Former TSA screener: Yes, we were laughing at you

And yes, TSA agents saw you naked, although that was not as titillating as some might presume, according to a former TSA agent who once reported anonymously from the inside. Jason Edward Harrington has gone public in a Politico Magazine essay after causing an anonymous stir at the blog Taking Sense Away. He reveals how much he hated the key aspects of his job, and how little regard his fellow TSA agents have for their more intrusive duties:

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.

Once, in 2008, I had to confiscate a bottle of alcohol from a group of Marines coming home from Afghanistan. It was celebration champagne intended for one of the men in the group—a young, decorated soldier. He was in a wheelchair, both legs lost to an I.E.D., and it fell to me to tell this kid who would never walk again that his homecoming champagne had to be taken away in the name of national security.

There I was, an aspiring satire writer, earnestly acting on orders straight out of Catch-22.

The big reveal in this piece isn’t the naked pictures, or the petty retributions of pat-downs for rude passengers, or even the fact that the scanner images provided a little inspiration for amorous activity inside the secure room — thanks in part to the lack of surveillance because of the naked images being reviewed in the booth. Harrington reports openly that TSA insisted on getting the original full-body scanners after the Underwear Bomber attempt, even though they knew full well it wouldn’t prevent a terrorist attack:

We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed. Not long after the Underwear Bomber incident, all TSA officers at O’Hare were informed that training for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners would soon begin. The machines cost about $150,000 a pop.

Our instructor was a balding middle-aged man who shrugged his shoulders after everything he said, as though in apology. At the conclusion of our crash course, one of the officers in our class asked him to tell us, off the record, what he really thought about the machines.

“They’re shit,” he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.

We quickly found out the trainer was not kidding: Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.

This confirms pretty much everything we suspected about the TSA. Harrington notes that morale is lower in this agency than anywhere else in the US government, and there are good reasons for it. At least in his telling, few of the people believe in their mission, the traveling public is held in contempt, and the backscatter machines had them worried about their health at the same time TSA was telling the public that there was no health or safety issues at all. One of the terms defined in the TSA “lexicon” is “opt-out,” which refers explicitly to passengers who refuse the scanner and go for the pat-down — but TSA agents use the term to mean, “smart passenger.”

Small wonder, then, that when having to watch backscatter images of dubious use, Harrington “personally witnessed quite a bit of fooling around, in every sense of the phrase.” Why not? Again according to Harrington’s account, everyone seemed to realize that they were providing security theater rather than real security.

Of course, one reason this story is so compelling is precisely because it confirms our previous assessments of TSA, both as travelers and in overall analysis of their function. It’s still one man’s perception of the environment, albeit one man who did go to some risk to publicize these issues while still at TSA. Harrington studied writing while working at TSA, and it shows; it’s an entertaining and compelling read, and tends to reduce the skepticism we would normally apply to tales from self-described disgruntled workers.

It’s compelling enough that Congress should invite Harrington to discuss these issues in hearings, and haul some of his former superiors and fellow agents to explain themselves. If Harrington is exaggerating or making the error of applying a local experience into a global rule, a fair hearing will bear that out. But given the experiences that Americans have had with this intrusive and perplexing TSA security regime, we are owed some accountability for its performance, and an answer to the issues that Harrington raises.

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