By Jacob Shafer
On March 11, 2011, less than 24 hours after a tsunami devastated northeastern Japan, a Japanese tourist wearing a Hello Kitty backpack approached the security checkpoint at Kona International Airport. A TSA screener named Dawn Nikole Keka inspected the backpack, just as she had inspected countless others. Moments later, the tourist discovered that two $100 bills were missing from her wallet.
The problem—for Keka at least—is that the “tourist” was actually an undercover agent. The $100 bills, which were later found crumpled in Keka’s pocket, were marked. Keka immediately lawyered up, according to a Department of Homeland Security affidavit, but did offer one plainly incriminating statement: “I just made a big mistake.”
It might not have been her first. Federal prosecutor Michael Song told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that Keka dealt with “similar accusations” while working at a local bank. And on the day Keka was arrested, four other bills were found crammed in her pockets.
How much, exactly, she swiped during her TSA tenure will likely never be known. Keka resigned and eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft, for which she received a two-month jail term.
In the same Star-Advertiser piece, Song termed the entire incident a “public relations nightmare.”
As it turned out, TSA was just getting started. Three months after Keka’s fateful “mistake,” TSA fired more than 30 employees at Honolulu International for failing to properly inspect checked baggage “during the last few months of 2010,” according to an official statement. It was the largest single disciplinary action in the agency’s history.
When passenger John Tyner, armed with a cell-phone camera, admonished airport security in San Diego not to “touch his junk” in the autumn of 2010, it set off a social and media firestorm. Soon after, in time for the holidays, activists organized a loosely affiliated “national opt-out day” to protest the controversial Advanced Imaging Technology machines that saw through clothing to capture and transmit ghostly “nude” images.
TSA assured the public that the scanners—which as of this writing are employed at more than 140 airports nationwide, including Honolulu and Lihue—were perfectly safe and secure. Still, some expressed concerns about privacy and health effects. (Last month, Hawaii Sen. Dan Akaka co-sponsored a bill that would require TSA to study possible radiation risks.) And many, including Tyner and his infamous junk, didn’t like the alternative—an intimate full-body patdown.
Tyner’s stand failed to spark violent revolt or shut down the nation’s tarmacs, but it did send a clear message: nearly a decade after 9/11, the American public had grown weary of checking their dignity, and perhaps even their Constitutional freedoms, along with their duffle bags.
“TSA has implemented extremely intrusive new procedures and technologies that violate our standards of decency, as well as our fundamental right to privacy,” Hawaii ACLU attorney Laurie Temple told MauiTime shortly after “don’t touch my junk” morphed into a trending catchphrase.
Continued Temple: “Every American wants to be safe when flying, [but] they also have limits; allowing the government to take naked pictures and touch our bodies just goes too far. Once we betray our values, we stop looking like a free America, and the terrorists win.”
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Invasive airport security is so imbedded in our lives, it’s easy to forget that it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. TSA, more officially the Transportation Security Administration, has been around for less than decade in its current incarnation, under the expansive umbrella of Homeland Security.
Formed in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the agency was supposed to unify, streamline and tighten airport security, which was breached in a manner both complete and devastating. By 2011, TSA’s annual budget had swelled to a robust $8.1 billion.
What are we getting for our money? While TSA points to the number of contraband items confiscated and the fact that there hasn’t been another major airplane-based terror attack on the U.S. since 9/11, critics contend that the agency has strayed from its mission—offering, in the words of cryptologist and security expert Bruce Schneier, “security theater.”
It’s impossible to prove whether TSA deserves credit for the lack of successful bombings or highjackings since 2001 (though it’s worth noting that both Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, aka “the underwear bomber,” and would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid were thwarted after breezing through security). What’s undeniable is the disturbing number of TSA employees who have been caught stealing, slacking and worse.
To cite another recent Hawaii case: In December, TSA announced it was launching an investigation into alleged racial profiling of Mexican travelers at Honolulu International. According to a KITV report, officers known as “Mexicutioners” singled out Hispanics under the guise of TSA’s SPOT (Screening of Passengers By Observation Technique) program. Lawmakers were quick to pounce. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, a ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, told the AP that the case represented a “failure of both training and supervision.” TSA countered that it “in no way encourages or tolerates profiling.”
Ironically, some of the agency’s staunchest detractors do exactly that. Kentucky Rep. Rand Paul—a Tea Party darling and son of presidential hopeful Ron Paul—recently tangled with TSA screeners in Nashville after refusing to submit to a patdown. Later, speaking with FOX News’ Greta Van Susteren, Paul suggested TSA should leave Congressmen alone and instead target another group. “I want to know where the Middle Eastern students are who are visiting our country,” said Paul. “Are they in class, are they going to class? If you’ve been to Yemen twice in the last six months, I want to know who you are.”
Progressives and civil libertarians, naturally, find this idea repellent. ACLU attorney Temple dismisses profiling out of hand, along with any other “system of mass suspicion.”
“The first line of defense should be old-fashioned law enforcement and intelligence work,” she told us. “Evidence-based, targeted and narrowly tailored investigations…would be both more consistent with our values and more effective.”
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On February 13, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York introduced a bill that would place “passenger advocates” at security checkpoints and clarify the process for filing complaints against TSA.
In a release, Schumer’s office cited allegations by passengers claiming to have been subjected to “inappropriate, suggestive and sexual behavior.” In one incident cited in the release, a female passenger at Dallas/Fort Worth International said TSA agents, after viewing her nude-scan images, asked if she played tennis “because of her ‘cutie’ figure.”
“While we must do everything we can to ensure the safety and security of our passengers, that is no excuse for TSA agents to act in ways [that] harass or make passengers uncomfortable,” said Schumer. “This legislation will finally force the TSA to give passengers what they deserve: someone they can turn to, on-site, when they believe they are being mistreated during the screening process.”
Whether Schumer’s bill passes, let alone delivers on its promise, remains to be seen. When even TSA’s critics—who run the gamut from far-left liberals to dyed-in-the-wool libertarians—can’t agree on a solution, it’s hard to imagine sweeping reform is around the corner.
Really, though, it all comes down to trust. TSA asks a lot of us: we remove our shoes, jump through hoops both literal and figurative, subject our children and grandmothers to intrusive, at times embarrassing scrutiny. In return, all we ask is that they operate with competence and integrity. That we can trust them.
Unfortunately, the Dawn Nikole Kekas of the world—and the flawed if not broken system they serve—make that hard to do.