TSA Drug-Running Scandal Betrays Drug War’s Pretense

The Cost of Bribing US Border and Airport Security Personnel Is Chump Change in the Narco-Trafficking Business

In late April, four current and former Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) employees at Los Angeles International Airport were arrested on charges of allowing a total of some 190 pounds of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine, with an estimated street value approaching $1.8 million, to pass through airport security scanners in five separate “pass-through” incidents.

In exchange for this corrupt service, the TSA employees involved in the alleged conspiracy were paid as little as $1,200 per pass-through — $600 upfront and the balance handed off (in an airport bathroom in one case) after the illegal drugs had made it past the scanning station with their assistance.

The fact that a small group of U.S. government security employees would be caught assisting narco-traffickers is not particularly surprising — and should not be viewed as an indictment of all TSA employees.

But what is shocking is the small amount of money it took to bribe a select few in light of the reality that it only takes a handful of corrupt security employees at an airport, or a border crossing point, to assure the passage of millions of dollars worth of illegal drugs — and hundreds of millions of dollars in banned narcotics if extrapolated nationwide.

This revelation is even more troubling when put into the context of the pretense of the war on drugs and the vast sums of money squandered and lives ruined, or ended, due to US government policies in the pursuit of that “war.” Equally troubling is the reaction of this nation’s bureaucratic leadership to this rank-and-file corruption, a reaction that typically involves throwing more money at the problem and seeking to implement knee-jerk policies that don’t address the underlying corruption — and, in fact, are likely only to create new problems.

The US government employee corruption highlighted in the LAX case, though, is not confined to TSA – which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Between fiscal years 2006 and 2010, as US Customs and Border Protection  (CBP, also a DHS agency) ramped up its employee count — now totaling nearly 60,000 souls — investigations opened annually on CBP agents increased 48 percent, from 385 to 870, according to the DHS Inspector General’s Office. Over that same period, DHS reports, 160 CBP employees have been arrested — likely representing only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the extent of the corruption within the agency, given there are no figures on how many corrupt CBP employees were not caught.

As one proposed solution to the corruption problem, James Tomsheck, the chief of internal affairs for CBP, says the agency is considering requiring mandatory, periodic relocations of CBP employees stationed along the US/Mexican border. The premise behind such a policy is that agents recruited from the towns and cities along the border (the vast majority of them being of Mexican American descent, of course) are, due to friends and family connections, somehow more prone to the corrupting forces of the Mexican “drug cartels.”

In fact, according to CBP, 35 percent of its labor force (which includes Border Patrol agents and Customs inspectors) “are Hispanic.”

The relocation proposal was outlined in a recent Houston Chronicle story that includes a quote from Susan Ginsberg, a so-called “homeland security expert who served on the staff of the 9/11 commission”:

There has never been a policy of transferring border agents on a regular basis because of the cost. I think that people who are allowed to stay in their hometowns are probably more vulnerable to corruption, especially by friends or families who have become involved in the drug trade and can exert personal pressure on them.

Borderline Security

The notion that locally recruited CBP employees are somehow more susceptible to corruption is simply a racist mindset, according to a former high-level DHS field office supervisor who spoke with Narco News. The phrase “locally recruited,” in this case, the former DHS supervisor contends, is a codeword for Latinos.

“It [the proposed relocation policy] is more of the same because the media has such a short memory,” the former DHS supervisor says. “…There have been many cases where the agency (DHS) has lost in court for not being able to articulate a nondiscriminatory or non-retaliatory reason for a forced move. … DHS has a multi-billion dollar budget and yet it still cannot defeat the continuing smuggling threat via the southern border and still disregards the threat via the northern border and the Caribbean.”

The source points to the results of the most recent No Fear Act Annual Report, issued in March by DHS, which shows that despite the hype about a post-racial America, the number of EEO discrimination complaints filed annually by DHS employees has continued to rise at a steady pace over the past six years (across both the Bush and Obama administrations)— from 1,083 in fiscal 2006 to 1,283 in fiscal 2011.

“Between FY 2006 and FY 2011, DHS experience an 18 percent increase in filings of new … EEO complaints,” the No Fear Act report states. “…During FY 2011, DHS’s most-frequently alleged bases of discrimination in formal EEO complaints, in order of frequency: reprisal, sex and race/color.”

The irony of the relocation proposal is that precisely the same proposal was advanced with respect to the US Customs Service in the late 1990s under the Clinton Administration. (US Customs at the time was under the Treasury Department and has since been folded into DHS.)

Narco News wrote about that proposal as part of its Borderline Security investigative series published in 2004. And at that time, an enlightened Congressional committee shot the proposal down.

From Borderline Security:

Another glimpse of the attitude senior Customs officials have toward the agency’s Hispanic employees can be found in a July 1999 report from the House Appropriations Committee. That report took issue with a portion of a U.S. Treasury Department report that stated the following:

“Most serious, however, is the belief that (Customs) inspectors who are hired locally, particularly along the Southwest border and assigned to the local ports of entry, could be at greater risk of being compromised by family members and friends who may exploit their relationships to facilitate criminal activities. Although they could not offer any solid evidence, Customs officials express a real apprehension over the possibility that individuals are attempting to infiltrate Customs by seeking jobs as inspectors for the sole purpose of engaging in corrupt and criminal behavior.” [Emphasis added.]

The members of the House Appropriations Committee blasted that passage, stating for the record that “the committee takes strong exception to any implication that individuals of Hispanic background are particularly susceptible to corruption and expects the Customs Service to address unsubstantiated bias by senior Customs officials….”

… In a July 2000 report to the entire House, the Appropriations Committee stated the following:

“Customs offered but failed to provide the committee evidence supporting these views, and statistics provided by Customs did not support the allegation described in the (Treasury) report. In addition, written responses from BATF, DEA, FBI and the Secret Service indicated that these agencies did not agree with the concern that such local hiring (along the Southwest border) posed a greater risk of individuals being compromised.

“Although Treasury and Customs now agree that the passage from the report did not reflect accurately their beliefs or practices, the committee is concerned that Treasury has been slow in taking steps to communicate this to senior managers and others involved with Customs integrity issues. The committee continues to take strong exception to any implication that individuals of Hispanic background are particularly susceptible to corruption and directs Treasury and Customs to contest any such unsubstantiated bias by senior Customs officials….”

The Color of Money

The truth of the matter, when the data is examined as opposed to relying on knee-jerk, racist premises, is that the corruption problem within DHS’ ranks is not about the color of a person’s skin. Rather, it is a matter of simple economics. When narco-traffickers stand to make millions of dollars per load passed through a checkpoint, it is a small cost of doing business to pay off a US security guard — whether it’s a TSA screener, a Border Patrol agent or a Customs inspector.

A TSA screener at a major airport, based on Narco News’ research of salary scales, can make as little as about $16 an hour, or roughly $33,280 a year; the median wage for a US Customs inspector is $34,737, or about $16.70 an hour; and a Border Patrol agent has a base starting salary of about $39,000, or $18.75 an hour.

By comparison, the top pay, on average, for a grocery store cashier in the US is a little more than $32,000 a year, or about $15.60 an hour.

So, a bribe as low as $1,200 could represent about half a month’s paycheck for a TSA screener.

Even if the graft mark is notched up a bit, say to $25,000 per truck load of marijuana for a Border Patrol agent (a rate cited in one case in DHS Congressional testimony), it still seems that it might be more cost-effective for the US government to simply double the pay of all its border and airport security employees as opposed to relocating thousands of them every few years.  A relocation policy involving thousands of CBP employees could easily run up millions of dollars in moving expenses annually while also dislocating families and discarding valuable law-enforcement street smarts established only after years of pounding the same beat.

But, in the end, even doubling CBP employee salaries is a strategy that almost assuredly will fail. The narco-trafficking industry has a hefty profit margin to dip into in order to up the ante. Successfully moving just one contraband payload across the border can be worth a million dollars or more — the kind of money that can be used to buy off far more than rank-and-file border port or airport employees.

The pretense of the drug war, despite these realities, is certain to continue. And the leaders of our law-enforcement bureaucracies are certain to continue using the mainstream media to instill dread in the populace to advance that cause and their careers, because, like Wall Street, their budgets are pegged to waves of fear and greed.

One veteran federal agent, who asked not to be named, is quite pragmatic about this reality and describes the “big picture” of it all this way for Narco News:

Law enforcement has been playing a similar game for as long as I've been working…. A local sheriff doesn't want it to be thought that there is a drug problem in his county, so he orders his deputies to stop making drug arrests, and then says, “Look, no drug problem here. See how good a sheriff I am.”

DHS orders Border Patrol to stop making arrests all through certain sectors, then holds a press conference: "Arrest have dropped 300 percent; the border is more secure than it has ever been.”

Now, take gangs for an example. (Washington) D.C. became convinced that there was a major gang problem all over the country, and they made billions available to law enforcement across the board to combat it. Suddenly, every small town PD and county sheriff was taking pictures of graffiti on passing train cars, and filling out gang intel cards on every group of three or four middle-school kids hanging out waiting to catch the bus, just to establish that they too had a “gang problem” and needed some of the federal grant monies.

Soon they had a well-equipped, well-staffed, high-profile gang squad. Many times, the “gang-problem” was created by law enforcement itself. We had the solution. We just needed the problem and the money to combat it, so we created it.

Now, the buzz-word problem since about 2009 has been the Mexican Cartels. Presented with the most blatant, misleading trace data, (Washington) D.C. did what it always does — threw money at it. True to form, every agency wanted a piece of it, and they got it. More agents, more groups, more equipment, etc., etc. So now, we again had the solution.

… I know it sounds insane, like the ranting of some conspiracy wing-nut or something, but there is a lot more detail that I can't offer here. There's enough of it out there already, though; it’s just no one has really connected all the dots.

One of those small dots seems to have surfaced in a recent issue Harper’s magazine (in the Harper’s Index), where it is pointed out that that the small city of Fond du lac, Wis., (a church-going Midwestern town of some 42,000 souls located in the middle of a rural county) authorized its Sheriff’s Department to purchase “an IED-resistant Tactical Protector Vehicle” for a tidy sum of $220,000.

And so the mainstream media rings the alarm when a TSA screener, paid the equivalent of a grocery-store checkout clerk, is caught taking a $1,200 bribe to help feed the drug habits of US consumers — billing it as a sure sign that we need to double down and spend more on tactical armored vehicles, and other such nonsense, if we hope to win the drug war.

Meanwhile, that same media profits daily from advertising that encourages US consumers, including TSA screeners, to spend, spend, spend on spirits, suds and sanctioned pills with nasty side effects — including addiction and death.

The pretense of it all would be funny, if it wasn’t all so deadly.

Stay tuned ….

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