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
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 these responses. The enter key hasn't been doing it. I guess it's not going to do much good, now. If I'm asked to do another Q and A for Slashdot ever, I'll make sure I find out. This has been fun, thanks everyone. I'm going to post one more answer to a question that I lost track of in a minute, under a new post that I'll create.
I loved people who came through the checkpoint saying "This is fucking bullshit! Fuck TSA!" I was secretly writing an anti-TSA blog while many of those passengers showed up in front of me. 99 percent of the time, I was able to turn those situations into the most absurd, surprising situations you can imagine: the passenger who was screaming "This is a violation!" would, within minutes, be talking with me over in a corner, smiling, as I basically signaled to him "Viva la resistance. I'm on your side, I'm out of here as soon as possible. Just trust me, there's a good chance you'll be reading my story at some point in the future. Take your snow globe, I don't care, it's a stupid rule. I'm going to give you the least intrusive pat-down as possible, because this is bullshit, I agree." Those passengers were just about the only thing I had to look forward to every day, for a long time. The one, ONE and almost only thing that could make me angry with a passenger and bring about a tit-for-tat level of frustration in me, was one of those angry passengers coming through, and just refusing to listen to anything I had to say, or maybe being unable to comprehend it. For instance, there would be cases, no joke, where a man would come through the checkpoint, an X-Ray operator would call a bagcheck on him due to a snow globe in the guy's luggage that he was trying to bring home to his daughter for Christmas, I would take the guy to the table for the bagcheck, where he would be saying "This is so fucking ridiculous. Fuck TSA." And I would be saying "I know, I know, I totally agree. I am on your side. I am not going to confiscate your snow globe, because it clearly turns out that there *is* *no* *snow* globe in here. *Wink*. *Wink*." And I kid you not, the guy would say, "What? Whatever. Just take the fucking snow globe you dipshit." I would say, "Sir. There is no snow globe in here. Wink. Wink." And the guy would say "You dumb TSA dipshit. Just take the fucking snow globe since that's what you're going to do, anyway." At that point, it was very hard to not be so incredibly frustrated with that guy that I felt the need to get a little "tit for tat" on him. It was passenges like that, or guys who decided to tell me "I would fuck you up on the street right now motherfucker" when I was trying to be perfectly cool with them, whom I admittedly did lose my patience with, and on whom I did get sort of tit for tat. Should I have maintained perfect cool, ideally, and not cared? Yes. But I couldn't help but feel a hint of "You know what? Seriously, fuck this person, then," in those situations.
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.
Oh, and lighters can go on planes since 2009 or so I think, it's just torch lighters that can't go.
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.
I applied for TSA in 2005; at that point, there'd only been 3 years, max, of anti-TSA sentiment and stories in the media and such. I suppose it would be different for someone applying for TSA today, nearly 10 yeas after I applied
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.
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.
TSA agents are told that they are not allowed to physically restrain a passenger in any way, or use force in any way. If a passenger just screams "Fuck this" and runs through security, TSA agents are, by agency policy, not allowed to do anything besides follow that person and call for help. The agent isn't supposed to even lay a hand on that passenger's shoulder to try to get him or her to stop.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,