Lost and looking foolish

January 19, 2007

Dressing up as a baseball player won't get you into the owner's box at Oriole Park at Camden Yards any more than wearing a general's uniform will gain you admission to the White House. So the fact that the Transportation Security Administration has lost track of more than 3,700 uniforms and security badges over the past five years isn't necessarily a grave security threat to the nation. But it's not exactly inspiring confidence in the TSA or the Department of Homeland Security, either.

Agency officials are quick to point out that the TSA uniform and an ID card by themselves won't get anyone into sensitive areas of an airport. Gaining access to the checked baggage areas, for instance, requires a different badge altogether. And because TSA security staff work in teams, an unfamiliar face would likely be recognized quickly.

As it happens, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is apparently a leading outpost for lost or stolen TSA employee uniforms and badges, with more than 400 missing (second only to Los Angeles International among U.S. airports), according to news reports. It's difficult to know what to make of that - except to note that these aren't the first personal items to be lost there.

But if travelers are left doubting TSA's competence and judgment, the agency's plan to sell advertising on the trays that are used at security checkpoints could provide the final straw. Clearly, somebody must have decided that weary travelers aren't put upon enough while waiting for the metal detectors and X-ray machines. Now, propriety can be assaulted, too.

Just imagine it. You are standing in a long, slow line with tickets and ID worried about making your flight or facing a cavity search if you fit the wrong profile. But you tell yourself it's worthwhile, a matter of national security, not to mention your own safety. Then you discover that the plastic bin where you must place your keys, watch and camera carries an ad for the latest stick deodorant. There goes the moment's sense of purposefulness and national sacrifice.

The TSA is supposed to be getting better at keeping the country's transportation systems safe. Officials claim much progress has been made since those chaotic post-9/11 days when competence and professionalism were in short supply. But lost ID badges and a bone-headed plan to sell ads at security checkpoints suggest not all that much has changed.

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