TSA employees. “TSA critics on Capitol Hill seize every opportunity to give the agency and its dedicated workforce a black eye, even when the facts to not support their arm-waving displays of false outrage,” Cox said in a statement. “They want to drag us back, as a nation, to the pre-9/11 practice of using poorly trained, minimum wage rent-a-cops to protect the flying public from terrorists.”

The agency has also tried to defend itself, blaming a handful of bad apples. “Every time we have one knucklehead that decides he’s going to do something bad it tarnishes the image of our organization, TSA Deputy Administrator John Halinski said at the hearing. “I have my people on the line 365 days of the year and they know if they fail someone can die.”

Nearly half of the reported cases of misconduct resulted in letters of reprimand that describe the conduct and why it is subject to disciplinary action. Thirty-one percent resulted in definite suspension, and 17% led to termination, according to the GAO. The rest were subject to a multitude of outcomes, including indefinite suspension.

“I think this report shows something very positive,” says Rick Mathews, the director of the National Center for Security and Preparedness at the University at Albany. “It shows that the TSA is looking for these things and when people are doing wrong they’re being punished.”

“The frequency of these actions is so low that it more than likely dissuades bad people from even trying to breach security,” he added.