Here’s more evidence the TSA really isn’t about keeping travelers safe. What it is about is malevolent middle-management-types fiercely guarding the borders of their microfiefdoms and arbitrarily ejecting ticket-holding serfs for any conceivable reason.

Roger Vanderklok, a distance runner who frequently flies to events around the country, had the misfortune of passing through TSA supervisor Charles Kieser’s turf at the Philadelphia airport. Vanderklok faced some legitimate questions (as legitimate as any questions based on the ever-shifting TSA list of suspicious items can be, anyway) and answered them all satisfactorily.

On this day, he was headed to Miami. In his carry-on bag was a packet of PowerBars and a heart-monitoring watch. When the bag went through the X-ray scanner, the items looked suspicious to a TSA agent whom Kieser supervises.

For the next 30 minutes, screeners checked the bag several times. Vanderklok told them that a tube-shaped case in the bag contained his watch. Then he was asked if his bag contained “organic matter.” Vanderklok said no, as he thought “organic matter” meant fruits or vegetables.

PowerBars, which contain milk, grain and sugar, are considered “organic matter” and can resemble a common explosive. Terrorists often use a small electronic device, like a watch, to detonate the explosive. Hence the agent’s concern.

But the TSA’s Charles Kieser took issue with Vanderklok’s suggestion: that agents make it a bit more clear what “organic matter” entails. Keiser decided Vanderklok didn’t appreciate the severity of the situation (that situation being, apparently, that the TSA makes suggestions, not the other way around). According to Vanderklok’s lawsuit [pdf link], Kieser became “confrontational.” Vanderklok then asked if he could file a complaint. Bad move.

Instead, Kieser summoned the Philadelphia Police. Vanderklok was taken to an airport holding cell, and his personal belongings – including his phone – were confiscated while police “investigated” him.

Vanderklok was detained for three hours in the holding cell, missing his plane. Then he was handcuffed, taken to the 18th District at 55th and Pine and placed in another cell.

He says that no one – neither the police officers at the airport nor the detectives at the 18th – told him why he was there. He didn’t find out until he was arraigned at 2 a.m. that he was being charged with “threatening the placement of a bomb” and making “terroristic threats.”

Vanderklok’s Kafkaesque odyssey finally ended at 4 a.m., when his wife paid 10 percent of his $40,000 bail.

Kieser provided his version of the story at Vanderklok’s trial — one that was mostly lies. He claimed Vanderklok “threatened” to bring a bomb through security. He also claimed Vanderklok made aggressive arm movements and pointed his finger in Keiser’s face. Unfortunately for Kieser, surveillance footage proved nearly every accusation false.

Throughout the search, Vanderklok appears calm. His laptop computer is tucked under his arms and his hands are clasped in front of him the entire time. Without any fuss, he follows TSA agents when they move from one part of the screening area to another. He even smiles a little.

Not once does he raise his hands. Not once does he point a finger in Kieser’s face. If anyone is becoming agitated, the video shows, it is Kieser.

And as for the only claim that might have held up — the “bomb threat” — Keiser’s own words on the police statement, as well as his underlings’ actions, undercut that assertion as well. No agent other than Kieser appears to be the least bit alarmed by Vanderklok’s alleged bomb threat. One messes with his cellphone. Another rearranges bins. No passengers are prevented from entering the area.

In his statement to the police, Kieser claims Vanderklok said “Anyone could bring a bomb through here and you wouldn’t know it.” That’s not a threat. That’s an opinion. And, given the TSA’s track record on stopping airborne terrorists, the protected opinion/non-threat comes disturbingly close to being a factual statement.

The presiding judge dismissed the charges against Vanderklok “within minutes” of Kieser’s statements. Kieser’s testimony must have been incredibly terrible, considering the judge never even bothered to view the video evidence that contradicted most of his claims. There must have been an obvious odor of vindictiveness permeating the courtroom during the TSA supervisor’s statements. And it’s that same respect-my-authority-or-else attitude that’s likely going to cost the TSA some money.

Vanderklok has filed a lawsuit against the agency for his wrongful arrest, one that also names the Philly police department as co-defendants. Perhaps the video clearing Vanderklok will be seen during this court battle, or perhaps the agency will just settle quickly, rather than allow Kieser to further embarrass himself. And perhaps, Kieser will finally be out of a job. But for now, he still wields a level of power that far outpaces his ability to perform his duties in a credible and responsible manner.


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