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TSA never realized its mandate [Commentary]

As one of the first post-9/11 screeners hired at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and as the first president of the national union fighting for screener's rights in the workplace, I find the deadly shooting at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this month to be deeply troubling.

The words of comfort and respect regarding slain Transportation Security Administration Officer Gerardo Hernandez, who was gunned down by a rogue shooter, are intermixed with calls to reform the way the agency carries out its mission, to which I say: What took you so long?

The original plan for TSA was for full control of aviation security, including our own armed police force. The first roll out — including recruitment and training by what were called Mobile Screening Force Officers — took much longer than planned, and the costs seemed out of control leading to cuts right from the start. At the time we were screening passengers with no screening booths and tripping over one another on three-lane checkpoints that after much renovation now have eight to 12 lanes. It was an extremely difficult time, and I was proud to be a part of those early days. Our success spoke for itself.

What was also evident was that, due to the stripping of basic workplace protections afforded other federal workers, we were managed in a system of what can be described as heavy and persistent cronyism. What was intended to be a uniform nationwide system turned into hundreds of fiefdoms as federal security directors (FSD), who oversaw day-to-day operations at the airports, had autonomous control of most aspects of the screening process — including who managed the screeners. If our FSD was the FBI, our managers came from that world. If the FSD was the Secret Service, then former agents appeared, leaving those hired in the beginning to realize that their experience and dedication meant little when it came time to award promotions.

But that's only part of the problem. It appeared that TSA took the private security model for staffing and design and simply slapped a TSA logo on their handbook. Sure, the rules changed and the standard operating procedures changed when it came to the "prohibited items" list, but as costs increased, the checkpoints and methods of screening passengers and their property did not change at all. The plan to roll out a TSA police force fell by the wayside as local airport authority police were contracted to fill that role. So as state officers enforced federal regulations, conflicts about jurisdiction arose, and TSA was again the subservient player in the process.

Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who previously chaired the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, took on a special role in the devolution of the agency he helped create, publicly calling us his "little bastard child" and taking apparent delight in criticizing us in his mission to re-privatize aviation security. Without whistleblower protections or basic workplace rights including collective bargaining, anyone who spoke out was subject to retaliation. I was terminated for writing a Washington Post op-ed calling for better training. It took the agency nine months to admit they were wrong and allow me to return to work.

After another op-ed and two more attempts at termination I walked away. The stress — not of the job, but of the workplace — was just too much. Since that time the anti-TSA — really anti-TSO (transportation security officer) — echo chamber has increased. Now a life is lost in service to country, and we are recognized for it.

TSA needs to improve and return to its first vision of unified national aviation security. That will take money and dedication and the willingness to admit that when it comes to public service and duty, public sector workers, sworn only to answer to the taxpayers, must be central. The question is: who will be our champion in Congress? The day after the shooting, tens of thousands of TSO's reported for duty. If only Congress had that sense of obligation, we would all be a little safer today.

Ron Moore, who is writing a book about the early days of the Transportation Security Administration, is a former TSA officer at BWI and a former president of Local 1 of the American Federation of Government Employees.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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