It turns out TSA agents really are sitting in a private room somewhere laughing at how you look naked on a full-body scanner, your feet spread slightly and your hands over your head.
Tell me you’re not surprised.
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz isn’t. When I got him on the phone, he was at an airport, of all places, waiting for a flight from Washington to Salt Lake City. He refrained from saying, “I told you so,” but he was happy to point out the obvious. “Now we find the allegations to be true. The TSA always insisted they don’t capture that image of you. Well, yeah, they do, and they’re laughing at you,” he said.
Late last week, former TSA agent Jason Edward Harrington published an op-ed on Politico.com that spelled out all the things he observed over several years working at a security checkpoint at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. His descriptions went from the absurd — “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” — to the disgusting.
Harrington said agents have an Image Operator room, or I.O. room, for short, where he and coworkers often would retire for breaks. In the room are monitors where the nude images of people standing inside body scanners were shown.
“Most of my coworkers found humor in the I.O. room on a cruder level,” he wrote. “Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues: Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display.”
Male agents had code words for attractive women. Random searches were not always random. And, as if the public humiliation of passengers wasn’t bad enough, he describes how the machines themselves are useless.
“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.”
Why shouldn’t you be surprised? Because, despite the TSA’s reassurances through the years, the fact is the agency relies on human beings to monitor equipment and examine passengers. If you’ve been walking the planet for a reasonable amount of time, you know how human beings are, and how they tend to act without strongly enforced rules or an ingrained code of professional ethics.
Why an agency would spend tons of money on machines that don’t work is more difficult to understand. My guess is it has to do with bureaucracies and their tendency toward expansion and self-justification.
I called Chaffetz because he has been an outspoken critic of the TSA and body scanners in particular. He marvels at how airports in other nations are so much better at screening. “There are less invasive, more secure ways to do security,” he said.
One of his solutions would be for the TSA to use dogs to walk by people waiting in line to go through metal detectors. “You can train a dog to detect precursors (to bomb-making) and bombs, agricultural products and even large amounts of cash,” he said. “Dogs can stop IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that imaging devices can’t see.”
TSA agents also could be better trained to detect suspicious behavior and to ask chatty questions that are designed to reveal potential problems, he said.
For all the fuss of the Politico piece, however, Chaffetz said he thinks the TSA has made some steps in the right direction. He just wishes it would make a lot more steps, and a lot faster.
Terrorists do not wait for bills to pass Congress or for op-eds to appear in Politico. They tend to be a bit more nimble than bureaucracies.
The idea of using trained dogs is intriguing. For one thing, they tend to have a more fully developed sense of ethics than many humans. And even if they may want to laugh, they keep it to themselves.