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Live Q&A With Ex-TSA Agent Jason Harrington 141

Posted by samzenpus
from the straight-from-the-agents-mouth dept.
Jason Harrington (@Jas0nHarringt0n) is a controversial blogger, frequent contributor to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and one of the TSA's least favorite ex-employees. His descriptions of life on the job as a TSA agent caused some big waves and restarted a national discussion on security theater. Jason will be answering your questions below for the next couple of hours, or until the security line starts moving again. Please keep it to one question per post so everyone gets a chance. Update: 03/01 02:11 GMT by S : Jason has finished up for now — you can skip to his answers at his user page, or simply browse the comments to read everything. Thanks Jason for answering our questions!
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Live Q&A With Ex-TSA Agent Jason Harrington

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:04PM (#46370071)

    We've all heard news stories about 'incidents' at the TSA. We know the reactions of the travelers involved, and occasionally some high-muckity-muck at the TSA will make a vague policy statement. I'm curious about the internal communications after these incidents -- were you told to behave in a different way, to ease up or crack down?

  • What's... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:06PM (#46370091)

    ...the WEIRDEST thing you ever saw someone try to get through security?

  • Lighters (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:06PM (#46370095)

    As a previous chain smoker, this has been bugging me for a while. Every flight I made would require me to dispose of my throw-away lighter into the bucket prior to going through security. Does TSA just throw them all away? Recylce them?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:07PM (#46370103)

    How much influence does a random TSA agent have over your ability to fly or move about the airport? In other words, if somebody takes a dislike to you, can they arbitrarily make your life difficult, or are their checks to prevent this.

  • by t0qer (230538) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:07PM (#46370107) Homepage Journal

    Hi Mr Harrington.

    Thank you for your blog. Everything we've long suspect about the TSA's attitude and purpose was validated by your posts. It was brave of you to be the whistleblower, and I think all of us owe you a debt of thanks.

  • What now? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:09PM (#46370129)

    Are you afraid of retribution? I realize that you probably did this without much to lose in your career, but you have to wonder if you'll be considered some kind of "spy" like Snowden for revealing things like this to your fellow countrymen.

  • by schneidafunk (795759) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:11PM (#46370159)

    Have you had to inspect any computer equipment or pass along to feds for them to inspect?

  • Opt-outs (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:21PM (#46370239)

    What do the agents think of opt-outs? I'm in the shrinking minority that opt out every time I fly, and I'm treated mostly with professionalism (with a hint of annoyance by some).

  • by sinij (911942) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:22PM (#46370247) Journal

    What happens to all confiscated electronics and do you have any suggestions on how to lower your chances of getting your devices targeted by TSA?

  • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:23PM (#46370253)
    Generally, as far as official memos coming down from D.C., the only news stories that caused official reactions were those that the TSA officially acknowledged and responded to in the press. As far as the local level, it varied from supervisor to supervisor, manager to manager. Managers and supervisors at TSA are mostly terrible, most TSA employees will tell you, and tend to just pull issues out of their asses that they want to harangue their subordinates over. Sometimes they would decide that they wanted to make a big deal out of some news story concerning misbehaving TSA employees, so yes, then those stories would affect us. Sometimes they would decide that they wanted to make sure no TSA officers in the entire airport were chewing gum at any time while on duty.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:26PM (#46370275)

    Do the X-ray machine operators actually care about what they see on the screen? I've been able to get a few items that are on the TSA banlist (Swiss Army Knife, Zippos with lighter fluid in them, corkscrews, etc.) and the only thing that has ever called for a bag check was a tablet computer that I didn't place in the bin (there was a sign that stated tablets didn't have to be removed from bags, just regular notebook computers).

    What really triggers an operator to call for a bag search? Would a small box of toothpicks or screws set off an alarm?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:26PM (#46370277)

    Hi Jason, and thanks in advance for answering these questions.

    I am physically unable to use the scanners, both the X-ray and the millimeter-wave radar. I have been advised that I am therefore medically exempt, and am entitled to be screened by only the metal detector without any direct-contact search. I have TSA's standard notification card that I give to the person at the WTMD, informing them of the nature of my issue, and I also tell them verbally that I am medically exempt. Half the time they wave me through the WTMD (and half of that time, conduct an explosives test on my hands). The other half of the time, the TSA person gives me a LOT of grief in an effort to force me into either the scanner or the enhanced pat-down. So far, eventually they step away for a few minutes, then someone else comes along and waves me through the WTMD.

    What phrasing do you recommend I use, both on the card and by speaking, when I initially notify the screening person of my situation, to skip the part where the TSA person gives me grief?

  • Two questions: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gurps_npc (621217) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:37PM (#46370373) Homepage
    1) Is there anything that the TSA does that you consider to be effective and worth doing?

    2) Have you ever heard of any TSA precautions actually catching a terrorist planning on attacking a flight - when the TSA were not alerted by another agency?

  • by xclr8r (658786) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:46PM (#46370459)
    In training To detain, arrest, etc. What have they told TSA agents that they can not do?
  • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:55PM (#46370545)
    There are many airports across the U.S. that actually went privatized-- the cities decided they didn't want TSA anymore. SFO, San Francisco, is one example. The government regulates and monitors the private firms at those airports to make sure they're up to federal requirements. I believe private firms do just about everything more cheaply. And I can't imagine they would be any less effective than TSA. I used to think that every TSA employee should have the right to make judgement calls on the job-- to use common sense. To look at a jar of peanut butter, look at the owner, size up the situation, and say "This can go on the plane. You and your peanut butter aren't a threat, despite what the official rules say." I wrote a letter to the New York Times saying as much; I framed it in terms of allowing TSA screeners the ability to use behavior detection on the job to help make judgement calls. But I eventually realized I was wrong; I eventually came to regret most of what I said in the letter to the Times, at least about behavior detection. Quite frankly, the majority of TSA employees aren't the brightest stars in the galaxy. Many of them are perfectly intelligent, perfectly nice people. But the majority are not, in my experience. To be frank, I think it would be a really bad idea to give the entire TSA workforce the power to make judgement calls and arbitrarily decide who gets pulled aside for extra screening, and who doesn't. I think the TSA should lift the liquids ban, allow everyone to keep shoes on, sell most of the body scanners. Maybe one scanner per checkpoint, only, to be used on a random basis. They should basically tell the public, "OK. We're lifting those restrictions, but just know that we can and will be randomly testing shoes, liquids, and randomly selecting passengers for full body scans (which they can opt out of for a pat-down, instead." Just the possibility of having your shoes tested would likely deter you from bothering to risk a half-assed shoe bomb attempt on an airline. You'd hit a mall or something instead, if you were a terrorist. Bruce Schneier talks about all of this on his blog, and has for years. There are so few terrorists out there in a position to actually inflict harm that it's just stupid to waste much time or money worrying about it. It's irrational. Confiscating people's bottled water is not going to make a terrorist say, "Welp. There goes my terrorist dreams. Guess I'll give up." He or she is going to just hit another target, or work around the TSA's rules. The money we waste with all this theatrical fretting over liquids (and losing perfectly good liquids) would be better spent trying to address any of the 5,000 things that cause more deaths than terrorism in the U.S. every year. The best I could come up with as far as behavior detection goes would be to scale the behavior detection program way back, and focus on having just one person certified in behavior detection on each checkpoint. Say, a supervisor. That person would be given the very serious responsibility of being allowed to bend TSA rules on a case-by-case basis-- to use common sense, based on his or her analysis of a passenger's behavior and situation. He or she would be paid more due to that responsibility (like supervisors are), but would also be in hot water if he or she abused that power/responsibility
  • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @05:11PM (#46370647)
    The liquids, food items,flammable material and such-- stuff that you couldn't legally ship out for auction-- gets disposed of as hazardous material, at a hazardous material disposal site. This is one of the most common questions as far as senseless TSA rules go-- "If my stuff is supposedly dangerous, then why is it just sitting right there in a disposal bin on the checkpoint after I surrender it?" TSA would officially say that the items that are placed right there in bins on checkpoints after being surrendered are items that have been determined to not be the implements of a terrorist attempt, but rather, potentially dangerous stuff that is just being tucked away out of reach of the public, where it can't be brought through and potentially commandeered by people with malicious intent. But, a closer look at the way a checkpoint usually operated in practical terms, with a full passenger load coming through fast and furious, like at Chicago O'hare, LAX, or JFK, betrays holes in this logic. So you bring a liquid through that could potentially be hydrogen peroxide or liquid nitrogen, as far as the TSA is concerned. That liquid looks like a bottle of water. The TSA agent tells you that you can't bring it through, since large amounts of liquids could potentially be deadly explosives. The agent throws it in the bin right there on the checkpoint. This would maybe make sense, if the TSA agents tested the liquids each and every time before they threw it away to make sure that it wasn't an explosive. But in a busy airport, this almost never happens. The lines would be out the doors if the agents took the time to actually test every single bottle of water or Diet Coke that came through. So almost all of them end up just throwing it away, without testing it. That's what really betrays it as pure theater. Several security experts have noticed that this actually creates large security holes, in certain circumstances. There are hypothetical situations, which are completely plausible, in which a terrorist could simply bring bottles of liquid to an airport every time he or she flies, watch as the TSA mindlessly throws it away 3 out of 4 times, until they got through on the 4th time without having the liquid tested, due to an inattentive x-ray operator.
  • Re:What's... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @06:03PM (#46371015)
    I would say the all around most interesting weird thing that occasionally shows up would be exotic pets. People trying to bring exotic baby snakes from the U.S. to Britain, for example. There were cases of that happening at O'Hare, I was on the checkpoint for a snake smuggling situation, someone had a bag of baby snakes taped to his leg, I believe it turned out to be. This happens at airports around the world fairly frequently. I sometimes write for Cracked.com, and in googling this, I wasn't surprised to find a Cracked article on it: http://www.cracked.com/article... [cracked.com] Off the top of my head, and I should really think about this more thoroughly and more often before I forget, I would say that another of the funniest things that turned up sometimes were people wrapping their bottles of alcohol in tinfoil, thinking that would prevent the x-ray operator from being able to tell that it was a large bottle of liquids. One Russian lady did that at least twice that I knew of, on separate occasions. An old lady who, each time, acted as though she had no idea why her vodka was wrapped in tinfoil, or how it got there, claiming to speak no English. She was hilarious. We could just see that she was completely lying, and it pretty much felt as though she knew that we knew, and it was all just completely ridiculous.
  • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @06:14PM (#46371091)
    A TSA agent can easily slow you way down if he or she just dislikes you. Let's say you bump into a TSA agent outside of the airport, by the check-in curb, he or she doesn't like something you say. Back at the checkpoint, you end up coming through while that TSA agent is on the x-ray. It's simple for the TSA agent to call "Bag check!'", have one of his or her co-workers come over, and then whisper, "This guy's an asshole. Pretend that his suitcase gave us a bad image on the x-ray, draw this out." Then let's say the TSA agent doing the bag check happens to discover a few mini-bottles of shampoo in your suitcase. If that agent decides to turn up the irritation on you full blast, he or she can then decide to declare that you technically need a Ziplock bag in order to bring those liquids through, even though he or she wouldn't normally do that. This would technically mean that your suitcase would have to be rifled through and then sent back through the x-ray again. This can go on and on for 10-20 minutes, depending on how determined one or two TSA agents are to make your life hell. If you lose your patience because you detect shenanigans going on, then one of the agents might scream for a supervisor to come over, because technically if an argument starts to break out, TSA screeners are advised to call for a supervisor to take over. If the supervisor gets in on the act....etc. etc. etc. etc. I've seen this blow up to the police being called into it.
  • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @06:29PM (#46371255)
    There really are no checks to prevent it, because smart TSA agents quickly learn that the best way to impede a passenger's movement is to simply start following the official TSA rules and procedures point by point to every last detail, which translates to everything taking 5 times as long as it normally would. I would say that the worst nightmare of a TSA agent who was doing this would be a passenger who said, "You didn't just do all these procedures with the last passenger you dealt with. Why me?" And if it was a legitimate, comparable situation, and the passenger filed an official complaint and kept at it, and higher ups rolled back the security footage and saw proof that the TSA agent was disregarding official TSA rules for one passenger and then suddenly turning them on for another passenger, it could be bad for that employee. On the flip side, there are of course some truly awful passengers who come through, who deserve to be held up. I once had a guy fresh out of prison come through-- which is fine, for the most part, people fresh out of prison are perfectly cool at a checkpoint-- but this dude from the South Side of Chicago didn't have an official form of ID, just a xeroxed letter from the State. I had to call a superior over to approve of that situation, which is what I would have done for anyone with unusual documentation such as that. The guy decided that he just fucking hated me for that, right then, and so said, "You fucking lucky you ain't talkin' to me in the street right now motherfucker." I was being perfectly nice about it, and was genuinely doing my best to get him through security ASAP, not trying to give him a hard time But then I was like "OK, fuck it. This is how we're playing, then." So I did go a little out of my way to find a manager whom I knew would be a hardass with the guy, and told him the situation. A former marine, a cool manager-- there are some good people at TSA. He got up in the guy's face, and the guy then threatened the manager. Then the police came over. They discovered he was freshly released from prison, and so that ended up being about 45 minutes of questioning and checking up on his background. In the end, he still made it through and made his flight, but I'd say that he was just asking for that delay, really,
  • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @08:10PM (#46372181)
    TSA agents are told that they are not allowed to physically restrain a passenger in any way, or use force in any way. If a passenger just screams "Fuck this" and runs through security, TSA agents are, by agency policy, not allowed to do anything besides follow that person and call for help. The agent isn't supposed to even lay a hand on that passenger's shoulder to try to get him or her to stop.
  • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @08:18PM (#46372247)
    Anyone who can't raise his or her arms for the "frozen jumping jacks" full body scanner pose is exempt from the full body scanner. That's the most common reason that people come through claiming exemption. A lot of passengers discovered this and learned to say they can't raise their arms, in many cases when it's obvious that they're lying so as to get sent through the metal detector and avoid the full body scanner. A lot of TSA agents have come to suspect that almost everyone (who is not 90 years old and obviously unable to do very much physically) is lying about it. That's probably what you're suffering some of the time. Really, your best bet is to do what you're doing: have some documentation ready, and inform them of the situation. Beyond that, there really is nothing you could really do to make it easier, besides maybe commenting on the situation as a whole, "This always happens. I'm told by some TSA agents that it's because you think I'm faking my medical condition" or something like that.
  • Re:Hi Jason (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @10:45PM (#46373075)
    I applied for TSA in 2005; at that point, there'd only been 3 years, max, of anti-TSA sentiment and stories in the media and such. I suppose it would be different for someone applying for TSA today, nearly 10 yeas after I applied
  • by JHarrington (3553209) on Saturday March 01, 2014 @12:01AM (#46373457)
    I loved people who came through the checkpoint saying "This is fucking bullshit! Fuck TSA!" I was secretly writing an anti-TSA blog while many of those passengers showed up in front of me. 99 percent of the time, I was able to turn those situations into the most absurd, surprising situations you can imagine: the passenger who was screaming "This is a violation!" would, within minutes, be talking with me over in a corner, smiling, as I basically signaled to him "Viva la resistance. I'm on your side, I'm out of here as soon as possible. Just trust me, there's a good chance you'll be reading my story at some point in the future. Take your snow globe, I don't care, it's a stupid rule. I'm going to give you the least intrusive pat-down as possible, because this is bullshit, I agree." Those passengers were just about the only thing I had to look forward to every day, for a long time. The one, ONE and almost only thing that could make me angry with a passenger and bring about a tit-for-tat level of frustration in me, was one of those angry passengers coming through, and just refusing to listen to anything I had to say, or maybe being unable to comprehend it. For instance, there would be cases, no joke, where a man would come through the checkpoint, an X-Ray operator would call a bagcheck on him due to a snow globe in the guy's luggage that he was trying to bring home to his daughter for Christmas, I would take the guy to the table for the bagcheck, where he would be saying "This is so fucking ridiculous. Fuck TSA." And I would be saying "I know, I know, I totally agree. I am on your side. I am not going to confiscate your snow globe, because it clearly turns out that there *is* *no* *snow* globe in here. *Wink*. *Wink*." And I kid you not, the guy would say, "What? Whatever. Just take the fucking snow globe you dipshit." I would say, "Sir. There is no snow globe in here. Wink. Wink." And the guy would say "You dumb TSA dipshit. Just take the fucking snow globe since that's what you're going to do, anyway." At that point, it was very hard to not be so incredibly frustrated with that guy that I felt the need to get a little "tit for tat" on him. It was passenges like that, or guys who decided to tell me "I would fuck you up on the street right now motherfucker" when I was trying to be perfectly cool with them, whom I admittedly did lose my patience with, and on whom I did get sort of tit for tat. Should I have maintained perfect cool, ideally, and not cared? Yes. But I couldn't help but feel a hint of "You know what? Seriously, fuck this person, then," in those situations.
  • Re:What's... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JHarrington (3553209) on Saturday March 01, 2014 @12:03PM (#46375821)
    Porn, piles of cash, etc etc., are not a threat to an airplane. TSA tells its employees that that's not what to look for, but to alert supervisors if, for instance, child porn or 3 kilos of cocaine show up in a passenger's bag. However, since the TSA has been able to show almost no evidence of having successfully prevented a terrorist attack, they end up working with what they do have so as to try to justify their existence. And so you have them posting hundreds of pictures per month on Instagram showing knives and guns that were discovered in passengers' bags, even though nearly every single case of a gun being brought to an airport is a genuine, stupid, unintentional error on the part of someone. While I worked at O'Hare, there were about 4 cases of a gun being caught in a passenger's carry-on while I was on-duty. Every single one of those cases were, if I had to bet my life on it, genuine mistakes on the part of the passengers. For instance, one case involved a distinguished 70-year-old man, I believe he was a professor at a university, with his 20-year-old granddaughter. I'm not saying that he couldn't have been trying to purposely bring a gun onto a plane because of those facts. Rather, it seemed like an honest mistake because you could see the genuine shock on his face when he was informed that he had a gun in one of his carry-on bags. It was the look of someone who just accidentally hit a kid while driving, just absolute horror/shock. He apparently grabbed the wrong bag at home while rushing out the door, something like this. At any rate, you could just look at the situation and know that this man was not planning to somehow sneak a pistol past an x-ray machine (that's such a risky proposition that it's hard to imagine anyone with a brain believing it to be a good thing to try) go on an airplane with his granddaughter, and just start shooting people. Even the police officers mentioned that they felt bad having to arrest the guy. So even the guns that the TSA loves to brag about having caught are really not as impressive finds as they would have you believe, in the vast majority of cases, at least in terms of having prevented some disastrous act of violence. Absolutely it's good that the TSA is, in fact, able to do what airport security has actually been doing since the 1970s-- catching guns in people's luggage using x-ray machines-- but I think the TSA implies that because they are just doing what airport security has been doing for years, they should continue to be allowed to do things such as placing people in full body scanners, and having near-useless Behavior Detection Officers walking around the airport pulling people aside for interrogations. As far as the possibility of someone strolling into an airport and simply attacking the security line: there is very little that the TSA can do to prevent this, and they know it, In that case, it's a paradoxical situation: the TSA believes that in order to ensure people's safety, all sorts of restrictions have to be enforced, high-tech scans take place, thus slowing passengers down and creating bigger lines. But by creating bigger lines, they're most likely creating a better target for a serious and determined terrorist. I worked with some managers who actually brought this up from time to time with screeners, which meant that they would say, "Hurry up and get these passengers through!"[I think that actually, they were saying this due to pressure from the airlines who often get annoyed that their passengers are stuck in long lines, and when the airlines *really* aren't happy, TSA headquarters hears about it] "Because long lines are perfect targets for terrorists! But also, don't rush too much, because if you miss a test bag with fake explosives sent through by a D.C. internal testing team, it might mean your job!" So there would be an absurd, Catch 22 dynamic in play. This answer is this long because it's the last one I'm doing, now, the morning after the day I started answering Qs, and I wanted to get in as much as I could. I wish I knew how to make paragraphs in t
  • On whether I fly (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JHarrington (3553209) on Saturday March 01, 2014 @12:30PM (#46375981)
    The first question that I was asked for this Q and A actually came on Twitter, and I promised on Twitter that I would answer it on here, and I actually saw the question somewhere in this sea of questions at one point, and of course forgot to get to it, somehow. But that question is: Have I experienced any retaliation from the TSA, have I flown since then, and if I have flown since then, have I been recognized by TSA agents . So far, there has been no official word from the TSA as far as problems concerning any nondisclosure agreement or what have you. As many people have noted in various places, the TSA has to really, really be prepared to hit me with official action, and it has to be really, really sure that it's a good idea, because I've obviously made a few contacts in the media over the past couple years, and I'm obviously not exactly shy about sharing whatever's going on in my life with the world at any given time. Short of just straight-up disappearing me Stalin-style-- which I think would be a little overboard, really, for goddamned airport security matters-- any action taken against me will likely end up as news one way or another. We're not dealing with Snowden-caliber releases of information, here. I've seen a few mentions of my name in the same sentence with Snowden in places on the internet, which I think is absolutely absurd. Snowden is on a whole different level. I don't even consider myself a whistle-blower, really. Maybe one thing I did-- the very first post I made on my blog, informing the public that I, as a TSA employee, and many of us, strongly felt that the radiation Rapiscan scanners were mostly useless, and that the TSA tried to work around the machines' inherent flaws with clumsy directives involving additional pat-downs of passengers-- counted as a sort of whistle-blowing act. But other than that, all I'm doing is basically just telling my stories. That's what I am, a storyteller, a writer-- I'm a creative writing major in a fully funded grad school program. I've been writing short stories and screenplays since I was 8. I primarily want to inform and entertain the world with stories of things that I experienced at the TSA, delivered in high-quality fashion. [Please don't hold this post or any of these rapid-fire Q and A pieces of writing that I'm producing here too close to that standard, though, it's pretty fast and furious with big-ass Q and A sessions like this]. As for whether I've flown since working at the TSA: hell no. I've taken Amtrak everywhere, in terms of cross-country travel. I don't intend to fly for a while. I wouldn't be too surprised if I were recognized by someone, or if some sort of enhanced screening mysteriously popped up for me. Although, then again, knowing the TSA as I do, I may very well be one of the last people they want to give extra screening to at an airport, knowing that it would very likely become news to some degree. So actually, I probably should try flying one of these days soon, just to see what happens. I genuinely hate flying, though, because it's just an all around unpleasant experience these days, but I suppose I don't have to tell that to most of you. OK, this is officially it, I'm out of here, it's been great, you guys

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