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

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 j-turkey ( 187775 ) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:15PM (#46370189) Homepage


    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 @04:30PM (#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.
  • Re:Hi Jason (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gIobaljustin ( 3526197 ) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:43PM (#46370435) Homepage

    Why would anyone believe it suddenly becomes okay to violate people's fundamental liberties simply because someone is trying to "earn a living"?

  • by amicusNYCL ( 1538833 ) on Friday February 28, 2014 @04:48PM (#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.

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

    by JHarrington ( 3553209 ) on Friday February 28, 2014 @05:32PM (#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.
  • by JHarrington ( 3553209 ) on Friday February 28, 2014 @05:46PM (#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.
  • Re:Lighters (Score:2, Insightful)

    by gIobaljustin ( 3526197 ) on Friday February 28, 2014 @06:53PM (#46371535) Homepage

    We should just get government thugs out of airports.

  • Re:Hi Jason (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JHarrington ( 3553209 ) on Friday February 28, 2014 @07:26PM (#46371845)
    I think most TSA screeners-- myself, definitely-- didn't really know much about the TSA before accepting the offer. All I knew was that it was security at the airport, and that it was a job that had to be done, one way or another. I hadn't ever really paid much attention to the TSA in the news or anything, and I really never flew very much, so the TSA just didn't concern me. It wasn't until after being hired, maybe about a year after, that I realized that there were a lot of absurd things going on, many of which represented unnecessary intrusion upon people's privacy. There really is no excuse-- if anyone believes that his or her job at the TSA entails violating people's liberties, they should theoretically quit immediately. Anyone who doesn't is not doing the morally pure thing, it's true. I was being a hypocrite by being employed there while speaking out against them. I admitted that a couple times on my blog. It can be tough, figuring out how to get out of a job situation that one doesn't believe in and into another job situation without going homeless, especially in a tough economy. I got out as soon as I found a new job situation that didn't mean that I would lose my apartment, my internet access, and my ability to continue regularly speaking out. On the front line, in practice, this is the dynamic that ends up being in place at airports around the U.S.: there are a bunch of TSA agents on any given checkpoint who don't believe in most of the rules that the TSA sends down, and who do their best to just disregard the rules whenever possible, and make things easy on passengers. Then there is the other camp, the people who believe that every last TSA rule is good and pure, and must be followed to a T. Some of the people in the latter camp are determined to get anyone who's not enforcing the TSA's rules in trouble, when possible. There are two camps of warring crotch-patting Jedi knights at every airport, basically.
  • by JHarrington ( 3553209 ) on Friday February 28, 2014 @07:51PM (#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.
  • Re:Hand swabbing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JHarrington ( 3553209 ) on Friday February 28, 2014 @07:59PM (#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.
  • by JHarrington ( 3553209 ) on Friday February 28, 2014 @08:03PM (#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.
  • by JHarrington ( 3553209 ) on Friday February 28, 2014 @11:37PM (#46373327)
    There's little one can do to guarantee that he or she won't be pulled aside for "random" screening. Obviously, yes, if someone is sweaty, shifty-eyed, nervous-looking, the chances are greater he or she will be pulled aside by someone. But then again, sometimes such a person is precisely the one who won't get pulled aside for various bureaucratic reasons. For instance, I would say that for the most part, a Middle Eastern individual is more *unlikely* to be pulled aside by a Behavior Detection "Officer" than a non-Middle Eastern individual. The BDO program as a whole is well aware that their entire existence depends greatly upon as few accusations of racial profiling popping up as possible, and Middle Easterners are understandably pretty quick to suspect that they've been pulled aside due to their ethnicity, and often quick to voice those suspicions. And so pulling aside a Middle Eastern passenger for a BDO is a very risky thing to do. When I used to do gate screenings, I would sometimes be the one in charge of picking who was going to get the extra screening at the gate. One person is often assigned to make the calls for a 30-minute shift. I would tend to start off, I believe (whether consciously or not) by looking for what seemed to me to be the most nervous-looking person I could see in the line. Say it's a male wearing a coat in summer, who has a stone-cold blank look on his face, staring straight ahead. Soon after that, I would simply pick out a completely different sort of person-- I would decide, for instance, that the next person I picked for "random" screening would be a female, since I just did a male. So even if a slightly nervous-looking male came across me at that point, I would pass him over in order to pull a female aside. Say that female had a lot of luggage, then I would maybe decide that the next person I would pull aside for random screening would be someone with very little luggage-- a male with just a backpack, or a female with just a purse. I'm sure that for the most part, it's thought processes such as this that guide "random" screening selection. It's supposed to be "random" on the part of TSA screeners making calls in situations like that. If decided to do nothing besides pull aside people whom I honestly felt, if I had to bet money, would be the most likely to be a terrorist on a mission, then, first of all, I'd be pulling aside a whole lot of males. Then you get into the whole profiling business, which is a can of worms. I'd say the all around best advice for not getting pulled aside for screening is to not be wearing heavy clothing in an airport with a warm climate-- that's probably the biggest thing that causes a red flag. I got pulled aside by BDOs while I worked at TSA when I was flying through Fort Lauderdale after having been on a trip to Peru. I was wearing a leather jacket in summer in Fort Lauderdale, because I'd just been in chilly Cuzco, and decided to just wear the jacket I'd brought there instead of carrying it or having it in my luggage (plus it gets cold on planes). The BDOs asked me what I did for a living, and it was a pretty funny situation ("Welllll, funny you should ask...I'm TSA, too.") They said, right away, "It's the fucking leather jacket that did it, man. This is Florida in summer and you're wearing a leather jacket." The other thing would be to not think about being pulled aside at all as you go through security, insofar as possible. If you're thinking about it, you're likely going to give off a slight vibe of being nervous. It's one of those tricky "Think about not thinking about it" situations, I know, but really, the best advice is to try to just not worry about the TSA people as you go through, if that's possible for you, and if you're OK with not worrying about them.

No problem is so large it can't be fit in somewhere.