TSA

Here's What It's Like to Work for the TSA

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Flickr user billpallooza

Politico magazine is running a long personal essay by Jason Harrington, a former Transportation Security Administration worker, about his time working the security lines at Chicago's O'Hare airport. The tone is confessional, and apologetic, and he reveals a lot about the ugliness of the job. A few lowlights below:

The job was demoralizing: "It was a job that had me patting down the crotches of children, the elderly and even infants as part of the post-9/11 airport security show. I confiscated jars of homemade apple butter on the pretense that they could pose threats to national security. I was even required to confiscate nail clippers from airline pilots—the implied logic being that pilots could use the nail clippers to hijack the very planes they were flying."

The rules were nonsense: "Once, in 2008, I had to confiscate a bottle of alcohol from a group of Marines coming home from Afghanistan. It was celebration champagne intended for one of the men in the group—a young, decorated soldier. He was in a wheelchair, both legs lost to an I.E.D., and it fell to me to tell this kid who would never walk again that his homecoming champagne had to be taken away in the name of national security."

Privately, TSA workers knew the agency's full-body scanning technology didn't work: "We knew the full-body scanners didn't work before they were even installed. Not long after the Underwear Bomber incident, all TSA officers at O'Hare were informed that training for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners would soon begin. The machines cost about $150,000 a pop. Our instructor was a balding middle-aged man who shrugged his shoulders after everything he said, as though in apology. At the conclusion of our crash course, one of the officers in our class asked him to tell us, off the record, what he really thought about the machines. 'They're shit,' he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn't be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket."

The body scanning machines may not have been able to catch terrorists. But they provided TSA agents with plenty of fodder for jokes about the passengers they were scanning: "Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues: Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who'd had mastectomies were easy to discern—their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred poses—mouths agape, à la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels."

Read the whole thing here

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  1. TSA has their own secure radio channels? The FCC can kiss my ass.

    1. Oddly enough, it’s not the FCC that handles the huge swaths of federal allocations, it’s the NTIA.

      According to an entry at radioreference.com, the TSA in Las Vegas operate on 172.900 using P25. But, apparently not encrypted.

      A lot of personnel think that because they’re using a digital ‘voice’ (protocol/codec/vocoder), are on a trunking system, and/or are on “special federal frequencies”, they’re conversation is secure.

      1. So how can we hear these communcations?

        1. Moderns scanner that does digital decoding.

          Uniden makes a few: (older) BCD396XT/996XT and their new (this month) BCD436/536HP.

  2. Nothing says freedom like being finger blasted and ridiculed by glorified mall cops.

  3. You SugarFree’d the link.

  4. Read the whole thing here.

    Link is dead

    1. Should be fixed now.

      1. The link opens up in print preview. Here’s the corrected link.

  5. I was always derisively called an “opt out”…except the time I went through in uniform. That was a real hoot.

  6. Everyone in the entire homeland security field knew the nudie scanners would not have prevented the underwear bomber from the time they were first proposed. Those scanners are the product of terrified political people desperately trying to do something so that if anything else happened they couldn’t be accused of sitting idle and allowing it to happen. That is it.

    Janet Napalitano got it right and both sides about killed her for saying it. The system did work in the underwear bomber case, at least the airline security system. The security was good enough that we forced that idiot to try an idiotic long shot scheme of chemicals in his underwear and building a bomb in flight. That is what good security looks like. No security is perfect. All it can do is make the enemy work really hard and rely on long shot schemes. That is it.

    The failure in the underwear bomber was with the State Department and the IC, not with airline security. The guy’s dad went to the US embassy and told them his son was a nut and was going to do something horrible. And some Ivy educated GS whatever VISA official never passed on the information and gave him a VISA anyway.

    But since the IC and State can never be responsible for anything, better to blame it on security and rapscan the public as a result.

    1. Not to mention that someone with connections made a shit ton of money. $150k each, multiple scanners at every airport. Wow.

      1. Chertoff was under contract for the company that makes them.

        Don’t ever believe all of the bullshit about how the top people in Washington hate each other.

    2. Those scanners are the product of terrified political people desperately trying to do something so that if anything else happened they couldn’t be accused of sitting idle and allowing it to happen.

      Not at all. It was connected people getting rich selling some useless machines. That’s it.

  7. Seems like I’m a “smart passenger”.

    1. You are a woman under 50 and presumably, though I have never met you, attractive. You are always going to be suspect.

      If you don’t like the attention of the TSA agents, get old or gain some weight.

      1. I was just referring to the “glossary” with the article that says an “opt out” is a smart passenger. I have never been through one of those scanners.

        1. Good for you. I have to admit I have been a total failure in this regard. I have gone through them a couple of times because I was in a hurry and didn’t tell them to fuck off. That is a moral failure on my part.

          1. It’s scary the first time you do it. Then it becomes empowering.

            1. I am sure. And I wasn’t scared of them. I know them too well for that. I just knew it would be a pain in the ass.

              I was more lazy than cowardly.

              1. It actually isn’t that bad. They get in your face a bit (“why don’t you want to go through the scanner?”), but you can just say, “No” and you’re not required to give an answer. Then they pat you down aggressively and you go on your way.

                1. They’ve only ever been passive-aggressive to me.

                2. I’ve only flown twice since the scanners went in place and opted out from the start. Either it’s the airports or they just don’t care anymore but they just read their required script and didn’t hassle about opting out.

                  Found out after the first time, when I offered to help the guy move my stuff from the Xray to the patdown area, that only the TSA is supposed to touch the luggage. So now I always ask if I can give them a hand with carrying my items.

                3. They get in your face a bit (“why don’t you want to go through the scanner?”),

                  I wonder what would happen if someone replied “Because they don’t fucking work!!!”

              2. I’m right there with you John. The hassle of dealing with the mallcops has always outweighed my negligible fear of the scanners. It doesn’t help that I don’t really care who sees me naked anyway, that’s their problem, not mine.

                I do feel guilty for not giving them grief though.

                1. It’s not just about the images. Theses devices have never been certified for safety by an independent agency. Not even the FDA. And the Euros have banned them.

                  1. Theses devices have never been certified for safety by an independent agency.

                    If I were a more regular traveler, I might be more concerned. As it is, I worked for years with high powered microwave test equipment. Guys who work with radar in the military get microwaved all the time. The exposure levels from the scanners don’t come close to that.

                    1. Microwaves are not the same as x-rays.

                    2. And x-rays are not in the millimeter/terahertz band.

                      I’m not saying they’re perfectly safe, but the people who work with the things on a daily basis are far more likely to have issues than anyone else.

                    3. The backscatter machines don’t operate in the millimeter/terahertz band.

                    4. The backscatter machines don’t operate in the millimeter/terahertz band.

                      Point taken, but the radiation exposure from one of those scans is less than the radiation you receive in flight. My assumption being that the power levels stated by the manufacturer are close to actual.

                      I’m not attempting to justify their existence, I just think the major objections to them should be along the lines of that they contribute nothing to actual security, line the pockets of the well-connected, and help create an atmosphere where security trumps liberty.

                    5. I’m not saying they’re perfectly safe, but the people who work with the things on a daily basis are far more likely to have issues than anyone else.

                      Well, that’s not really saying much, since we don’t know what kind of dosages the workers are getting vs. the passengers, and we don’t know how long it might take for symptoms to appear.

                  2. Meh, the flight will probably zap you with more radiation than these scanners will.

                  3. Supposedly the UK uses scanners for secondary screening. I read about it on the flyertalk forum.

                    Last time I flew through Amsterdam on my way back to the US, all US bound passengers had to go through the new style scanners and a pat down. Yes, both, but you got to keep your shoes on.

              3. I’m proud of my penis. Let ’em scan away.

                1. Will you still be proud when it morphs into a deformed Warty-penis from the unsafe doses of radiation?

                  1. I thought that was desirable. We’re talking like an anaconda, right?

                    1. A frightening penis is a point of pride, isn’t it?

                  2. Yes? Maybe even more proud?

                2. I try to give myself the .biggest erection possible before going through the scanner. For.some reason, it never works.
                  For a while, I opted out consistently, then went through the scanners a few times.
                  The last few times, they have patted me down after I have gone throught the scanner anyway, so I think I’m just going to start opting out again. If they ask me why I’ll tell them this, whuch.is the truth.

            2. The first time I did it, the fuckers intentionally made me wait for several minutes, while 5 of them stood around and chatted.

              1. When I opted out, one of the tools tried to start a stare down fight, when I didn’t cave, he called his buddy the cop.

              2. At PIT, they call it “the Pen.” Or the Corral, I forget which, and they say it out loud.

            3. Also, when some guy comes over and asks you why you’re opting out, DO NOT SAY “To get in your way.”

              They don’t like that.

          2. We most recently flew when my wife was pregnant. We both opted out, and the agents acted all surprised that I opted out as well, but that it was totally reasonable for my wife to opt out.

            People, if you think it makes sense for a pregnant lady not to want to go through one of those scanners, why would anybody do it?

            1. Once you have an actual baby, the line cutting is pretty awesome…

          3. They aren’t even really trying on the opt out lines anymore. The first couple of times I went through I got a good groping. The last couple of years, though, they just went through the motions.

            The last time I went through, I had screwed up my foot playing basketball a day or two before flying and my ankle was heavily taped. The groper didn’t even seem to notice the big wad of tape around my foot.

          4. I’m like John. Usually I get the pat-down, but if I’m running late or I’m fasting to reset my bodyclock, I’ll go through the scanner. In the first case, I want to make my flight, in the second case because I’m irritable and hungry and I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep my mouth shut.

            When I get the pat-down, I rank the goon on his future with the union, though I don’t tell him my thoughts on his future. The last time I got a pat-down, the guy had the proper surly attitude but was too thorough. He needs to learn to slack off or he has no future with the union.

        2. I have always been very polite when opting out, and if they ask me why, I have said “because I want to”. I’ve never had a delay. In fact, I get through faster than most people, because most people are waiting in line to be rapescanned. It is DC, after all – most of the people in the airport are wholeheartedly in favor of security theater.

          1. The only time I had to wait, in my limited experience, was at Las Vegas when there were two opt outs ahead of me. The non-opt outs started asking what we were waiting for and just coincidentally the patdown guys then came out.

          2. Replies to use to “Why?”

            Because I’m lonely.
            Because I’m horny.
            Because I have diarrhea.
            Because I’m patriotic.
            Because I support the TSA.
            Because the union paid me to. OOPS!
            Do I win a million dollars if I give the correct answer?

            I just don’t understand the fucking point of asking why. There isn’t an answer that will avoid the scanner AND the patdown.

            I would be tempted to read an HL Mencken article out loud during the patdown. Or does talking render the patdown ineffective?

        3. Me either. Most of the time they just take me and do their thing, but I’ve had enough times where the TSA guy comes up in a fatigued voice and says “do you really? They’re completely safe. Why?”

          My response is always “because I don’t support the Kabuki theater going on here and I refuse to support it without protest and this is the best I can do without being arrested.”

          I’ve tried to coach my wife to try and include a verbal protest when possible, but she just figures it wastes there time and doesn’t feel the need to say anything. So far it hasn’t resulted an any additional screening or harassment.

  8. That link is broken.

      1. This top link Jesus, does he comes back to life on the third HTML tag?

  9. America the beautiful. The unfolding saga of the slow crushing of the last remaining large-scale vestige of freedom has been tortuously justified by far too many… I guess my point is- the path to raw dictatorship is paved with marvelous intentions voiced by even the hoary and respected. Evolution or god can suck my dick. Humanity, aside from insignificant enclaves of the rational and ethical, may be the most vile form of planetary pollution in the universe. If this reads cynical so be it.

  10. For those who don’t bother to read the article, Jason runs a very entertaining blog excoriating the TSA at Taking Sense Away.

  11. I’m still amazed that they actually call those things “Rapiscan”. Really? No one pointed out that it sounds an awful lot like “rapey scan”?

    1. I thought that was a joke. Going to google now.

      1. Jesus Christ!

        1. You need to.consult your analrapist.

          1. Analrapyst, sorry.

          2. I need anustart

      2. I did too the first few times I saw it in print.

    2. Remember the phone number for Obamacare? 800 fuck you? They don’t even pretend anymore.

  12. FTA:

    In private, most TSA officers I talked to told me they felt the agency’s day-to-day operations represented an abuse of public trust and funds.

    Dear officers: you are the day-to-day operators who are abusing public trust and funds.

  13. Jason runs a very entertaining blog excoriating the TSA at Taking Sense Away.

    That’s nice, but I’d prefer it if he set himself on fire at the front door of the TSA.

    1. Then he’d be labeled a nutjob and bundled off to an insane asylum whereupon any word from his mouth thereafter would be viewed with an eye-roll and a chuckle.

  14. In private, most TSA officers I talked to told me they felt the agency’s day-to-day operations represented an abuse of public trust and funds.

    Orders were followed.

  15. Okay, I was reading the Full body scanner entry on Wikipedia, and found this:

    “Dr. Steve Smith, inventor of the body scanner in 1991…”

    Steve Smith invented rapey scanners. It all makes sense.

    1. You really can’t make life up. That is like 8 shades of awesome.

    2. And here is the fellow who’s caused a lot of people to hate body scanners:
      http://www.dspguide.com/swsmith.htm

      1. In the medical field, Dr. Smith has developed x-ray systems for detecting blocked arteries in the heart (arteriosclerosis), and the loss of calcium in the bones (osteoporosis). His work in nondestructive testing has led to products for inspecting cans and bottles for fill level and leaks, and printed circuit boards for defective solder connections.

        See, if he had just had the wisdom to never deal with the government, he could have been a hero. Instead, he gets to be remembered as the guy who enabled millions of people to be degraded by perverts.

  16. WTH is with taking away the hooch from the Marines? Why not just say “Guys, I am supposed to take this away from you, but I’m just going to tell them that I did. Keep it out of sight until you are away from the security checkpoint, OK?”

    I’ve had shit jobs working at hotels where the manager has told me to go roust a party room and all I ever did was tell them to keep it down for a while.

    * Also as a former jarhead I have to shake my head at what the Corps has come to if they are drinking champagne. When I was in, it was always rum (as a hat tip to our naval origins), or if you were a southerner it was whiskey/bourbon.

    1. WTH is with taking away the hooch from the Marines? Why not just say “Guys, I am supposed to take this away from you, but I’m just going to tell them that I did. Keep it out of sight until you are away from the security checkpoint, OK?”

      You think the copwannabees are going to turn down a chance to score a free bottle of champagne?

  17. Fuck these people. I have never gone through the rape scanners, and I take great pleasure in inconveniencing the TSA morons who pat me down. If you interrupt their bullshit pre-patdown monologue where they tell you about how they’re not going to fingerbang you, they have to restart at the beginning, and they get really frustrated. Fuck you. Feel my junk.

    1. I’m fond of “glove up and earn it”

  18. Nice documentation that we’ve been right all along, but I still really can’t feel too sorry about how degrading it is to the poor TSA monkeys. It is not as if someone pointed a gun at their head and said “take this job or else”.

  19. “Permitted”? MANDATED

    1. erps wrong thread.

  20. guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.”

    Hmm, thank you for that.

  21. “I’m not trying to tread upon your First Amendment rights,” she said. “All I’m saying is: Couldn’t you have run those First Amendment rights past the legal department first?”

    Muahahahahaha! What a fuckin’ dingbat. Of the thirty thousand possible responses, she picked the absolute dumbest.

  22. I opt-out every time. I’m paying a security fee to fly, I better get my money’s worth.

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