This New Report Will Make You Trust the TSA Even Less, If That’s Possible

TSA workers screen passengers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in 2012 Photograph by Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

There’s a reason the Transportation Security Administration ranks with the IRS as one of the least loved federal agencies. Every trip through the security line at the airport is a gamble. Most of the time my miniature bottle of contact lens solution sails through, no questions asked. One time in 20, though, there’s a blue-shirted huddle around my Ziploc bag, followed by a stern lecture about how it’s not allowed onboard, even though TSA regulations say it’s completely fine. Trying to explain the TSA’s rules to a TSA officer does not lead to the desired result. My “medically necessary liquid” (their term) goes straight into the trash.

Turns out this arbitrariness is built into the agency’s culture. As my Bloomberg News colleague Jeff Plungis reports, a new audit finds that TSA management haphazardly punishes employees charged with misconduct. Some are disciplined despite little evidence of wrongdoing, while others get off for the same offense.

The report (PDF), released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, found that the TSA investigated about 9,600 cases of misconduct in fiscal years 2010-12. Among the charges:

• 1,936 employees were investigated for “failure to follow standard operating procedures, bypassing screening, sleeping on duty”

• 1,548 for “insubordination, ignoring policies, disrespectful conduct”

• 426 for “inattention to duty resulting in a loss of property or life, careless inspection”

• 384 for “bribing, conflicts of interest, criminal conduct, nepotism, charge card abuse, misuse of government identification, accepting a gift, improper association”

At one airport checkpoint—unnamed in the report—a TSA officer was “observed on the airport’s closed circuit television system intermittently running passengers’ property through an X-ray baggage conveyor belt without stopping the conveyor belt to review each image.” At another airport, an officer allowed a family member’s bag to bypass screening, a major rule violation. A supervisor stopped the employee and inspected the bag, “which was found to contain numerous prohibited items,” the GAO says. The employee got off with a seven-day suspension.

Sleeping on duty can get a TSA employee fired. The minimum punishment is 14 days’ suspension. But the GAO found that “50 percent of the cases resulted in penalties ranging from a letter of reprimand to a suspension of 1 to 3 days.”

In all, 47 percent of employees investigated for wrongdoing received letters of reprimand, and 31 percent got suspensions of any length of time. Just 17 percent lost their jobs.

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