Big Brother is Watching…And Stealing From You

So here’s another way the government’s secrecy preoccupation is hurting you:

At the latest count, taxpayers have shelled out more than $730,000 to pay claims from angry airline passengers who found valuables missing after their luggage went through secret screening by the Transportation Security Administration.

The TSA initially sought to blame the problem on sticky-fingered airline employees, who load the luggage onto planes after it goes through the special TSA screening rooms.

But the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general concluded that the dimly lit screening rooms _ and the secrecy surrounding what goes on there _ provide a perfect cover for government employees to lift camcorders, cameras, jewelry and other items they find in the luggage they comb through. In the last two years, 37 federal screeners have been arrested on theft charges at airports around the country.

Locking up luggage is no longer permissible under post-9/11 airport rules, and the TSA forecasts continuing problems. “Detection and prosecution of thefts cases in remote areas of the airport, where access is restricted and observation by others is limited, will continue to be difficult,” investigators said.

Administrators shouldn’t be surprised at the rash of thefts. The inspector general concluded that the agency in 2002 put 42,000 luggage screeners on the federal payroll without fully checking their backgrounds. One TSA employee later charged with theft was found to possess four Social Security numbers and a conviction for shoplifting. Another was nabbed while peddling items stolen from luggage in the airport parking lot.

Nor should the agency have been surprised by the blizzard of claims. The TSA received more than 13,000 claims for lost valuables since taking over luggage-screening duties in 2002, and was still trying to resolve 5,800 claims as of last September.

The agency has changed its hiring policies and now requires “a favorably adjudicated criminal history check” before putting someone on the federal payroll and has established mandatory ethics courses.

But TSA officials are adamantly opposed to opening up the procedures in the screening rooms to outsiders. They so want the “sensitive but unclassified” procedures to remain undercover that prosecutors dropped one theft case involving a former TSA screener at Miami International Airport rather than permit defense attorneys to question TSA officials on the agency’s security and training activities.

Motorcycle highway deaths increased 7.3 percent last year, compared to 2003. And Jim Champagne, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association and a lieutenant colonel in the Louisiana State Police force, blames the relaxation of mandatory helmet laws.

Only 20 states and the District of Columbia now require motorcycle riders to wear helmets. But Champagne says motorcyclists are lobbying some of those states to change those laws, contending that helmet safety should be a matter of personal freedom.

After persuading Louisiana to become the first state to reinstate helmet laws, Champagne now is on a national crusade to get other states to restore their laws requiring the safety equipment. He doesn’t buy the personal-freedom argument, noting that 91 percent of injured motorcyclists admitted to the Medical Center of Louisiana in New Orleans didn’t have any health insurance, and everybody is picking up the costs.

Look for the Federal Reserve to continue to raise interest rates at its meeting Tuesday, even though recent government reports show the economy seems to be stalling. “Stagflation is rearing its ugly head,” says University of Maryland economist Peter Morici, who contends that Fed policymakers fear the sparks of inflation more than they do higher unemployment levels.

(E-mail Lance Gay at GayL(at)