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Security Transportation United States

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 @03:04PM (#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?

    • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:23PM (#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.
  • What's... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:06PM (#46370091)

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

    • Re:What's... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @05:03PM (#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.
      • OK, riddle me this: how are porn, piles of cash, illegal drugs, exotic pets, or god forbid a hamburger in any way a threat to the airplane, and if they are not, why does the TSA give a damn if they're in baggage or not? Shouldn't the TSA be focused on safety rather than generic law enforcement? Oh not as sexy perhaps but exactly what is the TSA (keyword Transportation) protecting and from whom?

        And for all the TSA screening and checkpoints and xrays, how does any of that stuff offer any protection what so

        • Re:What's... (Score:5, Interesting)

          by JHarrington (3553209) on Saturday March 01, 2014 @11:03AM (#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
  • Lighters (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:06PM (#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?

    • Could we broaden that to "what happens to all the junk you collect from us?"

      • Re:Lighters (Score:5, Informative)

        by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @09:55PM (#46373115)
        Lighters I'm pretty sure are disposed of as hazardous material, as opposed to auctioned off. I would research it via Google right now but my internet connection is mysteriously sucking right now and this window is about all I can count on. I would think that there would be some sort of law preventing the TSA from wrapping up hundreds of pounds of flammable items and shipping them off to be auctioned. Most everything else gets auctioned away by state governments. In Illinois the site was something like Illbid or some such. You can find websites for most states where confiscated airport items are being auctioned off. Obviously, food items should not be eligible for this (i.e., hummus, apple butter, anything considered a liquid or gel substance) because what if someone eats that shit and dies for any number of reasons. I would honestly hope that the same would go for any product that could be consumed, so the alcohol should really not be auctioned off, either, in any ways, even if it is an awesome bottle of killer fine wine, because what if someone just brought some poisoned shit to the airport on purpose. Large snow globes, Swiss Army knives, all other types of knives, Leatherman tools, golf clubs, baseball bats, club-like items in general, lava lamps, etc. etc. etc., all get sent to state organizations that auction the items off, as far as I know. That's how it worked in Illinois, and I've heard that's how it works in other places, too.
      • Re:Lighters (Score:5, Informative)

        by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @09:56PM (#46373123)
        Oh, and lighters can go on planes since 2009 or so I think, it's just torch lighters that can't go.
    • As a smoker, I've been flying with lighters since before 9/11. I was only told I couldn't bring my lighter once, and it was the time I had it on me when I opted-out and got me an enhanced pat down. In my experience, as long as it's in your carry-on bag or just not on your person in general, it's not a problem.
    • by Copid (137416)
      We should start a voucher system. Dump a pair of scissors in the bin? Get a voucher good for one pair of scissors that you can grab from the bin on your way out of your destination airport. Not a perfect replacement, but better than losing it entirely.
    • Normal disposable lighters (Bic or whatever), Zippo lighters, and book matches are all explicitly allowed in US carry-ons. Quantity=1, I think. High-powered cigar "torches" are forbidden. http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-in... [tsa.gov]
  • by OzPeter (195038) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:07PM (#46370101)

    Can you explain why I have seen TSA officers waiting at the gate and taking samples of peoples drinks as they board the plane and seemingly testing them on the spot?

    What does this prove? That the security lines have allowed illegal stuff through, or that shops on the inside are selling tasty explosives in liquid form?

    • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:30PM (#46370311)
      That's called gate screening, and many TSA employees despise it and want it to be abolished, too, saying it's a waste of time. The best theoretical reason for that screening is that it's a last defense against the entire TSA security system having failed. Say a terrorist infiltrated TSA and ended up working as a TSA employee, and then smuggled something dangerous through. Not the most farfetched premise, really. Then that gate screening would be the only thing standing in the way of someone bringing a container full of potentially explosive hydrogen peroxide onto the plane. But it's pretty easy to imagine that if some evil person was clever and determined enough to have made it that far, they would figure out a way to evade the fucking team of bored and de-moralized TSA screeners waving a dumbass gadget over people's water bottles.
      • by OzPeter (195038)

        But it's pretty easy to imagine that if some evil person was clever and determined enough to have made it that far, they would figure out a way to evade the fucking team of bored and de-moralized TSA screeners waving a dumbass gadget over people's water bottles.

        Thanks for the answer. I avoided it by keeping my drink in my bag as I boarded the plane!

        However in Buenos Aires flying to the US I had water bottles in my bag confiscated from me as I boarded the plane. Apparently this is a common practice in a whole bunch of places.

        • by cayenne8 (626475)

          Thanks for the answer. I avoided it by keeping my drink in my bag as I boarded the plane!

          Interesting..I just usually chug the last of my beer at the gate right before getting on the plane.

          Never had anyone try to sample it before tho....

        • by amicusNYCL (1538833) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:48PM (#46370473)

          Thanks for the answer. I avoided it by keeping my drink in my bag as I boarded the plane!

          Whoa man, Jesus Christ! The TSA works hard to develop these comprehensive foolproof security measures such as looking for someone holding a drink and then scanning it. Can you please avoid giving the terrorists information that they otherwise could have never gotten if you hadn't posted common sense on the internet? Think of the goddamn children!

          Obviously I need to write to my congressperson to push them to write a law that bans you from the internet or talking to people. In the name of security, of course.

      • What happens if I flat-out refuse this? I'm already in the (not-actually-)"sterile"(-at-all) area, what can they do?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:07PM (#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 JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @05:14PM (#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 AK Marc (707885)

        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.

        How many TSA agents know their own rules? My wife went through with a hair product (in a small enough container), and it was confiscated because it wasn't in a ziplock. A single item must be in a ziplock? The rules read like a "maximum" and there was no explicit statement that a single 50 ml container must be in a bag or it would be confiscated. And I lost a 150 ml (max) tube of toothpaste that was a 30-40 ml "container" at the time (almost empty), and thus should have been allowed. The fact that it ha

    • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @05:29PM (#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,
      • Thank you for telling this story. It goes to show even further that when people are granted the kind of power that TSA had been, they will abuse them for personal gratification (I'm not going to judge whether the guy in your story "deserved" it or not; my point is rather that neither you nor your manager should have been in a position to make that call).

  • by t0qer (230538) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:07PM (#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

    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 @03:11PM (#46370159)

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

  • by j-turkey (187775) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:15PM (#46370189) Homepage

    Jason,

    Thanks for being here and answering our questions. Given your experience working as a "line" TSA screener, how would you propose that we fix airport security, making it more effective, yet less intrusive for travelers? Clearly, the TSA isn't going away, and they will be the agency that regulates airport security for the foreseeable future. However, would you (for example) suggest empowering agents with additional flexibility? Perhaps implement policies more in-line with real security and risk management strategies, eschewing the current models of "security theater" and reactions to past threats? Maybe eschewing use of TSA's screeners, and having private firms provide security (again, under TSA regulations)? Something else altogether?

    • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:55PM (#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
      • 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.

        That's fascinating. I'm an aussie who has travelled to the US twice, once to San Jose via LAX, and once direct to SFO.

        The difference between them was chalk and cheese... I'd previously put it down to cultural differences between SoCal and the north of the state. But, now that I know that SFO isn't the TSA it makes perfect sense.

  • If I came to the airport and had a bottle that was over the 3.4 oz or had a disposable lighter or some other item, where/how does that stuff get discarded? Would seem to me if these materials were "dangerous" they are just sitting in an airport bin and that's slightly better than the airport but not by much
    • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:11PM (#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.
      • by Obfuscant (592200)

        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?"

        The rules may be senseless, but this is not an example of one of them.

        The material is in the bin and therefore didn't make it onto a plane where it could be used to kill lots of helpless people. If someone was targetting people in the airport outside the sterile area, they wouldn't have to go through the line with bottles of H2O2 and acetone and hope they meet up just right in the bin, they'd just bring in the acetone peroxide and use it directly. I mean, if you want to cause panic and fear, you can just

        • The whole concept of smuggling enough *high-purity* H2O2 onto a plane is vastly silly. My late ex, a materials scientist who worked with hypergols at KSC, used tell me just how hard it was to deal with. Close to 100% purity, and the slightest impurity - even a dust mote - would set the damn stuff off. Think of it as slightly less explosive, but just as sensitive, as pure nitroglycerin.

                              mark

        • You missed his point. If you don't test the bottles that you throw them away, you won't notice an unsuccessful attack that didn't happen only because the bottle didn't get past screening. This allows the would-be terrorist to just keep trying, flying back and forth and trying to get a bottle on board, until by chance (which, as we know, is not zero and not even all that low) he can get it past screening.

        • The bin is right next to a concentration of hundreds of people - the line to go through the security checkpoint....

  • Hi Mr. Harrington, Do you have any idea where the "No-Fly List" comes from?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Hi. Thanks for all you've done.
    I travel with a camera bag with an SLR body or two, several lenses and a few accessories.
    90% of the time, this bag is swabbed by staff and the swab tested. I have never been told of results, positive/neutral/negative/other.
    1. Why do they always swab my camera gear?
    2. Hand hygiene in those places is TERRIBLE - I'm glad you're out and I hope you're healthy. (not a question)

    Good day.

  • by Maximalist (949682) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:21PM (#46370235)

    Every so often an event makes the news that somebody in the TSA has been busted for stealing out of luggage. Did you observe or suspect these sorts of shenanigans were happening while you worked for them? Are these one-off bad apples, or is it the TSA's informal wage-boost bonus system?

    • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:46PM (#46370913)
      It happened pretty frequently at Chicago O'Hare-- an officer being arrested/terminated for theft. I'd hear news of it once every two months or so. Oddly, I just so happened to have never really known of those people. I knew of a couple of them-- talked to them a couple times here and there-- but there was never a case of a friend/co-worker of mine stealing from the public, or getting caught at it. I had a couple friends who, back in 2007, would gather up change left behind by passengers in order to buy coffee on break.A friend/co-worker of mine and I were once accused of stealing diamonds from a jeweler flying to Israel. The guy was fairly wealthy, and very paranoid. We'd done a private screening on the guy, since jewelers/coin collectors usually request a private screening of their luggage, so that the entire airport doesn't see that they're carrying a suitcase full of gold. After the guy got home to Israel, he decided that he was short a diamond in his collection, and that I and my co-worker must have been responsible. The jeweler hired a private investigator, the entire thing blew up into a full investigation. My co-worker and I were asked by TSA higher-ups if we'd be willing to take a polygraph test, just to throw that into the investigation and see if the guy still wanted to pursue it, assuming we passed the test. I said hell yes, give me the polygraph, I may be stupid, but I'm not stupid enough to have swiped some guy's diamond so as to end up doing prison time with a felony on my record. My co-worker said the exact same thing. We both passed the polygraph, not surprisingly. That was the only case I've ever heard of where a TSA employee took a polygraph, ever. I feel sort of lucky that it just so happened to have involved me.
  • Opt-outs (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:21PM (#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).

    • Re:Opt-outs (Score:5, Funny)

      by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:18PM (#46370707)
      Generally, opt-outs are looked at as an annoyance. If the checkpoint isn't busy, then the agents might not mind doing your pat-down at all. If they're bored, they may even welcome the diversion. But if a checkpoint's getting slammed, and TSA screeners are having a bad day in general, and then you show up opting out, they might be either aggravated with you, at times disdainful. I had one former co-worker who used to shape his hands into a diamond shape every time an opt-out came through. I asked him what it was supposed to mean. A vagina, he explained.
  • by sinij (911942) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:22PM (#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 Sean (422)

      TSA forces passengers to surrender electronics? Under what circumstances? I've never heard of that.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    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 t

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:26PM (#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?

    • Ooh, I think I can field this one:

      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?

      "You know, on second thought I think I'll take the bus."

      • by dtmos (447842) *

        "You know, on second thought I think I'll take the bus."

        You've apparently not heard of the TSA VIPR teams [wikipedia.org].

        • Oh, I've heard of them, never actually seen one in person.

          Of course, that may be a consequence of living outside the Constitution-Free Zone. YMMV, depending on how close to the national border you reside.

    • by mythosaz (572040)

      You're anonymous, so, I can't see that it matters, but... ...what the heck makes you medically exempt from direct-contact searches that still lets you get on planes in close contact with other humans?

      • The way I read it, the medical exemption entitles him to use only the medical detector, not that it necessarily also means he can't have someone touch him.

    • by MadCow42 (243108)

      I'm curious what qualifies as a medical reason to avoid the scanners? I opt out of them always, but it'd be nice to be able to at least occasionally avoid the pat downs too...

      Care to share your ailment?

      • by mythosaz (572040)

        Care to share your ailment?

        Yes, his condition is called "I'm making up inconsistent stories on the internet to get vague questions answered."

    • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @07:18PM (#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.
      • by dcw3 (649211)

        A rotator cuff tear is a common cause of pain and disability among adults. In 2008, close to 2 million people in the United States went to their doctors because of a rotator cuff problem.

        A lot of TSA agents should learn this and not assume everyone is lying about not being able to raise their arms.

  • Two questions: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gurps_npc (621217) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:37PM (#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?

    • Re:Two questions: (Score:5, Insightful)

      by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:32PM (#46370793)
      I think the TSA is actually trying to get better, all around. I think the current chief's heart is in the right place. Not too long ago they tried to lift the ban on little pocket knives, such as Swiss Army knives. In that case it was the public who actually failed to be reasonable. Maybe it was partially the TSA's fault for not lifting the restriction in a more delicate manner. At any rate, what ended up happening was a bunch of headlines around the nation, "TSA to Allow Knives Aboard Planes." An outcry followed, with congressmen jumping in and slamming the TSA for even thinking about endangering all our lives. The TSA had to cancel its plans to allow Swiss Army knives to pass through the checkpoint. But scissors have been allowed through for years. Knitting needles. Walking sticks that can be sharpened into terror spears. And actually, in practice, about 50 percent of TSA employees haven't been bothering to call bag checks on what they can see is a tiny Swiss Army knife for years. They know it will just be a waste of everyone's time. So whether or not Swiss Army knives are officially allowed through the checkpoint is irrelevant-- even more dangerous things have been passing right through the checkpoint for years, and Swiss Army knives get through, anyway. Basically, the TSA is now able to cite that whole debacle and say "See? We tried to make things more sensible on the checkpoint, but the public couldn't handle it." I think the TSA has trained its workforce to be pretty good at looking for and identifying small things that, for the most part, don't really matter, on an x-ray screen. Leatherman tools, bottles of liquid that are even slightly over 3.4 ounces, torch lighters vs. non-torch lighters. Many of the screeners see those things on the screen and choose not to bother alerting anyone about it, which is often why your pocket knife or slightly oversized liquid makes it through.
    • Re:Two questions: (Score:5, Informative)

      by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:37PM (#46370849)
      No terrorist has ever been thwarted at an airport due to TSA procedures. The TSA would trumpet that news far and wide the day it happened. If anything, there is the possibility that the TSA's procedures deterred a terrorist from making an attempt on an airline. The only sort of proof of this I could imagine would be documents found at a terrorist training camp, for instance, expressing the idea that US. airport security is too daunting to bother trying to get past. I think there may have been a couple cases of such communications turning up. But then there's the question of how much of the TSA's security was really necessary to deter that terrorist. It may have been just the passengers' willingness to fight back that made that terrorist decide not to bother with an attempt on a plane, or people's heightened awareness of fellow passengers post-9/11
  • by xclr8r (658786) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:46PM (#46370459)
    In training To detain, arrest, etc. What have they told TSA agents that they can not do?
  • by Wookact (2804191) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:52PM (#46370515)
    In the military I was always taught it was not only my right but my duty to disobey unlawful orders. Is this subject ever broached in training with the TSA?
  • by noh8rz10 (2716597) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:53PM (#46370519)

    I read all your blog a while ago. I would like some real world advice on two things:
    1) how can I get through security as fast as possible?
    2) how can I minimize my chances of getting my nuts grabbed?

    I'm not going to throw a principled fit at the security checkpoint because I know it won't accomplish anything at all. I'll fight my battles elsewhere. I'll play the game in line, yessir, yes ma'am, whatever. Just get me through an don't grab my nuts! I have a plane to catch and want to leave with my dignity intact.

    So any advice on playing the game? That would be nice.

    • This is it, right here. Mod parent up. If we have no other question answered in this discussion, I'd be fine with it as long as we get an answer to this.

      Scope-n-grope is the most disgusting betrayal a government agency has perpetrated against the American people in recent memory (I consider it worse than the Snowden revelations). There is no excuse for what is being done to innocent air travelers and it is unconscionable that I would have no guarantee of being free from unwanted forced physical contact w

    • 1. Run
      2. Be a woman

      I opt for the passive aggression also. I wear my t-shirt with the quote in my signature and wait patiently as I opt out (I have never once been allowed to go through the metal detectors while the nut zappers have been in place).

    • how can I get through security as fast as possible?

      Before you get to the airport:

      - Go through all your carry-on bags. Dump them out. Sort the contents. Make sure you have no swiss army knives, screwdrivers, torch lighters, razor blades or other "Gee, I didn't know that was in there" items.

      - Make sure all your liquids are in 3-ounce bottles in one ziplock bag quickly accessible from your carry-on bag.

      - Make sure your laptops and tablets are in one easily accessed area in your carryon.

      At th

      • This is all good advice. To that, I would add this: Pay attention to what causes you to get slowed down as you're going through. I've carried a number of odd items that have caused the TSA to flag me for a bag check - cheese, a game that contains hundreds of playing cards, a bowling ball, etc. When I'm carrying one of these items, I remove it from my bag and place it separately in a bin; if the X-ray operator can see it on its own, they usually won't call a bag check. Even if they do ask for a bag check, it

    • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @06:51PM (#46372067)
      Getting through security as fast as possible. Shit, they have the whole pay for speedy security thing, Pre Check, which I think is ridiculous. It's obviously just bribing your way through security. There really is no one trick to guarantee you'll get through security faster. Although, here is maybe one: I noticed a lot of clever frequent flyers who learned to work the opt-out system to their advantage. If the line to go through the full body scanner was long, and if the passenger saw that there were spare screeners hanging around who would be able to quickly do an opt-out pat down, the passenger would get his or her stuff onto the x-ray belt, opt-out, get taken for the pat-down immediately, and be done with it all before the people standing in line for the full body scanner. Many of those passengers didn't have anything against the scanners; they were opportunists, going with whichever route would be quickest, by their estimation. The old wheelchair trick would get used here and there: a couple or a family would have one of their own in a wheelchair, claiming the inability to walk, and thereby get ushered to the front of the security line due to it. Other than that, it's just obvious stuff: no liquids in the luggage, no huge clutter in the luggage, avoid food items larger than snack-size, since an apple or an orange can look like a liquid that "needs to be called for a bagcheck" to an inexperienced x-ray operator-- a hunk of meat or a loaf of bread will look even more like a questionable organic item, e.g. plastic explosives, and so will also likely slow you down.
    • by JayBat (617968)
      1: If you really want to get through as fast as possible, then at most airports (you'll have to check the airports you use), you want to buy a first-class ticket (or be in your favorite airline's top-tier frequent-flyer program, Delta Medallion Gold/Platinum/Diamond or the equivalent), PLUS sign up for TSA Pre (http://www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck). The combination of those two things means that at MOST airports MOST of the time you'll bypass the main queue, which is the real-world biggest delay.

      2 Well, believ

  • by MadCow42 (243108) on Friday February 28, 2014 @03:57PM (#46370569) Homepage

    I travel FREQUENTLY, and always opt out of the naked scanners at the airport... partially because of safety concerns, partly because of my view that they're security theatre and ineffective, and partly in protest. After all - as inconvenient as a hand pat-down is, I KNOW that won't give me cancer in 20 years. 4-5 scans a week or more over 20 years... what's that going to do to me?

    Question: do the TSA agents hate me? :)

    • I get the protest and "security theatre" angles, but the mm wave scanners are in the radio frequency range just below infrared in frequency, with less energy than visible light (so, definitely non-ionizing radiation). Cancer's not a realistic concern, unless there's somewhere where they're still using the backscatter X-ray machine; I'd avoid those due to possible safety concerns.
      • For me, whether or not the scanners might cause cancer isn't even part of the equation (it would be, if that were the worst part). I opt out on principle because I don't believe that the government has the right to scan my body when I'm traveling, plain and simple. I don't care if they scan the bags I have with me, I have that stuff with me knowing that it's going to be scanned. But for them to assert the right to basically check me out without clothing is too far, I don't agree that they have that right

        • I agree with your perspective, and I opt out of the scanners on the same principles. I could have been clearer on that point. The reason I replied was that it seemed odd to list something that isn't an issue anymore among things that are still a problem.
  • by CelticWhisper (601755) <celticwhisper@gm ... om minus painter> on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:40PM (#46370871)

    I've heard of the practice of "hand swabbing" - randomly selecting passengers to have a cotton swab coated in some chemical run over their hands and tested for explosive residue. I do NOT consent to any contact with my skin (or any physical contact from strangers at all, excepting lifesaving medical procedures) - how would I go about refusing this and what would happen afterward?

    Note that this question is academic - I refuse to set foot in airports and have done since the introduction of the Reign of Molestation in 2010, and will continue to do so until the RoM is stopped and (hopefully) John Pistole is sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole, the entirety of his sentence to be spent in solitary confinement with the cell door permanently welded shut.

    • Re:Hand swabbing (Score:5, Insightful)

      by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @06:59PM (#46372117)
      A passenger who refused to have his or her hands swabbed would likely be told that it wouldn't be possible to fly that day. Everything would just stop and a manager would come along and say "We have to do this in order to let you through this checkpoint." And that would basically be the end of it. A person with no hands would of course be good to go. But someone in possession of hands that he or she refused to submit to official TSA policy would definitely cause management to come swooping in, and with everything on camera, it's unlikely that any of the TSA people would be willing to let someone escape agency procedures right there for higher-ups to potentially go back, see, and question.
  • What's with the guards by the vending machines in terminals? What would happen if I insisted on using the vending machines?

    The airports I fly through have nooks with vending machines. When I go through (always day or early evening), there's always a guard. I tried to use the vending machines a couple times and was told "no" and they're only for when the shops are closed.

    What goes? Whose policy is it? Do the shop vendors pay separately for this extra protection?

    • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @07:03PM (#46372143)
      I've never heard of this. I have no idea, unless they're private security guards who work for the city-- big cities, at least, have private guards, the same ones who have been around since well before 9/11, to patrol the airport in general on the city's behalf: you can think of them as being in charge of making sure the city's homeless people aren't hanging around on premises, as opposed to making sure that terrorists aren't scoping the scene. I believe that vending machine-related deaths may have killed more Americans in the U.S. than terrorism did in a recent year. Something to look into on an unrelated note.
  • About a year ago I was traveling home, and the TSA had set up a security checkpoint at the gate in Amsterdam. The screener (A Dutchman, oddly) kept asking me question after question, surely suspicious of something. This only thing even remotely suspicious was that I had gone through Switzerland, and my flight was cancelled so I had been re-routed through Amsterdam.

    Do you have any idea why the gate agent gave me the third degree, asking me all these questions about where I had been, etc? I've traveled qu

  • by JHarrington (3553209) on Friday February 28, 2014 @07:21PM (#46372261)
    I've been answering Qs for a little over 4 hours, I think I'm just about done now at 6: 20 Central time. I'll maybe come back later tonight and do one more sweep. Thanks for the awesome questions, you guys were great.
  • On whether I fly (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JHarrington (3553209) on Saturday March 01, 2014 @11:30AM (#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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