Ex-TSA agent: stealing is commonplace in the TSA

Marilyn sez, "My reporter friend Nicole Glass interviewed ex-con and ex-TSA agent Pythias Brown who said stealing is commonplace in the agency." The article, in RT, describes a culture of total, unaccountable corruption, compounded by terrible working conditions for TSA employees and complete alienation from, and hostility to, travelers. It's the perfect (and perfectly predictable) setup for runaway thieving and criminality. This is Brown's first interview since being released from prison after three-year bit for stealing on the job.

ABC’s interview with Brown highlights the extent of the dilemma passengers face when traveling with valuables. Brown is just one of many officers caught in the act of stealing goods worth thousands.

In February, 2011, two TSA officers were arrested for stealing $40,000 in cash from a checked bag in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Using an X-ray machine, the men found that the bag contained $170,000 and removed some of the money.

In the first two months of this year, a TSA baggage screener in Orlando was arrested for stealing valuables by hiding them in a laptop-sized hidden pocket in his jacket and selling the goods on Craigslist. And, a New Jersey-based agent stole $5,000 in cash from a passenger’s jacket as he was going through security

While in April, a Texas-based TSA officer stole eight iPads from checked bags, while another officer stole a $15,000 watch from a passenger at the Los Angeles International Airport in May.

Ex-TSA agent: We steal from travelers all the time (Thanks, Marilyn!)

(Image: TSA Security Checkpoint, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from billypalooza's photostream)


  1. Reason number 231 for never checking bags when travelling to or through the States: the TSA’s Five Finger Freedom Tax, or FFFT.

    Regardless – is the ex-TSA agent’s name really Pythias Brown, or is that his nom de guerre? When I read it I had the thought that “Pythias” would be the adult nickname the character Encyclopedia Brown would take when he grew up. :)

    1.  I can imagine the TSA is worse, but this happens elsewhere, too. I’ve had things lifted from my checked bags by sticky fingers on intra-European flights.

        1. Possibly prudent to leave a few pairs with obvious skids as the top layer of your luggage. Somebody might be willing to dig through that to find your jewelry, but it would likely cut down the number of thefts.

          1. Would that be like “uglifying” your bicycle to make it less attractive to thieves?  Doesn’t work.  My son had seven bikes stolen in four years when he was younger.  One was uglied up to where it screamed “SHITPILE!!!”  Lasted two months before someone swiped it.

    2. Or for carrying anything small and valuable in a carryon. I was going to fly with a gold watch that my dad gave me, but instead I think I’ll ship it. At least UPS has a much better track record with valuables in their possession for a week than the TSA does with valuables in their possession for a minute.

      1. Agreed. I never leave the country wearing a watch that I am not prepared to lose or have stolen. I wear my father’s Rolex Explorer every day, but when I fly I leave it safely hidden at home.

    3. My comment has nothing to do with the article nor your message, sorry for that, but i’m French (and not especially proud of if, but our TSA isn’t as hardcore as yours FYI) and i’m amazed to see how often french words are used in english, like this time “nom de guerre”.
      So I was wondering, where does it come from (is it from french lessons in school, movies, word of mouth…?), and is it understood by everyone speaking english (“nom de guerre” is clearly rarer than “déjà-vu” or “bon appétit” -for which you shouldn’t pronounce the last “t”, FYI) ?
      Sorry again for the “hors-sujet” (which i don’t know how to say in english) and to anyone answering me, thank you !

      1.  “hors-sujet” is probably “off-topic” in English if I’m understanding you correctly.

        The main reason for all the French loan-words is probably because there’s sort of a vague association among Americans (and maybe the British) between the concepts of “high culture” and “Frenchness”.  So when someone wants to sound cultured they start throwing around French phrases.  We have a similar problem with people using Latin phrases to sound educated.

        1. How could i forgett “off-topic”… That’s what i meant, thank you.
          And thanks for your answer(s), i see that it is subject to controversy by the way you explain it !

          1. Actually, I think Funk Daddy has the better answer.  “Nom de plume” and “nom de guerre” do sound a hell of a lot sexier than “pseudonym”.

        2. I think that it’s related to specific disciplines.  French cooking has long been considered the world’s best.  Same with fashion.  French was the language of international diplomacy for a long time.  French authors have also won an extraordinary number of Nobel prizes for literature.

          We pick up French words because the French are really quite good at a lot of things.  The same way that painting, sculpture and music are described by Italian words, because Italy dominated those areas for so long.

      2. Same reason you say “foot” (for soccer/football) and “week-end” in French: convention. There are just some words/phrases that are easier and more “natural” as a loanword or outright foreign word. Nothing unusual; that’s how (living) languages work.

      3. I am Canadian, my french is “tres mal”, but in my experience and education “Nom de guerre” is an imported phrase that is commonly understood, like twianto says. We also use German terms like schadenfreude etc, that are superior to anything of direct English descent (which is a small pool of words, indeed).

        Vive la différence!

    4. With a name like “Pythias” I would guess he’s a black man from a small town or long established black urban neighborhood in the South. African-Americans in the South have to an extent retained the late 19th century southern tradition of choosing names from classical history and literature.

      I’ve known enough people with names like this that it seems reasonably normal to me.

  2. Good example of unethical decisions at the top, filtering down to every level within the “company”.

  3. I’m envisioning laptops, iPads, etc that are actually alarms that go off when they get 50 feet away from a hidden transmitter in the baggage.  Really loudly.  And maybe release a dye pack (non-explosively or you’d get charged).  It’d be interesting to do this in conjunction with an investigative reporter.

  4. In fairness, that’s probably not a completely unbiased source.  “Everyone else was doing it” would likely help with the cognitive dissonance.

    Not to mention, even if those around him were crooked, there was probably a good measure of self-selection there – any honest employees probably didn’t eat lunch around the same table as the really sketchy ones like this fellow.

    1. I think the problems outlined have less to do with so-called bad apples than there is no check on the bad apples.  The article mentions security cameras that the thieves knew were not on and the fact that the managers didn’t check the employee’s bags (ironic).

      Also, if the honest employees knew what the sketchy employees were doing to the extent that they wouldn’t eat lunch with them, why didn’t they report the theft?

      1. I don’t really have any special insight into this, so it’s just speculation.  I’m just suggesting that birds of a feather flock together.

        For instance, if I knew some colleagues of mine at a low-paid mis-managed job were into some minor infractions – covering each others’ backs to come in late or take on-shift smoke breaks or whatever – I wouldn’t turn them in, but I also wouldn’t get close to them (and I would probably choose to have lunch with someone else).  If some subset of those people are also into more serious things like stealing, I’d never find out – they wouldn’t even get to the point of sussing me out to see if I can be trusted to be in on the scam.

        Put more briefly:
        if the honest employees knew what the sketchy employees were doing to the extent that they wouldn’t eat lunch with them, why didn’t they report the theft?

        Because the extent of sketchiness I have to know of before I would rather have lunch with someone else, falls well short of knowing concretely that you are stealing.  And if I don’t have lunch with you, I’ll never get to that point.

        And, to be clear, I’m not suggesting there aren’t serious structural problems in the TSA.

  5. Not all TSA agents are bad people.  99% of the ones I have interacted with are cordial if spoken to cordially, matter of fact, don’t bullshit around.  Every once in a while, I run into a self-hating jerkoff.  But they are certainly isolated.  I have lost NO stuff.  I’m sorry that other people have had such a shitty experience. 

    1.  That’s not really the issue, though. The whole premise behind allowing them to engage in this ridiculous security theater, making up procedures and banning stuff not on the list at a whim, etc. is that they are trying to make sure that there are zero future terrorist incidents on the airlines, period. There are far more than zero incidents of their abusing their powers. And although there were of course numerous complaints of lost luggage in the old days, outright theft was relatively rare.

      1. Do you have evidence that there is more theft now than back then?  I had way more stuff stolen out of suitcases in the 80’s and 90’s than I have since 2000. 

        btw, I’m no apologist. In 2006, they spent way too much time searching my kids, and I hate them for that. But are they out and out assholes and thieves? I’m saying, mostly, they are not. And that is relevant to this debate of whether the security is valid, and how it is being carried out is valid. Do they overstep? Yes. Are they necessary? Yes. Do they have it exactly right? Nope.

        1. “Are they necessary? Yes.”

          We’re never going to agree on this one.  Why only planes?  Are trains, which carry many more people with absolutely zero security checks somehow immune to terror?  Busses?  Trucks filled with explosive elements left in Times Square?  Why are airplanes the only locations given this amount of security when the TSA have yet to actually capture a single terrorist or stop any plots?

          1. Planes have always been targets for terror/hijacking since well before 9/11.

            Trucks filled with explosive elements left in Times Square?

            ?  That is one of the things that authorities look for and citizens have been told over and over to report such things.

          2. There’s a big jump from “citizens have been told to report such things” to “let’s spend billions accomplishing nothing whatsoever which destroying our tourist industry”. 

            And yes, planes have always been targets.  So?  The only meaningful security improvement is hardening the cockpit doors, and we did that a decade ago.  If this were about security, we’d have stopped there.

          3. @boingboing-0328d081221f962475b35e217219e79e:disqus 
            His argument is that all these things are the same.  Are they?  Or are they not?

            I think a lot of the security measures are pointless, but I also see that these are obviously ridiculous comparisons.

            If somebody tells me that Obama and Romney are married, I’ll have to call bullshit on that, that of course doesn’t mean I like either of them…

          4. My point was that planes carry 300 people.  One subway car alone can carry 300 people.  On a train with 10 cars.  Why isn’t there this level of security for a much more obvious target?

            People these days will fight back, that’s the better security for airplanes (and Times Square).  Not the TSA.  The TSA has been pointless.

          5. @boingboing-b02d27666964db9258b673accd36c27a:disqus The “terrorists” in question desire destruction of the American economic empire over maximizing casulties. 

    2. All TSA agents are bad people. They either directly abuse their (unnecessary) privileges, or support their co-workers in doing the same. Any person with a shred of ethics would *never* work for the TSA (and before anyone whines about them needing a job, consider that an individual’s personal need doesn’t outrank other people’s legal and ethical rights).

      At some point people have to be held accountable for their personal decision to go work for the Airport Gestapo. They all know about their employer’s and their co-worker’s unconscionable behaviour, and they don’t care (about anyone but themselves). They’re bad people.

        1. If “I need money” is a good enough excuse for working at the TSA, then it’s a good enough excuse for stealing from passengers whilst you’re there.

          Unlike you, least I see them as actual people, capable of voluntary agency and responsible for their own choices. Don’t let me get in the way of your smug paternalism.

  6. This really sucks, and I hate to take away from the seriousness of this problem, but does anyone know where to get a jacket with a laptop sized pocket like the criminal in the article had? I’ve been wanting to find something like this since I read Count Zero.

  7. I went back from Istambul past week; at airport check-in my iphone stepped out from the pocket of my jacked and falled apart in the x-ray machine: I didn’t realized it since, after about 5 minute a turkish civilian reached me bringing me back the phone!…

  8. This is pretty much the reason I never check a bag.  I’ll do laundry once a day on the road before I’ll take a bag too big to fit.

    1. That’s a waste of time and energy. Just take dirty clothes and do laundry once when you get there. If they want to steal your dirty underwear . . . well, that’s gross.

      1.  That gives me an idea.  Keep a consumer electronics case full of centipedes in your bag.  The only problem is not seeing the look on the thief’s face when s/he opens it.

      2. I meant I’d just wash the clothes I was wearing, but yours is an interesting one as well. When my undies have gone missing in the past I always blamed the Underpants Gnomes. I guess I have a different group to suspect now…

  9. ALL unreplaceable items go in our carry-ons.  That’s no guarantee they’ll still make it onto the plane with us, but we feel more confident that they will.  My sympathies to those who must travel with high-priced valuables.  Worrying about them would only make traveling by plane that much more stressful.

  10. The solution here is clear:  Create a meta-TSA to police the TSA.

    Alternatively, outsource all TSA jobs to India, where screeners won’t be able to steal because they’ll be viewing the screens remotely.

  11. just came back from Miami, opted out of the unconstitutional screening.  TSA agent shouts, 1 male opt-out lol  A guy pulls me aside and instructs me about what is about to happen and I said fine, in public is great and this isn’t my first rodeo, I do it each and every time I fly…

  12. Airport staff hasn’t been this corrupt since the Genovese and Lucchese mafia families.  They’d be jealous.

  13. “…a culture of total, unaccountable corruption, compounded by terrible working conditions for TSA employees and complete alienation from, and hostility to, travelers.”

    Thieves steal, regardless of accountability, conditions or all the rest.  I am sick to death of these social-cultural rationales for why people do the things they do.  Just admit it.  You steal things.  It’s OK.  Monkeys do it.  Dogs and cats do it.  Every species on the planet does it, including human beings.  What seperates us from the other creatures are property laws and resctrictions on violence — because violence is generally how “non-civilized creatures” settle property issues.

    But for mercy’s sake, stop with all this soft-science bullshit that you use to justify your violating the social contract.

    1.  It’s not justifying the thefts, it’s describing the work culture in which thieves are able to steal with impunity while remaining employed.

      1. From the piece:

        Brown…imagines the agency’s culture makes it easy for others to do the same. Many officers don’t care about their work and complain about low pay and being treated badly, he claims, which prompts them to steal. To make it even easier to get away with, TSA managers also never search their employees’ bags.  The agency says it has a zero-tolerance policy for theft and terminates the contracts of all thieves within the TSA. In the past ten years, almost 400 TSA officers have been fired for stealing, 11 of which were fired this year.

        We must read with very different filters.  This is what I read: ” culture makes it easy” … “officers don’t care about their work” … “being treated badly” … “which prompts them to steal”  If this isn’t a cause-effect argument, then I don’t know what one looks like.

        I stand by what I said, unless you can demonstrate otherwise.

        1.  There’s a fine line between “justification” and “explanation.”  Typically, that line is “a justification is an explanation that I reject for completely irrelevant reasons.”

          1. Doncha know that crime is higher in impoverished areas because the people have a natural predilection toward thievery and immorality?

          2.  Part of the reason that crime is higher in impoverished areas is that the wealthy manage to get the laws passes in such a way that when THEY steal, it isn’t a crime: How many banksters ended up in jail after they sold fraudulent securities?

    2. Thieves steal, regardless of accountability, conditions or all the rest.

      Accountability and conditions have a profound impact on how many people within an organization will indulge their least-ethical instincts. See also: Abu Ghraib.

    3. Your perception of human nature is a bit cut n dried. It’s a better definition of, say, a toggle switch or a drawer than a person, unless you consider the contents of the drawer with the drawer, then your perception would fail.

    4. So you don’t think circumstances affect behavior?  Did you realize there’s a few thousand years of historical evidence suggesting that you’re wrong?

      1. “So you don’t think circumstances affect behavior?”

        I love the strawman.  It’s probably the most popular form of logical fallacy in political discourse today.  All the pundits are doing it — on the right, on the left, and now you’re doing it too.  If you can show me where I said circumstances don’t effect behavior, I’ll apologize.

        Otherwise I’ll go with what I actually argued: people will use use virtually any circumstance to justify their behavior.  This is such an example, and it’s crap — just like strawman arguments.

        Take a look at the issues: This guy’s in a crappy job that he hates and he “imagines” others do the same. Say for the sake of argument it’s true: the conditions are lousey; the pay is bad; and travelers treat you like shit.

        Will these circumstances affect most people? Absolutely! But what behavior can be reasonably accepted as an “effect” of the conditions?
        You dread going to work — is that a reasonable effect?
        I say, “yes.”
        You feel depressed — is that a reasonable effect?
        I say, “yes.”
        You don’t have a great attitude at work and you slow down a bit — is that a reasonable effect?
        I say, “yes.”
        You quit and get another job — is that a reasonable effect?
        I say, “yes.”
        You steal $30,000 worth of other people’s property and blame the TSA, the culture and the work environment — is that a reasonable effect?
        I say, “you have to be out of your tiny mind to think I am going to swallow that.”

        1. Thieves steal, regardless of accountability, conditions or all the rest.

          No strawman, buddy.  It’s what you said.  This sentence clearly implies that “accountability, conditions or all the rest” have no impact on whether people steal or how much.

          Twist the meaning as much as you want, but even if I want to be charitable to your position you’re trying to blame me for your poor communication skills.

          Please bear in mind that this isn’t a moral argument I’m making. I’m not “justifying” anything. The notion that talking about factual preconditions for unethical behavior is “justifying” anything is itself a straw man.

          Edit: Still waiting on my apology, by the way.

          1. Hmm.  Let’s see where your argument falls apart:

            1) You quote my post: “Thieves steal, regardless of accountability, conditions or all the rest.”

            2) You then immediately misquote it as you try to thrash your way through the weeds: “This sentence clearly implies that “accountability, conditions or all the rest” have no impact on whether people steal or how much.”

            Not only does it not imply that, it actually says something quite different.  I said “thieves steal”, not “people steal.”  There’s a very big difference.  In making this mistake, you mischaracterize my original post, which by defenition is a strawman argument.  

            per Wikipedia:
            A straw man, known in the UK as an Aunt Sally, is a type of argument and is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.

            I’m sorry you don’t get it.
            I’m also sorry that you tried to turn what could have been an enjoyable discussion of ideas into a zero-sum game.

          2. So, if I may paraphrase your argument: “I wasn’t actually making a point.  I was actually just stating a tautology.  By definition, thieves steal.”  Congratulations, that’s the most pathetic argument I’ve seen in months.

            Again, don’t blame me for your poor communication skills.

  14. There are all manor of unintended consequences when you take away peoples rights. How many car stereos would mysteriously go missing if the state police could search and impound any car without probable cause or a warrant? How many TVs and other electronics would disappear if local cops had unfettered access to every home in their jurisdiction?

  15. dear people of the US, please explain to me: with those levels of TSA assclownery, why do you continue to insist on flying? VOTE WITH YR BL**DY FEET FOR GODS SAKE!!
    plus the environment will thank you :)

    1. The TSA is not a for-profit organization with viable alternatives, so a boycott really doesn’t accomplish shit. 

      You might as well tell victims of racial profiling that they should just stick it to the Highway Patrol by avoiding cars entirely.

    2. I still fly because I’ve never had a real bonafide hassle with TSA after 11 years now of post 2001 flying. I treat workers with respect and usually am prepared before going through security though, or perhaps just one of the very lucky minority?….

      I’d personally rather take a train but I’m usually flying across country when I take a trip.

      1. Good for you!  But be aware that you’re not just lucky but privileged.  If you were unlucky enough to have the wrong name, face, or career choice, your experiences with the TSA it could be a very different story, regardless of how you treat them.

      2. Even if 95% of travelers have consistently positive experiences, the experiences of the other 5% would still constitute a disaster.

        Personally, I could walk onto a plane openly carrying a bundle of dynamite with an alarm clock wired to it. Nobody will ever ask me any questions, search me, search my luggage or even ask to look at my passport. I don’t delude myself that everyone has this experience.

      3. You’ve been quite lucky.  I, OTOH, am not.  That said, my experiences with SSSS on my boarding pass predate 9/11.  However, since the TSA has ramped up their hostility to the flying public, I have not flown – since about 2005 or 2006.  The secondary screening that time around was crappy enough that I have avoided flying since.   I’ve made many road trips since then, several more than 12 hours long.

    3.  While I do this when feasible, let’s be realistic: a lot of the time there IS no alternative to flying. A flight from Denver to New York takes about 3 hours. Taking a bus, car or train takes 2 to 3 days. For those of us who have jobs and have to take days off if we want to travel, that’s a pretty big difference. Amtrak and Greyhound also have monopolies on train and bus travel in the USA, which means you’ll be paying nearly as much (sometimes even more) than airfare would cost, and getting terrible customer service. Driving avoids many of the hassles, but is similarly expensive and time-consuming. For a short trip, any of these alternatives is tolerable, but if you’re going a long distance and you have a job to get back to, you NEED your travel time to be measured in hours, not days or weeks, or there simply won’t BE a trip.

      On a more personal note, I’ve personally taken car, bus and train instead of flying for the exact reason of avoiding the TSA. All I’ve gotten out of it is car trouble, 7-hour delays, endless transfers, neck cramps, sleep loss, frustration, wasted money, wasted time, and nearly killed once or twice due to icy roads or a Greyhound driver who fell asleep at the wheel. And I’m pretty sure the TSA didn’t notice or care in the slightest.

    4.  Just this evening a friend from Amsterdam mentioned that his country was four driving hours long.  From New York City, that puts me just north of Albany.  Another four hours and I’m almost at the border to Canada.  If I go the other way for eight hours I end up somewhere in Virginia. 

      We have a big fracking country.  If I have to go to LA, I literally have to take a plane or spend most of my vacation in a car.  And, as others have mentioned, the TSA (and the airlines) won’t give a damn, neither of them have made money in forty years, I’m not sure they’re suddenly going to realize there’s no profit in this.

  16. Since the disappearance of freedom does not seems to make people feel they have to do something about it (and that’s unfortunately the seriousness of the terrorism victory), we’d hope that the disappearance of personal property will.

  17. I watched an aluminum briefcase sit next to the luggage cart rack at BWI for a half hour.  Sting operation? Lost laptop? Surpisingly, it attracted absolutely no attention. 

  18. I worked a part time job in an airport, where I walked through the area where bags were routed to the gates every time I walked to my job.  Never saw anyone pull a bag and go through it (nor did I, for that matter).  I never had a problem with TSA agents.  I can’t imagine putting anything valuable in a suitcase however.  The idea of putting money, jewelry or electronics in a checked suitcase is just bizarre.

  19. The photo may be (is) from Flickr with those rights, but the Playmobil Security Check Point image is copyrighted. 

  20. A friend told me, he worked at a catalogue distribution centre, where a certain group would walk pass the security centre in the morning to work wearing running shoes and always leave work wearing cowboy boots. Always the same color/type foot wear. Security shifts changed 1 hour prior to the work force shift change. The security personnel on each shift, got use to seeing the same thing every shift, on the same people, more or less. Slight of sight dodge. 

    Theft in the work place is a shame. Theft is rather petty and trivial. A sport for the surreptitiously furtive individual.

  21. In other shocking news….
    Water Wet
    Sky Blue

    None of this is true, remember every time a TSA agent is busted for wrong doing the talking head tells us how it is an isolated incident and not reflective of the whole of the program.  How many iPads does it take before we can call her a liar?

Comments are closed.