Friday, January 31, 2014

Exposing the Naked Truth About Transportation Security Theater

Ex-TSA agent Jason Harrington
The Politico Magazine published a provocative point of view  piece by Jason Edward Harrington titled: “Dear America: I Saw You Naked– And yes we were laughing. Confessions of an ex-TSA agent."  The article drew back the curtain on exposing the naked truth on Transportation Security Theater.  Harrington is an aspiring young writer who joined the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) after graduating college in 2007.   Harrington presumed that it would be a short stint before pursuing a creative writing degree, but he remained with the most public branch of the Homeland Security Administration until 2013.

The former agent’s recollections confirmed many cynics assumptions about the TSA.  Unfortunately, some of the revelations are worse than one would imagine for a professional part of government supposedly committed to ensuring safety in the homeland.

Harrington hated having a job which required him to pat down the crotches of children, the elderly and even infants.  The ex-TSA officer chaffed at the absurdity of confiscating jars of homemade apple butter or nail clippers from airline pilots as they might impose risks to a flight.  Morale at the TSA was the lowest among all federal workers.  According to Harrington, the TSA rank and file privately felt that “[T]he agency’s day-to-day operations represented an abuse of public trust and funds.

The salient question is Why TSA employed such egregious customary operating procedures?  The ex-TSA author did not address the issue but the answer is obvious.  Political pressure from the left which prohibited profiling forced the feds into the farce of groping Swedish grandmothers in wheelchairs and innocent infants.  So the TSA engages in politically correct Transportation Security Theater “reaching out” to all rather than using a risk based approach to airport security.

Despite the public pronouncements against profiling, Harrington reveals that it ain’t necessarily so.  There was a list of a dozen nations which are: “Selectee Passport List”, which automatically trigger enhanced security screenings.  The included nations: Syria, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Cuba, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and North Korea.  Those choices seem sensible. Yet, there is one glaring omission–Saudi Arabia.

One wonders why an agency supposedly entrusted with homeland security would not scrutinize a place that spawned 11 of 12 9/11 hijackers and sponsors many Salafists wanting a worldwide caliphate?  Harrington opined that the list was politically driven with diplomacy playing it’s role, as always.   But the Selectee Passport List was effectively limited to middle-eastern travelers.

A striking passage from Harrington’s account was:

Most of us knew the directives were questionable, but orders were orders. And in practice, officers with common sense were able to cut corners on the most absurd rules, provided supervisors or managers weren’t looking.

But after the Underwear Bomber, 23 year old Nigerian  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, sought to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009, the TSA started to push full body scanners as a primary scrutiny device.

It is sad to know that TSA employees knew that the  Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners, which cost $150,000 per machine, would not work even before they were installed.  Harrington recounts that, off-the-record,  the Rapiscan Systems trainer said of his product: “It’s shit” as it would not be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.

While these full body scanners were ineffective in detecting cleverly hidden guns and explosives, they were good at detecting everything else.  It became sport for TSA agents to use the Image Operator (“I.O.”) rooms as break rooms both because it was the one place in the airport where there were no security cameras on them and it was an excellent place to ogle at the full body scans of compliant passengers.

Some of the lingo which is recounted in the Harrington piece reveals the voyeur tendencies operating in Transportation Security Theater, the morose morale issues and the danger of letting putative quasi- Law Enforcement Officers run wild with power.

Bin Loader: What a TSA employee is for the first month of his or her employment.
Code Red: Denotes an attractive female passenger wearing red
Retaliatory Wait Time:  Result when a TSA officer doesn’t like your attitude.
X-ray X-ray X-ray!: Code for an attractive female passenger, general.
White Shirt: Labeling  a TSA agent still under the impression that the job is a matter of national security. 

As the jargon indicates, TSA agents could act in a puerile manner with impunity against passengers,  gawk at every body imperfection and hassle anyone for whom they did not care, claiming “random searches” for national security.

Harrington had two jaw dropping quotes related to the I.O. room.  The truth that: "Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display.” This is not unexpected, but the schadenfreude of using these full body images as entertainment in an unofficial break room is galling.  A more salacious passage was more troubling: “Officers who were dating often conspired to get assigned to the I.O. room at the same time, where they analyzed the nude images with one eye apiece, at best.”  So TSA types were getting off at the hoops that commercial airline passengers have to endure in order to get on airplanes.

So the TSA compelled passengers to stand inside radiation-emitting devices which were ineffective, while these full body scans were sport and arousal agents with the TSA.  No wonder the TSA lingo termed “Opt out” as being a smart passenger.

But when a YouTube video posted by Jonathan Corbett in March, 2012 revealed some deficiencies in the  Rapiscan Systems in detecting cleverly concealed weapons.  Afterwards, the TSA started frisking every fifth passenger in a clumsy work around to a $40 million mistake. This was not the first technical goof by TSA.  There was the ShoeScanner which GE developed which were unveiled with great public fanfare at Orlando International Airport in 2007. But the expedited roll-out missed an important element.  So instead of expediting the screening, it still required half of the passengers to take their shoes off because the $200,000 machine did not catch something.  TSA withdrew them from service.  Then there are the EDS’s CT baggage scanners which cost $1 million a piece compared to the older AT scanners costing $150,000 but which former TSA Chief Kip Hawley proved the same level of security.

Aaron Tobey
Another adverse influence of Transportation Security Theater is cultural, which is hard to quantifiably measure but is quite real.  Take the case of Aaron Tobey, a 21 year old passenger who was arrested for disorderly conduct  in Richmond, Virginia as he was strip searched at a TSA checkpoint for having  with the Fourth Amendment written on his body.  Presumably, 4th Amendment underwear and "Don't Touch My Junk" briefs would provoke similar scrutiny.

Others are less daring but influenced by the budding police state.  I know a frequent flyer who is in process of applying for a TSA fast past card and is so anxious that nothing interfere with that process that the person is chary about complaining over bad service in a restaurant lest a systematic hiccup make her an “SSSS” stamp (automatic special screening for national security risk).  But as Nirvana put it in Territorial Pissing “Just because you’re paranoid. Don’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Considering the NSA “meta-data” personal information grabs and the IRS getting all your health information– remain calm, there’s no reason to panic.  Not!

In the wake of 9/11, some might make excuses for TSA overreach.  But to paraphrase  Ben Franklin’s warning: Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.  As Jason Harrington’s expose of Transportation Security Theater shows, we are not getting the security while the TSA is taking liberties with the flying public.

It is worth reading Jason Harrington's TSA confessions if you want to laugh while you cry. Harrington's prospective novel based upon his TSA experience to still elicit a wan smile about a truly sad situation over Transportation Security Theater.

h/t: Jason Harrington
      Ben Garrison
      Marshall Ramsey

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