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Confessions Of an Ex-TSA Agent: Secrets Of the I.O. Room 393

Posted by timothy
from the ma'am-this-is-for-your-own-good dept.
Jason Edward Harrington has seen some of the same frustrations, misgivings, and objections that have crossed the mind of probably every commercial airline traveler who's flown over the last decade in the U.S. One difference: Harrington got to see them from the perspective of a TSA agent. His description of the realities of the job (including learning the rote responses that agents are instructed to reassure the public with) is wince-worthy and compelling. A sample makes it clear why the TSA has such famously low morale, even among Federal agencies: "I hated it from the beginning. It was a job that had me patting down the crotches of children, the elderly and even infants as part of the post-9/11 airport security show. I confiscated jars of homemade apple butter on the pretense that they could pose threats to national security. I was even required to confiscate nail clippers from airline pilots—the implied logic being that pilots could use the nail clippers to hijack the very planes they were flying." It only gets worse from there.
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Confessions Of an Ex-TSA Agent: Secrets Of the I.O. Room

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 31, 2014 @09:40PM (#46125437)

    The TSA exists because Americans tolerate it.

    It's that simple.

    We hold the purse strings AND the votes. Either one alone is enough to eliminate the TSA. But we have said, en-mass, that the TSA is acceptable in our society. So it will continue.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 31, 2014 @09:50PM (#46125485)

      That's not necessarily true. There are numerous fundamental phenomena which subvert the notion of democratic rule as its commonly understood, and that's excluding all the cynical drivel that people toss around.

      Here's one of the most well known of such phenomena: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow's_impossibility_theorem

      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 31, 2014 @09:55PM (#46125505)

        If the whole country stopped any non-essential travel for 3 months... and made it clear why... and that the travel would not start again until the TSA was gone - not changed, not lip service given to "improvements" and "hearing the public voice", but actually GONE - the TSA would be eliminated within a month.

        The TSA exists because it is tolerated by the public.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 31, 2014 @10:18PM (#46125625)

          Nobody would need to do that. If everybody opted out of the scanners, the same effect would be achieved. However, you'd be shocked (or maybe not, given that your premise is 100% correct) at how many Americans think the TSA in its current form is good and necessary for safe air travel. Slashdot and the like might be a circlejerk of anti-TSA sentiment, but that's absolutely not public opinion - reinforced every day by the people that choose to put up with that shit.

          In the past, I opted out 100% of the time, for three reasons: 1. I don't trust the safety of the scanners, as the test data is not public; 2. I think the scanners are overly-intrusive; and 3. I WANT that TSA morale to stay low, to have employees bitching about the 1000th guy they had to feel up that day, while doing my part to slow down the line and hope that the delays in aggregate piss people off enough to all be sick of it.

          In my old age (read: parenthood), the TSA and I have struck a compromise with some help from CBP and CBSA - we joined NEXUS and now get Pre-Check almost 100% of the time. That, to me, is a fair compromise. It's almost pre-9/11, with the theatrics minimized, and all I really gave up was data the government already had on me and my family anyway - I mean that pessimistically in the sense that it was going to be collected with or without my knowledge, and also in the factual sense that my past employment with the government resulted in far more thorough investigations than anything CBP was going to do for a trusted traveler program.

          I can live with this arrangement if TSA is relegated to "hands on" screening of high risk (actual high risk) passengers and letting the rest of us get to where we're going. The pre-check program is a step in the right direction, but I'd also argue that my existing tax dollars should cover it and people shouldn't have to pay to enroll. For something like NEXUS that's cross-border, yeah I think the $50 I paid is reasonable, but for pure domestic it needs to be part of TSA's existing budget. /incoherentrant

          • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

            by Anonymous Coward

            I always opt out. Midway in Chicago the TSA agent got really really mad at me, of course there was an hour line for the checkpoints. Everywhere else they didn't seem to care. I keep threatening to shoot my black powder pistol just before going to the airport one day, see if their residue checker actually works (I would think black powder would be the first thing they check for).

          • by trout007 (975317) on Friday January 31, 2014 @11:16PM (#46125915)

            Traveling is stressful. If you opt out you get a free message. What's not to like?

            • by Solandri (704621)
              I tried to opt out the last three times I flew. Each time, the lines with the scanners were roped off and empty, and everyone went through the regular metal detectors. When I asked why, I was told the machines were down for maintenance.

              Maybe some of the local TSA supervisors aren't idiots. Even TFA says that the instructor tasked with teaching TSA agents how to use the scanners said, off the record, that "they're shit."
          • by allaunjsiIverfox2 (3506701) on Friday January 31, 2014 @11:25PM (#46125957)

            That, to me, is a fair compromise.

            There can be no compromise; the TSA must be destroyed.

          • by spasm (79260) on Friday January 31, 2014 @11:31PM (#46125983) Homepage

            I always opt out. And usually loudly announce it's because I'm a medical researcher and I don't think they're safe (I *am* a public health researcher; and I have no idea if they're safe - which is kind of the problem). Which sometimes results in one or two others in the line behind me suddenly opting out, much to the disgust of the TSA folks. Although I'm always polite to the TSA people themselves - like Jason Harrington, 90% of them are just there because they needed a job and don't have many other options.

            • by uncqual (836337)

              And you're also helping reduce unemployment. If everyone opted out, we would need more TSA agents. True grassroots stimulus!

              • by dbIII (701233) on Saturday February 01, 2014 @12:16AM (#46126181)

                True grassroots stimulus!

                Now that's a clever euphemism for a pat down.

              • by tftp (111690)

                That's another way to formulate the Broken Window Fallacy. In this case, though, an immaterial object (your time) is destroyed instead of a material one (glass.)

                • by uncqual (836337)

                  Whoosh. (I didn't realize on /. I needed to use the HTML 99 tag <humor>. I will be more careful in the future.)

          • by WaffleMonster (969671) on Friday January 31, 2014 @11:41PM (#46126031)

            I can live with this arrangement if TSA is relegated to "hands on" screening of high risk (actual high risk) passengers and letting the rest of us get to where we're going. The pre-check program is a step in the right direction,

            I'm pretty sure this is exactly the response the government is banking on.

            "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal unless a classified government algorithm determines otherwise"

            From a security perspective the security of a system is only as good as its weakest link and the feedback channel afforded to potential adversaries in obtaining pre-check status is such an enormously ridiculous concept I find it hard to believe anyone who thinks groping + irradiation is necessary for security would have any difficulty with a conclusion that TSA is grossly negligent for implementation of pre-check.

          • by MMC Monster (602931) on Saturday February 01, 2014 @06:44AM (#46127287)

            I opt out of the body scanners when I fly alone.

            I opted out once when I flew with my wife and kids. The guy that patted me down informed me that they always waved through families with young kids. I haven't been patted down since.

            I guess terrorists don't fly with young kids. And young kids can't be trained to carry bomb materials.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          That's the problem. What do you consider non-essential? I'm thinking that a majority of people flying commercially need to do so, either because their job dictates that they be there quickly (as in, not enough time to drive across country), or they need to travel internationally and a boat is out of the question in today's world.

          As much as it would be great to boycott the industry, it just isn't feasible for those that do most of the traveling. Personally, I've never flown (commercially, anyways) and never

        • by dAzED1 (33635)
          so you want me to quit my job for 3 months? I already scaled back flying as much as possible, riding my harley for any trip under 400 miles (regardless the time of year, or the weather). Yes, I could get another job...guess what though - someone else would take my place, and still be flying.
          • by Mr0bvious (968303)

            "non-essential travel for 3 months"

            I think that flying for your work/job qualifies as essential.

    • I don't think you can say I hold the purse strings when my taxes are withheld before I even get my paycheck.

      • by AuMatar (183847)

        Claim 500 deductions. Withholding is a thing because most people find it a convenience- the majority of people have poor planning abilities and wouldn't be able to pay the bill in April. But you can just claim an insane number of deductions and have basically 0 withholding. You'll just need to write a big check each April.

        • by bmxeroh (1694004) on Friday January 31, 2014 @10:40PM (#46125763) Homepage
          Let me know how that works for you. Protip: your tax payments aren't due in April, they're due the day you get paid. For practical reasons, they let you pay them quarterly if they're not withheld by your employer, buts rest assured you'll have penalties to pay if you wait until April.

          Extra protip: Don't take tax advice from someone on Slashdot.
        • by sumdumass (711423) on Saturday February 01, 2014 @02:18AM (#46126623) Journal

          You need a certain amount of your expected tax bill on account with the government else they can fine you. I think it amounts to 90% of your current year's tax bill or 100% of the previous year's bill. There are some exceptions but they are limited. The fine is something like a percentage of the underpaid amount or something like that.

          There is also a $500 penalty if you knowingly do as you suggest and alter your W-4 to reduce the amount of withholding with no reasonable basis for doing so. Also, you can be charged with a crime for supplying false or fraudulent information on your Form W-4 or failing to offer information that could increase your withholding that can cost you $1000 and/or 1 year in prison.

          So while, yes, in theory, you can alter your deductions to effectively have no withholding, it can also cost you a lot more in the end if you do so.

    • The TSA exists because Americans tolerate it.

      It's that simple.

      We hold the purse strings AND the votes. Either one alone is enough to eliminate the TSA. But we have said, en-mass, that the TSA is acceptable in our society. So it will continue.

      wrong, WRONG, WRONG!. there are good reasons that there is a 91% incumbency rate. one reason is unfettered gerrymandering [google.com] which completely subverts democracy.

      democracy is dead [washingtonpost.com]

      Senator Tom Coburn described the situation well when he said, "In several election cycles in recent history, more incumbents died in office than lost reelection bids."

    • The TSA exists because Americans tolerate it.

      It's worse than that. It exists because those in power know it is a powerful tool to exert control over those without. It is a sickening propaganda tool much like the duck and cover drills during the Cuban missile crisis. If someone in Cuba had launched a nuke at Miami, hiding under your desk would not have helped. It DID make the public feel like there was something they could do to mitigate their personal damage. The TSA is there to make us feel like something is being done about airline security.

    • by cyn1c77 (928549)

      The TSA exists because Americans tolerate it.

      It's that simple.

      We hold the purse strings AND the votes. Either one alone is enough to eliminate the TSA. But we have said, en-mass, that the TSA is acceptable in our society. So it will continue.

      Brave words from an anonymous coward!

      Please tell me who I can vote for to eliminate the TSA?

    • by Zynder (2773551)
      Since when did We The People start holding the purse strings? Did you sleep through the whole 99% movement?
  • don't want our gov officials of citizens to be on the bad side of that statement. TSA sucks.

  • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Friday January 31, 2014 @09:52PM (#46125489)

    I've been reading that guy's blog since day one:

    http://takingsenseaway.wordpre... [wordpress.com]

  • The bird (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 31, 2014 @10:05PM (#46125547)

    Glad to know the only two times I ever went through the scanners (I travel for work frequently) that maybe somebody did see me flipping the double bird. Even happier that the on last several dozen trips my wife and I live by the words 'opt out'. Several agents have commented to me readily while feeling me up and violating my privacy that what they were doing was completely useless. In one case I was told by an agent that he felt up the CEO of the company that makes the current machines, who refuses to use them for himself or his family.

    Time to get rid of the TSA, the only organization that can still get funding with a 0% success rate.

  • Be careful Mr. Harrington. Gitmo isn't closed yet. You wouldn't want some guys in a van to stop by and take you on a "trip" would you?

  • by deconfliction (3458895) on Friday January 31, 2014 @10:10PM (#46125585)

    ... confiscated jars of homemade apple butter on the pretense that they could pose threats to national security.

    In all fairness, if I got a job as a TSA agent, and my bosses told me that jars of homemade apple butter could be a threat, I for one would take their word for it. I might post on slashdot hoping some educted chemists could debunk the issue, but I wouldn't presume to know that apple butter didn't happen to be a great masking material for some other explosive material.

    • In all fairness, if I got a job as a TSA agent

      You'd be immoral. How safe they make us (and I doubt they actually make us safer) is irrelevant; what matters is the fact that the job requires that you violate people's rights and the constitution, and that cannot be tolerated.

  • Wouldn't be easier to put a security guard on each flight and instruct them to shoot to kill? Bullet holes? How about special hatches in the floor so they could just drop the MFs from the plane? Projectile extremists destroying property and endangering people on the ground? Tasers. Give every adult on the plane a taser. Boom! Done! Sure, there will be a few injuries every year. But, it would be a much better experience (and perhaps a little fun) for everyone. You would really need to hang new signs though.
    • by dAzED1 (33635)
      uhh...a hole to the outside, suddenly depressurizing the plane while at 30k feet, would be a really, really bad thing. What we should "try" is metal detectors and dogs - you know, the stuff we were using /before/ all this, and which worked substantially better.
      • You surely realize that all of his suggestions were sarcastic, don't you?
        • by dAzED1 (33635)
          seemed like he was building to insanity. A guard on every flight is already being done, and isn't far-fetched. But sure, does get a bit crazy at the end ;)
      • by BlueStrat (756137) on Friday January 31, 2014 @10:53PM (#46125837)

        uhh...a hole to the outside, suddenly depressurizing the plane while at 30k feet, would be a really, really bad thing. What we should "try" is metal detectors and dogs - you know, the stuff we were using /before/ all this, and which worked substantially better.

        I could empty an AR-15 w/30 rounds from inside an airliner flying at 30K feet, reload, do it again, and still not depressurize the cabin to any serious extent as long as no windows were blown out. I serviced/repaired aircraft for a living. (note: this assumes one doesn't carefully aim to enlarge a single hole.) You'd need a hole at least a foot or more across to be in any immediate danger.

        An airliner is not a spaceship, and movies are not reality.

        Strat

        • by BlueStrat (756137) on Saturday February 01, 2014 @12:53AM (#46126319)

          Oh, and a related set of facts I thought I should mention, just for safety and the odd chance's sake.

          Discharging a firearm in an aircraft may not be likely to cause dangerous and immediate cabin depressurization, but there's still a ton of vital stuff that keeps you flying (and landing minus large fireball and crater!) that doesn't play well with getting shot up.

          It's a bad idea, period. Unless lives are at stake, don't do it.

          That being said, if you're on an aircraft and some surreal turn of events happens to cause you or someone else you have influence over to absolutely *have to* discharge a firearm while flying in an airliner, try to avoid lines of fire that intersect the wings/engines (and the fuel tanks they contain, although a small-caliber round is unlikely to cause a fire/explosion/sudden fuel loss), the cockpit area (obviously), directly aft through the tail (avionics/autopilot/comms/cabin air pressure pumps/etc) and down through the deck you're standing on (more avionics/flight control/comm/nav/etc, fuel tanks, and landing gear).

          Avoid the instinct to consider "down" (cabin deck) a safe default direction for discharging a firearm purposefully or accidentally in an aircraft cabin. If anything, "up" (cabin ceiling) would be preferable.

          Of course, avoid windows. Easy one to remember for most Slashdotters. :)

          Exact locations will vary by aircraft make/model/etc, but that's a pretty good general rule-of-thumb layout.

          Again, if there's any choice, do not discharge any firearm in an aircraft in flight. Too easy to fall down go BOO000OOM!

          Strat

        • by couchslug (175151)

          OP is right. Airliner environmental control systems move literally tons of air.

          • by BlueStrat (756137) on Saturday February 01, 2014 @01:21AM (#46126407)

            Airliner environmental control systems move literally tons of air.

            Spot on.

            Airliner cabin seals are nowhere near 100% even when the airliner is paint-still-drying new. Cabin air pressurization systems and their pumps are designed with many times the capacity they would normally need. They are beasts. That's why even dozens of bullet holes wouldn't cause a dangerous cabin pressure problem.

            Most people would be shocked at how poor the cabin seals actually are on the aircraft they fly on, and how much cabin pressure depends on the pumps keeping up with cabin seal losses.

            Strat

        • by Okian Warrior (537106) on Saturday February 01, 2014 @01:23AM (#46126415) Homepage Journal

          I could empty an AR-15 w/30 rounds from inside an airliner flying at 30K feet, reload, do it again, and still not depressurize the cabin to any serious extent as long as no windows were blown out. I serviced/repaired aircraft for a living.

          I designed and coded the software for cabin pressurization systems used in commercial aircraft. BlueStrat is correct in all details, and if you know a little engineering you can easily convince yourself.

          The cabin pressurization valve is an inflatable balloon [liebherr.com] (of sorts) sitting in an 8" diameter hole, and there are two of them. The system will easily compensate for even a large number of bullet holes in the body - 1" holes are much smaller than the area the valve system has to work with.

          The pressure differential between the inside and outside can be at most 15 pounds per square inch(*). That means that a 1" hole would only present 15 lbs of force pressure on an object pressing against it, which can be easily overcome by a person. Bullet holes are much smaller than 1" diameter. Further away and the effect is negligible.

          A window being shot out would not suck out a passenger. From experience, when an 8" diameter hole (the pressurization valve) is suddenly uncovered, it doesn't pull very hard on people standing near it and the pull ends almost instantly. Force isn't present for any length of time, and since F=M*A and V = A*T, you end up with very little velocity.

          Sorry folks, Goldfinger doesn't get sucked across the cabin and forced through the blown-out window [ew.com], and Pussy Galore [wikipedia.org] doesn't have to pull the plane out of a tailspin.

          (*) To reduce stress on the airframe, the cabin is depressurized as the aircraft reaches cruising altitude.This reduces the maximum differential by about 1/3.

      • by Deadstick (535032)

        Do your understanding of pneumatics a favor: google "airplane outflow valve".

  • by litehacksaur111 (2895607) on Friday January 31, 2014 @10:43PM (#46125779)
    Most of the people where I work feel the TSA is doing a good job. In fact their response reminds of the Simpson's clip where Lisa sells Homer a rock that keeps bears away. You cannot reason with people this ignorant. They actually believe that the TSA is preventing terrorism and that the only people complaining are brown people. The only way for people to question the TSA is if someone like Edward Snowden manages to get media publicity and expose a bunch of documents or expose some insider contract on those X-ray porno machines sold by Michael Chertoff.
  • Amazing (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Frosty Piss (770223) * on Saturday February 01, 2014 @12:50AM (#46126309)

    The TSA must be a "different" kind of organization than that which I work for, the United States Air Force. I have written many "letters to the editor" under my real name on many topics that expose my generally Socialist bent and strong anti-authoritarian opinions. Yet, I have never been "admonished", and I recently had my security clearance extended for another 10 years after the standard Security Clearance Anal Probe.

    I think the TSA is a "different" kind of US government agency, one that need to go.

  • by VendettaMF (629699) on Saturday February 01, 2014 @06:22AM (#46127223) Homepage

    "It was a job that had me patting down the crotches of children, the elderly and even infants"

    Never make a job of what you love.
    In the end it's still just a job, and you've ruined your hobby.

Prediction is very difficult, especially of the future. - Niels Bohr

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