Skift Take

If this kind of internecine drama is constantly happening behind the scenes at the TSA, no wonder its officers often treat flyers so poorly.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) whistleblowers testified this week in front of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the organization’s leadership problems are deeply entrenched and have led to problems that erode the ability of the TSA to provide effective security.

“TSA’s problems are rooted in the areas of leadership and culture,” said the TSA’s assistant federal security director Andrew Rhodes in his testimony. “Ours is a culture of misconduct, retaliation, lack of trust, cover-ups and the refusal to hold its senior leaders accountable for poor judgment and malfeasance.”

The system essentially pushes out the most skilled and trustworthy workers, while careerists and others that are simply not qualified have been promoted to positions of power.

“If you are in favor or willing to retaliate against specific employees, you are advanced,” said Rhodes. “We elevate people in senior positions that do not have the experience, character, and ability to lead and manage a large complex organization. The meteoric rise of unqualified individuals eventually corrects itself, but only after subordinates and other employees suffer the consequences of poor leadership. Moreover, there is a chronic indifference towards investigating legitimate complaints. And many senior leaders believe they are untouchable. When others see nothing occurring to repeat offenders, they avoid becoming a target and stay silent.”

Dr. Mark A. Livingston, a program manager with the TSA’s office of the chief risk officer, provided written testimony on one of the four incidents he reported to authorities:

“I witnessed a fellow [TSA employee] sexually harass a junior female employee and when I refused to lie, I was called a boy scout and put on his S*** list [sic]. He told me that if I was unwilling to lie for him, if the employee filed a complaint then he and the others would be unable to trust me and therefore could not work with me in the future. I had no idea how rampant the misconduct was, but I told the truth and reported his behavior to my supervisor, who’s only response was to comment that this [employee] was harmless and not to worry about it. It was clear to me at this point that they were not taking complaints seriously nor was there any intention of doing the right thing.”

While Livingston is in good standing with the organization now, he was punished and had his pay docked two levels by superiors for reporting clear violations he saw while on the job. Livingston said that similar tactics and threats are used constantly by the TSA’s leadership.

All three TSA employees who testified this week blamed a corrupt culture among managers and executives, instead of the low-skilled workers in the field.

“From 2011 to early 2015 TSA chose, in abundance, unprepared employees to fill key senior leadership vacancies; these were people who were chosen not because they were time tested leaders, or mature, or experienced in actually leading people in large complex organizations, but because they were liked or good at managing programs or projects, in fact many of these leaders lacked any security experience or had ever worked in a field operation their entire career,” said Jay Brainard, federal security director of the TSA. “… These leaders are some of the biggest bullies in government and as a result many people feel battered, abused, and overworked.”

TSA administrator Peter Neffenger, who was grilled by Congress earlier this month about the TSA’s failure to improve airport security, will testify about the TSA’s internal failings sometime in May.

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Tags: homeland security, security, tsa

Photo credit: TSA administrator Peter Neffenger addressing Congress in April. C-SPAN / CSPAN

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