In my first week at ProPublica in June 2008, I filed a public records request for the agency’s complaint files. Such records can provide good fodder for investigations.
For example, amid the brouhaha over the agency’s introduction of intensive full-body pat-downs in 2004, I requested complaints and discovered an untold story of the pain and humiliation suffered by rape victims and breast cancer survivors. In one incident that I found from that request—while I was a reporter at the Dallas Morning News—a woman complained that a screener asked her to remove her prosthetic breast to be swabbed for explosives.
When I made a similar FOIA request in 2008, I assumed the TSA would respond in a few months. Government agencies have about a month to respond to public record requests, though they often take longer. I figured even if their response took months, I’d be able to repeat it regularly to get a timely, inside look as to what passengers were complaining about and find out about incidents that required some more digging.
Boy, was I wrong.
After waiting and waiting and narrowing my request and some more waiting, the files finally arrived this week.
The information is now four years old—but it echoes much of what people are still complaining about.
For instance, an elderly woman in a wheelchair was asked to walk through security and fell at Orlando International Airport.
In another case, someone expressed concerns about a lethal plastic knife that can reportedly pass through metal detectors. (This was two years before the TSA widely deployed body scanners, which can detect plastic.)
In another complaint, a man flying to Cancun demanded an investigation after finding that the bottle of Jack Daniels he packed in his luggage was empty by the time he arrived.
Why did the files take so long to release? Various FOIA officers over the years blamed the delay on the agency’s backlog and on the volume of the records that had to be reviewed. It turned out to be 87 pages.
When I reached out again today to the TSA, spokeswoman Lorie Dankers provided a statement pointing out that the agency has received an average of more than 800 requests annually over the past four years. Then the TSA apologized.
“TSA should have responded to ProPublica’s request sooner,” the statement said. “TSA currently is working on 12 requests that are more than three years old. The agency is working diligently to finalize and respond to these requests.”
I just filed my request for the 2012 complaints.
Hopefully, we won’t have to wait until 2016 to see those.