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Following drug smuggling accusations, how effective is the TSA?

Travelers wait in line to have their boarding passes checked at a security screening area of American Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
Travelers wait in line to have their boarding passes checked at a security screening area of American Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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Four current and former TSA employees at LAX have been accused of allowing luggage with smuggled drugs to pass through security checkpoints. In a series of coordinated events, Naral Richardson, a former TSA employee, allegedly orchestrated activity between drug couriers and current TSA workers to ensure that these crimes would go unnoticed.

According to reports, one courier was told to get in the back of the line so that he would go through security when John Whitfield, a TSA screener, was manning the X-ray machine. That way, the eight pounds of methamphetamine in the courier’s carry-on would not raise any red flags. Also, the courier indicated he had a pacemaker, which was not true, to receive a pat-down and avoid a random bag search.

Whitfield received $1,200 for his part in this, which he received after the fact in an airport bathroom. Trafficking and bribery charges have been leveled against Whitfield, Richardson and two other TSA employees.

So how does a security breach of this magnitude happen, especially in the wake of 9/11 and more recent attempts at airport-related terrorist attacks?

Jeff Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio, Texas says there are a number of factors that can lead to a lapse in security.

"If you want to be a TSA agent… their first bullet is that you'll have the stability of a government job, so that kind of tells you about the mentality here, is they're looking for people who just want the stability of a government job,” said Addicott. “When you're talking about national security, your first motivation should not be ‘oh I want a job,’ it should be you're volunteering to serve your country and to be on the frontline of stopping terrorism,”

In addition, Addicott says the fact that the job is often repetitive and monotonous can lead people to stray and possibly get involved in extracurricular activities. “It's not an exciting job, so when you have a position that obviously can be lucrative to some degree, then the temptation's always going to be there,” said Addicott. “No it’s not an epidemic… in my mind these are just bad apples who are trying to make some money, but I wouldn't say the whole system is rotten.”

Addicott also stresses that most TSA employees are law-abiding and take their jobs seriously. He says this event should not put all TSA employees in a bad light, but that it simply exemplifies a need for change within the organization.

“I think the best way to deal with it is to absolutely throw the book at these people as a deterrent to other TSA agents who might be involved in this or might be thinking of becoming involved of illegal activity,” said Addicott.

Weigh in:

What training is in place at the TSA to avoid situations such as these? What are the internal means of investigating such activity? What, if any, changes will be made to the screening process as a result of this security breach? If drugs are getting through TSA, what else is?


Jeff Addicott, professor of law at St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio, where he is the director of the Center for Terrorism Law; he’s a 20-year JAG officer and was senior legal counsel to the Green Berets.