Confession #1: All the Airport’s a Security Stage.

I would have been terminated once they’d found out about this site.

As soon as they’d tracked down my identity, the wheels of the TSA bureaucracy would have groaned into motion in order to eject the outspoken employee in their midst. I would have been walked out by a TSA suit with a smug look on his face as he solemnly demanded I turn over my badge

So it’s a good thing I recently resigned.

I don’t intend to remain anonymous for too long, anyway, so I’m sure I’ll be blackballed from DHS employment for life, which is fine with me. TSA’s annually-required reading of the Employee Rules of Conduct makes it clear that it is forbidden for TSA employees to bring shame or embarrassment upon the Transportation Security Administration. But, honestly? What embarrassment could anyone bring upon them that they haven’t already brought upon themselves. I assure you, the most controversial things on this blog will invariably be matters of public concern.

This month marks the beginning of federal fiscal year 2013, which will include another 8 billion dollar allocation of tax payer money to the Transportation Security Administration in their mission to keep America safe from the “existential threat of terrorism.” Having been employed by the Transportation Security Administration for seven years, working passenger screening at a fairly large airport on the East Coast, I feel I am in a good position to comment upon matters concerning the TSA’s use of taxpayers’ money. I have absolutely no personal grudge against the TSA. I resigned on good terms with the agency in order to pursue a new career. It’s just that, as any officer on the checkpoint will tell you, and as several officers at our Logan International recently expressed to the tune of the front page of the New York Times , there are a lot of absurd and, occasionally, egregious things going on at the TSA at any given time.

The full body scanners, the racial profiling by TSA officers at Logan International, and stories of criminal behavior among bad apple TSA employees have been all the talk lately. I will come to the behavior detection program soon, and the bad apple employees in another post, but for now, having operated the full body scanners for 3 years, I can vouch for the ineffectiveness of the full body scanners— the backscatter iterations, especially.

Recently, a blogger named Jonathan Corbett released a video proving that anyone can easily bypass the billion dollar full body scanner technology, filming himself repeatedly passing through the scanners with a medium-sized metal object; the equivalent, for all intents and purposes, of a gun. He provided proof to the public that the machines can easily be rendered useless by exploiting a laughable weakness in the technology. The video went viral, and the TSA downplayed the video’s significance.

But I believe it is of public concern , especially to those party to the federal lawsuits pending against the full body imagers (Ralph Nader, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Bruce Schneier et al, all of whom– along with the American Civil Liberties Union– have been informed of this blog’s existence as well as of my true identity), and to the taxpayers who both fund the purchase of these machines while simultaneously being compelled to submit to their use, that both Corbett and EPIC’s claims are absolutely correct, despite the TSA’s assertion otherwise.

The backscatter radiation machines are not only ineffective and of questionable security value, they are absolutely useless, and represent an unnecessary impingement upon people’s privacy.

Furthermore, the TSA clumsily attempted to cover up the critical flaw in its scanners with a panicked internal directive to frontline TSA officers within a week of the release of the Corbett video, instructing all officers to begin randomly patting down the sides of passengers, essentially making the machines no more than million dollar random pat-down generators– ones that emit radiation and capture nude images of passengers– a procedural redundancy, since random pat-downs are already performed on passengers.

This billion dollar comedy of errors would perhaps not be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that, again, in addition to the TSA’s reckless foisting of this ineffective technology on the public, the technology exposes millions of flyers (which, for the first year of its roll out, included toddlers) to completely unnecessary doses of radiation. Low-level doses? Yes, assuming that the scanners are functioning properly. But as usual with the TSA, the question concerns the big picture in all of this, not myopic technicalities such as Rapiscan’s  specs concerning the theoretical properly-functioning nude scanner. The real question is whether or not it even made any sense at all to subject travelers to this theoretically small, yet unnecessary dose of radiation, to begin with.

It didn’t.

The backscatter units do not work (possibly one reason why Europe recently banned  them), and that there are still hundreds of them operating in American airports is absurd. As to the “harmless dose of radiation” that the TSA always speaks so reassuringly of (which is true, assuming that any given machine is functioning according to the manufacturers’ specifications) I believe it is important for the public to know that the number of TSA employees who themselves feel extremely uncomfortable working around these machines due to concerns about the radiation is substantial. I am confident that a discreet, nationwide survey given to the frontline TSA officers who operate the backscatter machines would confirm this.

The lesson here is not that the TSA should replace all backscatter machines with millimeter wave units; the TSA is already doing this, rushing to sweep another reckless, costly, embarrassing decision under the rug. The real take away here is that all of this represents business as usual for the Transportation Security Administration, and that it would probably be a good idea for lawmakers and their constituents to take a good hard look at TSA’s decision making processes.

In addition to all this, in my years at the agency I witnessed TSA management at local levels routinely becoming lax in their enforcement of the agency’s original promise to the public that officers would never come face-to-face with the passenger whose nude image they viewed. They did this in order to decrease the enormous wait times produced by the ineffective machines themselves, often urging– under threat of disciplinary measures– the speeding up of checkpoint floor rotations. In many cases (such as where, for instance, the past 5 images were male, with only 1 female) this makes it easy for officers to match a passenger with the nude image they just viewed, completely validating just one of EPIC’s privacy concerns. FOIA requests for the checkpoint footage of the average large, highly trafficked airport where the backscatter machines were or are installed could substantiate this. I have a few ideas as to specific sections of footage, which will soon be passed along to EPIC. All of this information, taken together, serves to confirm EPIC’s general concern that the full body scanner program is “unlawful, invasive, and ineffective.”

The obvious question is this: since the full body scanners– both backscatter as well as MMW iterations– essentially amount to little more than just random pat down generators, why not cut the costly, much-maligned “middle man” machines out of the picture as primary screening methods altogether, and just continue with the existing random pat downs, which are already performed both officially and de facto?

The answer is that it would be an acknowledgement of poor decision making by the TSA, as well as a concession of proposed budgetary needs. It is characteristic of a large bureaucratic organization such as the TSA to attempt to exert and consolidate its power, inflate its necessity and needs insofar as possible (Wilson, James Q. “Bureaucracy”) so as to justify large budgets, private contracts, and extraneous, yet well-paying upper level management positions in this “top heavy” organization, as the Government Accountability Office’s May 9 report on the TSA deemed it, “an unmanageable agency, evidenced by its 400% increase in workforce since its founding, an agency’s flaws that are not the fault of TSA employees working everyday on the front lines, but instead that of a bloated leadership structure in Washington, DC. Our investigations of TSA have been met with obfuscation, excuses and attempts to mislead”.

“We have many layers protecting the nation from the ever-evolving terrorist threat.”

That is the refrain that TSA launches into in the face of most criticism: an incessant drone concerning layers; 20 layers in all. The TSA’s go-to sleight-of-hand rhetoric of critically-important, billion dollar security layers amounts to little more than a distraction from the big picture; the big picture revealing the truth of a world where terrorism is so rare and unpredictable as to make most of the taxpayers’ money the TSA spends better spent elsewhere. As security expert Bruce Schneier has often sharply observed, “once a terrorist gets to an airport, it is already too late

The question is not whether this or that layer of security performs a function. The question is whether the function— be it behavior detection or full body scanners— makes any sense at all in the big picture, and whether or not the money spent on the TSA’s lavishly-funded winter wardrobe of layers is really doing anything beyond making for a good fashion show.

It is also a good time to remind you, dear American public, that you have essentially paid more than 1 billion dollars over the past 4 years, and will likely pay somewhere near a quarter of a billion dollars more in 2013, for a group of self-proclaimed truth wizards to patrol your airports, playing the role of airport terror busters. I am not using the term “truth wizards” arbitrarily, or purely derisively. Not enough people realize that the man behind the theory of the BDO program as it is taught (in conjunction with Israel’s airport security model) Paul Ekman, deemed his science capable of bringing out the “truth wizard”  in all of us. This “science” was bought, wholesale, by your federal government (Ekman’s research having itself been widely criticized by the scientific community, see “On Lie Detection Wizards,” Bond and Usayl, 2007.)

People call the TSA “Thousands Standing Around.” Within TSA culture, I can tell you that the BDOs have a place further derision. After an “intensive” 2 weeks of training in a program that has been roundly questioned to possess any scientific merit by leading publications, often fresh out of high school and 2 weeks of airport security training, a BDO is unleashed upon the world as a federal airport human lie detection machine.

One of the most prestigious scientific publications in the world, Nature found the program’s value to be spurious.  In 2008 the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences deemed the program’s underlying theory as “preliminary, at best.” The Government Accountability Office, in 2011, suggested that the TSA should have determined the scientific validity of the SPOT program before implementation (the same conclusion which was reached with the full body scanners).

A 2011 congressional report that same year correctly deemed the BDO program “one of TSA’s biggest failures.” The entire BDO program is, in fact, probably “no more accurate at detecting a terrorist than a flip of a coin.”(Hontz, C. R., Hartwig, M., Kleinman, S. M. & Meissner, C. A. Credibility Assessment at Portals, Portals Committee Report, 2009.) Link

And now, just a few months ago, it was found that— surprise—BDOs at Logan International Airport were profiling in order to meet imposed quotas and produce numbers to ostensibly justify their program’s existence to tax payers.

Larger airports even devote the BDOs to full time “walking the line,” freeing them of any other work, so that they are essentially strolling around for 8 hours every day at 20 dollars an hour, trying to detect microexpressions in terrorists who aren’t there, or completely missing the ones who, ever so rarely, do pass through (Hearing Before the Subcommittee of Investigations and Oversight, 2011).

If anything, the SPOT program could possibly make sense with highly trained officers operating in a single, small, high-stakes, politically-unique setting such as Israel’s Ben Gurion International. In a crowded American airport, this already-shaky science becomes absolutely useless. One where, for instance, Federal officers are discovered to be using racial profiling in order to get numbers, or where at “least 16 least individuals later accused of involvement in terrorist plots flew 23 different times through U.S. airports since 2004, yet none were stopped by TSA behavior detection officers working at those airports.”

One of these terrorists was Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Times Square bomber of 2010, whose attempted destructive handy work was detected and heroically brought to real law enforcement’s attention by a street vendor, Aliou Niasse, a Muslim.

Let’s all just be glad that Niasse was not being detained and “chatted down” by a racially-profiling BDO at Logan or Newark at the time.

The solution to all these inherently flawed systems of TSA’s is not retraining or ad hoc quick fixes. The solution is to cut loose the unnecessary, ineffective, unpopular, wasteful and intrusive measures, and to address the fact that the problem is systemic, lying within the TSA’s culture and modus operandi. The fundamental problem with this organization and its mission to become an advanced counter-terrorism organization is precisely that it needs to stop trying to be an advanced counter-terrorism organization. Again: once a determined and lethal terrorist gets to an airport, it is already too late. We need to repeat and accept this, as taxpayers, media entities, and society as a whole: a group of airport cops is not going to be the ones to foil or deter a determined terrorist.

The terrorists on 9/11 could have pulled off what they did with the same security we have today on the checkpoint. This whole subconscious culture of the TSA’s— caught in a perpetual, quixotic quest to retroactively prevent 9/11— needs to stop (and D.C., if you are reading, please, enough with the 9/11 propaganda in your officer training videos, please).

All of this, dear readers, seems just as ridiculous to the thinking TSA employee as it seems to the public, I assure you. Work life as a Transportation Security Administration officer is bizarre and surreal, where a federal officer is as likely as not to be heard bragging about her skill as a “wizard”; where officers have historically been compelled, per federal standard operating procedure, to inform the pilot of an airplane, with a straight face, that his Swiss army knife must be confiscated, under the logic that he may use it to hijack his own plane.

As anyone working for TSA will likely attest (in private, at least), working for the TSA has the feel of riding atop the back of a large, dopey dog fanatically chasing its tail clockwise for a while, then counterclockwise, and back again, ad infinitum.

Follow me on Twitter here. Follow me on Tumblr here.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.