The Brancatelli File



June 19, 2003 -- Someone needs to step up and defend the beleaguered Transportation Security Administration and I'm happy to do it--even as I am thrilled that the TSA was forced to back away last week from its draconian plans for invasive background checks on every flyer in America.

It's hip and trendy just now to ridicule the TSA. Hypocritical sleazeballs from the Republican Congressional delegation are mouthing off again, claiming that the TSA is profligate with taxpayer funds. Media critics are chirping again, gleefully pointing out every isolated incident of a bad hire, incorrectly issued contract or lapse of judgment at a security-screening line. Airport and airline executives, whose shameful lapses before 9/11 led us to federalize security in the first place, are belittling the TSA for mistakes far less egregious than those they once committed. And, of course, as always, business travelers are unhappy. We are perpetually annoyed by the whole regimen of airport security.

There is some truth in what the critics say about the Transportation Security Administration. But I think that lambasting the TSA just now is akin to criticizing Moses because there was some minor flooding on the footpath he created when he parted the Red Sea. Overall, the creation and deployment of the TSA has been a modern-day miracle.

Against impossible odds and beginning from scratch, the TSA has hit most of its arbitrary, Congressionally imposed deadlines for assuming control of the nation's airport security functions. It has hired 55,000 people in the blink of a bureaucratic eye--and the vast majority of them are better educated, better humored, more professional and more polite than the jury-rigged, misbegotten crew of $6-an-hour fry cooks they replaced. It has battled obstructionist airport managers, lying airline executives, demagogic politicians and opportunistic suppliers. It continues to lift knives and guns from travelers who apparently haven't yet heard that they shouldn't be carrying knives and guns in carry-on bags. And, yes, it frisks sweet, harmless grandmothers, ex-vice presidents, cherub-faced tykes and Congressional Medal of Honor winners.

To me, though, the bottom line on the TSA is undeniable: A nonexistent government agency was handed a Herculean task with irrational deadlines by a deeply frightened nation and it has performed remarkably well. And we might actually be a smidgen safer today then we were on September 10th.

We should never forget that simple fact as we figure out where we go now; how we improve airport security procedures, make them more consistent, more logical and less onerous; and how we ensure that the TSA doesn't fall victim to the bureaucratic rot that eats away at the effectiveness of any large organization. The to-do list for security remains distressingly long, but it's absurdist revisionism to suggest that the TSA has been anything less than a smashing success.

Okay, now that someone has defended the TSA--and I am proud to have done so--let me now thank our lucky stars for activists like Bill Scannell, who led a diverse coalition of Americans fighting to stop CAPPS II, one of the most heinous and unholy ideas ever to be concocted by a government bureaucracy.

In case you haven't heard about it, CAPPS II (an acronym for Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System) is the TSA's first cut at a universal risk-assessment program. It envisions color coding every passenger--that's right, every passenger!--and dividing them into three categories of risk. The computer-based system would compare airline passenger lists to all manner of public documents, including credit records, court documents and parking-ticket lists. Bluntly put, the CAPPS II computers will gather up virtually everything known about you and then decide whether you should be permitted to board an aircraft.

This hateful TSA program has found an eager collaborator--Scannell's word, not mine--in Delta Air Lines, which volunteered to test the system. And as secretive as the TSA has been about CAPPS II--lots of luck finding a meaning-ful description of it at the TSA Web site--Delta's willingness to participate in this incredibly invasive and dangerous plan has been even more carefully guarded. Delta won't talk about how or where or even when it was testing the CAPPS II system.

Thankfully, CAPPS II, which has been condemned by an impressive cross section of otherwise competing interest groups and experts, got derailed last week. Prompted in part by a torrent of complaints--and at least one lawsuit--the TSA has put the program on hold.

Why? It never considered the privacy issues and now has to go back and write a privacy policy that isn't an insult to the American way of life.

But the war over CAPPS II is hardly over. The TSA seems intent on eventually imposing this outrageous privacy buster on the American people. Worse, TSA's track record on privacy has already been atrocious. CAPPS I--the current airport watch-list program--is a debacle. People who've been denied boarding because they are on the list never seem to be able to find out why. And last week we learned that anyone in the nation named David Nelson--even Davey Nelson from the old Ozzie and Harriett Show--is being hassled because CAPPS I apparently has determined that some David Nelson somewhere in the world is potentially dangerous.

Like I said, I think the Transportation Security Administration has done a remarkable job under impossible circumstances. But I wish someone over there would read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights again.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.