Another TSA employee spills the beans

Friend-of-the-blog NJR of Taking Sense Away has allowed us to cross-post his entries for some time now. He gave me a heads-up last week that the following would hit his pages today. So here it is.

And there’s a revelation afoot:

Confession #9: I’ve Been a Current TSA Employee, Not a Former TSA Employee, All Along.

Posted on June 2, 2013

When I started this blog, my greatest worry was that no one would find it. Then, after the blog caught media attention, my greatest worry became that the TSA would find me: I was blogging as a current TSA employee, not a “former TSA employee,” up until a few days ago.

It was the TSA’s use of the full-body scanners that prompted me to first speak out and voice my opinion that the technology represented a wasteful, reckless, and unnecessary infringement upon people’s privacy, an opinion informed by several years’ experience operating the full body scanners; and it is for similar reasons that I am making this confession today — in light of the fact that now, the public finally has the chance to voice its opinion on the matter.

Though my primary goal with this blog is to bring some levity to my experiences as a TSA employee, the TSA’s mission to make the scanners the primary mode of screening is the one thing in which I have been unable to find much humor.

While a small contingency of civil liberties advocates opposed the scanners from the moment the TSA announced its plans to roll them out en masse, I was privileged with a behind-the-scenes view. From day one of training I had the sense that the TSA’s implementation of the scanners was  an ill-conceived and clumsy venture. As time went by, my inkling was to be borne out by evidence: we TSA screeners on the floor-level soon learned that the scanners essentially did not work. It didn’t take long for members of the public to deduce that fact and reveal it to a wider audience.

It was around this time, in 2011, that I began planning to separate from federal employment. I had to find another career path, but in the meantime could not remain silent on the many absurdities that I was witnessing from an insider’s vantage point; could not continue to watch quietly from the sidelines as citizens waged legal battles against the TSA, while my TSA co-workers and superiors hid from the public what we knew to be the truth: that the scanners were only superficially effective at best, and completely ineffective at worst.

It was harrowing for a while, donning a TSA uniform by day, and expressing my uncensored opinions on the TSA to a global audience by night. At times I was going into work and quietly enduring TSA supervisors and managers obsessed with trifling matters  such as gum-chewing, and then coming home to discover encouraging e-mail from former Undersecretaries of the Department of Homeland Security and other D.C. higher-ups in my inbox.

There were other surreal moments, like the realization that two of my co-workers were following my blog’s Twitter account, unaware that they were actually working side-by-side with the anonymous “former employee.” There was the time I noticed two co-workers reading this blog on their smartphones in our break room, laughing and speculating about which airport the blogger had been based in. There was the joy of giving voice to an underrepresented group of people — former TSA screeners who wrote me expressing various concerns, some of whom, after being published on this blog, went on to receive media coverage in their own right. Most significantly, there was the time — December 31, 2012, 9:22 A.M. — when I logged into the TSA’s intranet system (the TSA’s “Idea Factory”) to find that a TSO had posted a comment regarding this blog, proposing that the TSA’s PR department do more to deny the truth of everything that I was writing; I watched the comment section with a certain amount of dread, worried that I would find a chorus of TSA employees echoing his sentiment. But was relieved when he received no comment from his peers (save for criticism of his grammar).

A few passengers emailed me asking me what I would do if the government tracked me down; if I were proverbially “thrown in Guantanamo” for speaking out about the TSA and DHS. On January 23rd, I received a question from a passenger named Shane, regarding Sensitive Security Information:

My question to you is: If you’re not an employee of TSA anymore, does that make you no longer a “covered person”? If not, what’s your rationale behind continuing to uphold a directive that TSA has been been seen to use as a shield to avoid accountability despite it offering no actual security benefit? Do you fear retaliation by TSA? I would understand if you did, as the agency is nothing but authoritarian. Do they claim that ex-employees are still bound by SSI guidelines even though SSI isn’t a real security classification?

I apologize that it’s taken me so long to respond to your letter, Shane, but yes, the possibility — perhaps inevitability — of retaliation by the TSA has always hung in the back of my mind. After all, I began receiving hate mail from TSA employees early on, some of which I’ve published, some of which I have not. But I felt that the benefit to the public of voicing my opinion outweighed the risk of civil penalties or “other corrective actions.”

Now that I am truly a former employee, I can say that working for the TSA rarely ever felt like anything more than being on-tour with a clown troupe doing a 21st-century parody of the Keystone Cops. Only instead of making people laugh, for the most part, all we did was impinge upon their privacy and compromise their rights, under dubious pretenses. To be sure, there were some golden moments of laughter: there was the TSA supervisor who told us, in the wake of the 2006 liquids plot, that sandwiches were not to be allowed on-board planes until he got official word on whether or not the sandwiches’ mustard and mayonnaise constituted a banned liquid; there was the manager who declared that passengers were to be forced to surrender tinfoil due to the boxes’ potentially dangerous serrated edges; there was the sheer absurdity of coming to find out that we were operating full body scanners that couldn’t detect guns.

OK: there were actually a lot of humorous moments at the TSA, and as you have seen, I have tried to tease humor out of the organization wherever possible. But I would rather write jokes than work for one, and so recently, after much searching, I received a job opportunity more in line with my goals, and officially resigned my post as a TSA officer.

The purpose of this post is to encourage as many people as possible to take their turn in expressing their opinions on the full-body scanners, now that the TSA has been forced into a measure of accountability. There are still 3 weeks remaining for citizens to officially speak out. The TSA is attempting to make the case that its initial roll-out and continued use of the full body scanners represented a public good; that making full-body scanners a new fact of life for the public was necessary in the interest of ensuring our safety. They tout their new “privacy-friendly” millimeter wave scanners as the solution to their badly bungled initial decision to expose the public to radiation-emitting Rapiscan machines; but the truth is the millimeter wave scanners are ineffective, too. The truth is that an alarming number of TSA employees with whom I was personally acquainted were privately of the opinion that the full body scanners, in all their iterations, should be abandoned as a primary screening method.

The truth is that I knew several TSA employees who, through independent internal tests of the millimeter wave scanners, discovered a weakness in the technology’s detection capability: the MMW scanners are consistently unreliable when it comes to detecting threats in a certain area of the body,  the exact location of which I have decided not to divulge. Suffice it to say that it is a laughable weakness. Various TSA employees have attempted to bring the aforementioned vulnerability to the attention of TSA higher-ups, and to recommend that the scanners be done away with in favor of a slightly enhanced version of pre-2010 security protocols — the level of security deemed satisfactory by several nations. But the concerns and opinions of those vocal employees have fallen on deaf ears at TSA headquarters; or at least upon the ears of those whose interests do not intersect with acknowledgment of the inefficacy of the full body scanners.

It’s not just one weakness, either: the millimeter wave scanners are fraught  with defects — there is their high false alarm rates, which alone caused some governments to decline to implement the scanners. There is their costliness, which, when factoring in the price of manning the machines, quickly runs into the hundreds of millions when spread out over several years. There is the comical degree to which the scanners are rendered inane due to the TSA’s need to make them PWD- (persons with disabilities) and kid-friendly: there are several loopholes one can exploit to make oneself ineligible for the scanners (e.g., claiming the inability to raise one’s arm, going through security holding a small pet, or simply traveling with someone who appears to be aged 12 or under.)  There is the false sense of security that the scanners give TSA screeners and passengers alike, thereby compounding the security weaknesses of the scanners-as-primary-screening-method configuration.

And last but not least, there is the possibility that the full-body scanners will have the effect of conditioning the public to be willing to submit to unnecessary, invasive security measures as a result of highly infrequent and statistically negligible terrorist threats.

In short, the full body scanners are plagued by so many weaknesses that it would be in the public’s best interest for them to be removed from airports as a primary screening method. This is my opinion, and the opinion of many TSA employees whom I knew. EPIC’s lawsuit is correct in its statement:

“When the TSA deployed the body scanners, it initiated one of the most sweeping, most invasive and most unaccountable suspicion-less searches of American travelers in history.”

With this post I am merely voicing the opinion of many TSA employees who are too timid or complacent in their jobs to speak out about the gross mismanagement and abuse of public trust endemic to the TSA.

Whatever may happen to me as a result of this blog in the coming years, I will not regret its publication. I believe there to have been an intrinsic good in having spoken out; a small triumph in the very presence of these words on your screen, for I believe the function of free speech, in the words of Thomas Sowell, to be a social one:

“Intended to benefit vast numbers of people who do not themselves exercise their rights.”

(Photo: charlesfettinger/Flickr Creative Commons)

  • Rosemary

    Thank you for the service your performing. Many of us are willing to speak in light of the coercive tactics used by the TSA. How sad is the fact that speaking the truth about a government organization often results in retaliation. I, for one, will continue to voice my concern for the absurdities and abuses that TSA hands down. I don’t feel any safer while traveling. What I do feel is that America is under attack and the TSA is leading that attack by trampling on: the constitution, our morals, our values and our ethics. Ronald Regan got it right when he said, “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem”. Specifically, in the case of the TSA there is no truer statement!

  • Jill_Ion

    I agree, a brave man. Speaking out about the invasive and unconstitutional searches in an intelligent and humorous manner. I wish him the best in his future endeavors and hope he continues speaking out.

    We need to slow the normalization of these violations.

  • RonBonner

    I’m conflicted about this person. They signed on to TSA and worked there apparently for several years. I have to wonder what that says about the persons character and integrity since I don’t think one could have either being a TSA employee.

    Perhaps it is like a drug addict, until they hit bottom they don’t realize they need help.

    At least they finally took the step to put TSA behind them.

    • Ron, not everyone has the luxury of choosing where to work, especially in this shitty economy. This is now and will increasingly be the trump card played by the National Security State: while the rest of the country is going to hell, there will always be jobs for gropers, spies, and mercenaries. As you know, billions are being spent on the profit-making “War on Terror.”

      I don’t fault people who can’t find jobs elsewhere. At least NJR worked behind the scenes to tell us the truth and, as you know if you read his blog, to make airport security hell easier on people by ignoring the TSA’s inane rules and using his common sense.

      • RonBonner

        I did start off saying I was conflicted. Still this person must have conducted screening functions throughout their employment. Could not have avoided being monitored the whole time.

      • Svensonon

        Not everyone has the luxury of choosing where to work.

        That’s very true. I’m sure the guards in the Nazi concentration camps felt the same way. It’s a shitty economy out there, after all.

        Seriously though. Here’s a serious question. How many people’s rights would you violate for 15 dollars an hour?

        • Svensonon, since I lost a job and got blacklisted by a network for my political activities, I’d say I put my money where my mouth is. So no, I wouldn’t violate people’s rights for 15 dollars an hour or any amount of money. I’m pointing out political realities.

    • Cydon

      Ron, almost all the employees at the TSA dislike the Agencies policies and practices. For the past decade its employees, in internal surveys, have rated it poorly in everything from altruism to policy. Those rating keep TSA at the bottom of employee satisfaction among all government agencies.

      Most employees would be gleeful if the higher-ups removed the body scanners, or ended the pat-downs. It’s a horrible feeling to work at a place where all 40,000 of the passengers you will meet during that day hate you and wish you would die. It’s a horrible feeling to tell a passenger that you’ll have to touch them because their bracelet set off a metal detector, and It’s a horrible feeling to get home from work and read blogs and social media where people joke about your worth as a human being.

      It is no lie that everyone hates the TSA; 99.9% of the traveling public hates TSA but they all refuse to stand up for their rights when a TSA agent enforces a nonsensical or humiliating rule. Similarly, 99.9% of TSA agents feel (or are?) TSA needs immediate change, but just like the traveling public refuse to say something. I feel like we live in a world where people refuse to say how the feel in the face of those with power.

      That’s now how a democracy should work. Something needs to change.

      • RonBonner

        Do you read the TSA Blog? I’m RB. I know more about TSA and how TSA is received by the public than I really want to know. I know how the FLL FSD covered for an employee who attempted to steal from my spouse. I know how the DFW FSD didn’t react when I filed a complaint about a TSA screener who was close to striking me. I know about TSA and am doing everything I can to bring change to the organization.

        Tell us all how we can stand up to TSA when TSA holds the whole deck of cards and can block our travel legally or not. Tell us how we can know for sure what the TSA rules are since TSA refuses to publish those rules.

        I think you have one thing right. The public despises TSA employees. It didn’t have to be that way but TSA employees insisted on it by what they do to others.

  • So far, 3,946 comments have been submitted to the Public Docket. Of those, 2,654 have been posted — meaning they’re visible to anyone who wants to read them.

    Come on, folks, let’s step it up. The public comment period closes on June 24th. We have provided abundant links for you to make your comment. It doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t have to be involved — just make your opinion heard. Links again in today’s entry, and always at the top left-hand corner of TSA News.

  • 1amWendy

    May I humbly suggest you post this to the official TSA public comment website? It is excellent.

  • frostysnowman

    A powerful piece. Thanks for posting. This guy is one of my new heroes.

  • Susan Richart

    An American hero!

  • A brave man for speaking out while still employed by the TSA.