By Joe Brancatelli
September 11, 2007 -- Six years to the day after 9/11, business travelers wrestle with an ugly reality: Our most intractable foe may be the federal bureaucracy we created to keep our airports and airplanes safe.

We created the Transportation Security Administration nine weeks after terrorists hijacked four passenger jets and turned them into weapons of mass destruction. Until that awful day, our airports and airliners were guarded by private security firms whose ill-trained, badly paid employees were largely unfit to be our last line of defense. Despite some high-profile dissenters, most Americans—including me—believed a federally run airport defense force would surely make us more secure.

Over the succeeding years, however, the T.S.A. has become an arrogant bureaucracy that appears to care little about our rights. Americans who book airline tickets are treated like terrorists until the T.S.A. can prove us innocent. For example, despite repeated Congressional objections, the agency continues to try to assign a secret security-risk rating to every American traveler. Its no-fly lists and screening protocols have snared innocents like prepubescent children, 86-year-old Congressional Medal of Honor winners, and even David Nelson, one of Ozzie and Harriet’s sons. But worst of all, the T.S.A. opposes any good security idea that emanates from outside its bunkers and disregards any law that it dislikes.

The latest example is currently unfolding. This summer Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation requiring the T.S.A. to inspect all the freight carried on passenger jets. Passenger airlines carry about 7,500 tons of cargo each day, and the T.S.A.’s slipshod handling of it was ripped last week in a report by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security. Although the T.S.A. strips us to our skivvies at security checkpoints and inspects every piece of luggage we check or carry on, the agency is responding to the new law by circumventing it. The T.S.A. has let it be known that it will continue to allow uninspected cargo to be placed directly on passenger jets. Its rationale? One T.S.A. spokesman said that freight “is inherently screened” if it is handled by “certified shippers” who are known to the agency.

That stance has infuriated Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who is the new law’s primary Congressional champion. “I am outraged that [the T.S.A.] would even think that [it] could get away with anything less than full physical screening of all cargo that goes onto passenger planes,” he told the Boston Globe a few weeks ago.

The T.S.A.’s cargo gambit is doubly egregious because the agency has refused, again in disregard of law, to allow “inherently screened” passengers to fly without T.S.A. harassment.

The same law that created the agency in November 2001 also required it to launch a registered-traveler program. The idea was simple: Most flyers are not a security risk and can be trusted, and this program would free up T.S.A. screeners to focus on the real threats.

But the T.S.A. has stubbornly resisted any attempt to separate the frequent-flying wheat from the terrorist chaff. So, six years after 9/11, only 10 out of more than 450 commercial airports have a registered-traveler plan and only about 60,000 flyers are members of the privately run operations, Clear and rtGo.

The lengths to which the T.S.A. has gone to foil registered-traveler programs are sometimes laughable. One example: Anyone participating in Clear or rtGo must undergo a security-threat assessment, be fingerprinted, and have their irises scanned. This biometric information is then imprinted on a special identity card that travelers must present at registered-traveler lanes. Yet last year, the T.S.A. decided that registered travelers must also show a traditional form of ID before being allowed to approach the registered-traveler security line.

In other words, travelers who have paid $99 to be a registered traveler and submitted themselves to security vetting, fingerprinting, and iris scans must now show twice as many forms of identification as everyone else. (One of the many T.S.A. explanations is that the power might go out at an airport, thus foiling the biometric checks. Of course, if the power goes out at an airport, the T.S.A. would shut down all security checkpoints and no one would be permitted to board aircraft.)

Then there’s what Steve Brill, the media entrepreneur who created Clear, calls “the saga of the shoe scanner.”

One of the reasons travelers pay a fee and submit biometric information is because the registered-traveler plans originally promised a speedy trip through security. Yet the T.S.A. foiled that too. The agency continues to insist that registered travelers remove their jackets and outerwear, take laptops and liquids out of their carry-on cases, and remove their shoes.

So Brill and his Clear partners invented a shoe-scanning apparatus that would allow Clear members to clear security without removing their shoes. The T.S.A. approved the device in Orlando, the first airport with a registered-traveler program. But when Clear began opening registered-traveler lanes at other airports earlier this year, the T.S.A. abruptly refused to certify additional shoe scanners.

As a result, registered-traveler members “get nothing … in return for the security-threat assessment, biometric verification, and thousands of man-hours and audit pages and dollars of security hoops that we jump through,” Brill complained at a Congressional hearing in July.

As is always the case with the T.S.A., however, there is a still another fillip. You’ll recall that we’re required to remove our footwear at security checkpoints because a potential terrorist named Richard Reid boarded a post-9/11 flight with explosives hidden in his shoes. He wasn’t able to ignite his shoe bomb with matches, and Congress worried that he might have succeeded if he had used a lighter. Lawmakers then banned lighters, the only item that Congress has specifically proscribed since 9/11.

Infuriated that Congress would dare tell it what to do, the T.S.A. ridiculed the lighter ban whenever it could get the media or a Congressional committee to listen. Finally, an exhausted Congress bowed to the T.S.A. and last month allowed the agency to lift the ban. Of course, the T.S.A.’s own list of in-flight contraband—almost 4,000 words of picayune rules about the size of scissors, screwdrivers, and breast-milk containers—remains in full effect.

That’s where the T.S.A. has taken us six years to the day after the horrors of September 11. It vigilantly protects us from breast-feeding moms, frequent flyers with biometric IDs, and Ozzie and Harriet’s son. The terrorists? Well…

The Fine Print
When the T.S.A. lifted the lighter ban on August 4, it quietly added new restrictions on other types of carry-on items. The agency demanded that some previously exempt electronics items—larger CD and DVD players, videogames, and medical devices like sleep-apnea masks—be removed from carry-on bags and X-rayed separately. When asked why the agency didn’t alert travelers to the change, a T.S.A. spokeswoman told Chris Barnett, a columnist for JoeSentMe.com, that the new rules didn’t affect enough flyers to warrant a public statement. Retroactively, however, the T.S.A. added the items to its prohibited-items list.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.