Hate Mail, Part 2: Wherein I am Called an Asshole Who is Only Trying to Make the TSA Look Bad.

Anonymous writes:

Subject: “Letter from a Current Screener

How much of this site borders on SSI (Sensitive Security Information)? Why don’t you just stop this and stop making us look even worse, asshole? We already have plenty of assholes in the organization who get caught stealing or acting like jerks to kids in wheelchairs. Do we really need more of this?”

Dear Anon,

First of all, what is it with screeners always choosing “asshole” from their vulgarity arsenals when sending me hate mail? This is hate mail Part 1 all over again.

At any rate, Anon– may I call you Ginny, for reasons that will later become clear?– at any rate, Ginny, I thought long and hard about this, well before I even started this site. Though my primary mission with this blog is to entertain readers with slices of my experience as a TSA screener, whilst giving them bullshit-free analysis and opinions on what’s going on–or has gone on in the past– with the TSA, and to give screeners , ex-screeners and passengers a platform upon which to voice their opinions and experiences, I also want to offer suggestions, whenever possible, as to how things could possibly be made better with the TSA.

For those readers not familiar with the below reference in Ginny’s letter–

“We already have plenty of assholes in the organization who get caught acting like jerks to kids in wheelchairs.”

–Ginny here was referring to a story that hit the media a couple weeks ago, about what happened to 12-year old wheelchair-bound Shelbi Walser on her way through the airport to receive her routine medical treatment for a genetic bone disorder. The little girl’s hands were swabbed, right on cue in the TSA’s robotic-like security theater dance routine, and, surprise, she alarmed. What followed was the little girl and her mother being detained for an hour, as the girl wept, the mother took video, and one TSA agent was overheard on the video assuring the little girl “It’s OK, we’ll have you out of here in a second” (if the TSA employee was so sure she’d end up being clear, then what’s the problem? There, in a single, tiny flash, you can see and hear, in microcosm, an interesting thing– gut-level common sense clashing with dopey government bureaucracy. And yes, I know, “these TSA agents did nothing wrong…within the system as it is set up”. After all of that, the little girl is released.

tsa shelbi wahwah

Later Shelbi is interviewed by Fox News, and asked to give her impressions of the ordeal. Shelbi has this to say of the incident:

“It was kind of frightening and…I got mad.”

Well I’ll be damned, TSA! Looks like the next generation of travelers is already wise to what the TSA experience is generally all about!

Let’s just break this whole thing down.


First of all, it is absolutely no surprise that this whole thing started with a hand swab alarm. As any frequent flyer has probably noticed, and as any TSA PAX screener knows, swabs are like the duct tape of the TSA: something’s potentially broken, go for the swab. Only this duct tape doesn’t really fix anything at all, and is constantly crying “wolf!” all day and night. As a TSO I used to hear rumors about how much each of those canisters of ETD strips cost, and if they were anywhere near true, then there’s another thing for you to investigate and rightfully be infuriated about, dear tax payers.

You have no idea how much of a TSO’s day is spent going around just mindlessly swabbing things. After resigning from the TSA I had PTSD (Post-TSA Swab Disorder). Kid you not, I tried to fix a leaky faucet the other day by swabbing it with a piece of cloth and shouting “CSS.”

Hey, TSA: if every other thing is alarming, then nothing is alarming. As a screener on the floor, all those hand swab alarms become white noise– white noise that, as you just found out, can occasionally lead to all-out PR nightmares. You might want to rethink your policy on swabbing everything that moves, because guess what? By overusing any one security procedure, you all but guarantee that said security procedure is the one thing that will never be the successful hail Mary security play to foil a person with malicious intent, in deterrence terms, or otherwise. You’ll only give the theoretical, one-in-a-trillion, real-deal, cunning suicidal terrorist the cue to use a little creativity to side-step the overused, heavy-handed procedure. If anything, you’re actually making things less safe by mindless, hamfisted use of your technology.

As to why she alarmed, and as to Ginny’s question regarding “SSI,” I do not have to get into any sort of SSI to explain exactly what happened with this particular PR nightmare incident, or to explain anything else on this blog. In fact, nothing on this blog will ever be anything that anyone could not find floating around on the internet,  playing itself out in plain public view at any airport security checkpoint, or deduce using common sense. My “shocking revelation” that ran on ABC News last week regarding what I’ve witnessed in the I.O. room on non-ATR fitted Rapiscan AIT machines? The whole “officers laughing and playing in the I.O. room” shocker? A blogger at Jezebel had the best handle on the “story”:

“…for me, it’s hard to imagine it [officers laughing and playing in the I.O. room] is not happening. Just think about it — when you put people in an awkward position of power over others and then make the people they have control over extremely vulnerable, how could it not? The fact that this leads to hooking up is not surprising, the rooms sound perfect for it, and the making fun of part makes total sense, too.

It’s just common sense, knowing what we know about people. And to the TSA spokesperson who assured the public that such things were not happening in the I.O. room, pray tell, good sir, how could you possibly have access to the knowledge of what has or has not happened in hundreds of tiny, private rooms across the nation with federally-mandated signs upon them reading: “No recording devices of any kind are allowed in this room”?

Back to Shelbi Walser: check the comment sections on any of the hundreds of write-ups on the story. Go ahead, literally scroll down for 2 seconds on that Fox News write up, this is what you find:

“sidbakmer • 13 days ago”

“Certain…[REDACTED, ON GROUNDS THAT IT COULD BE SSI. SEE, I’M MORE CAREFUL ABOUT NOT DIVULGING THINGS THAT COULD BE CONSIDERED SENSITIVE SECURITY INFORMATION THAN EVEN YOU ARE, TSA]…can set off the explosives detector. Why are TSA agents and its managers so damn ignorant? I’m unemployed with 2 degrees. If those imbeciles at TSA are the best the government can do, I’m available.”

Try going to other comment sections where this story ran, or any forum where news stories such as this are discussed. Or go to any of the forums solely dedicated to the dissolution of the TSA, for that matter. I’m sure you’ll find the same thing. There is absolutely no information regarding day-to-day TSA checkpoint procedures and technology that the millions of often highly educated and internet-connected passengers of the world cannot easily deduce or search out. As the world has most certainly discovered over the past couple decades, the crowd will be smarter and faster than any bloated, lumbering government bureaucracy, any day. But still, I will never be interested in going there.

Which brings me to my next point. TSA security techno-theater aside, the TSA’s overuse of hand swabbing is actually purely incidental in this story; it is only symptomatic of a larger problem, as it relates to the sick-girl-in-a-wheelchair-crying-as-she’s-being-detained-by-TSA-employees debacle.

Kip Hawley, former TSA chief, has repeatedly stated that the biggest thing he believes the TSA has to do in order to improve as an organization is to move toward a more decentralized dynamic; to “make screeners more accountable for their actions; less able to simply hide behind regulations and the SOP if and when something goes wrong.”

John Pistole, the current TSA chief (and I actually sort of like Pistole, all things considered, sorry to tell you, rabid TSA-haters) has, I believe, truly done his best to move the TSA in this direction. When the words “screener discretion” began showing up in the life of a TSA screener after Pistole took over, the thinking TSA screener was overjoyed (I’m aware of how absurd these next two sentences are, but this is TSA we’re talking about): “Hurrah, we’re allowed to use common sense! It says so right there in the rules!” (The same common sense that the mother of the 12 year old girl in the wheelchair as well as thousands of very smart commentators, have lambasted the TSA for not using in their latest PR nightmare.)

I received a letter from a passenger the other day, Ron C.:

It seems that a partial solution to the TSA making flying so unpleasant would be to have each checkpoint manned by one TSA employee who served as sort of Ombudsman for the flying public. This person would be responsible for making sure that passengers were treated efficiently, with dignity, and courtesy, and that their civil rights were not violated. It would also create a few jobs. Maybe a massive stack of printed complaints would convince Congress to fund this. Well, a guy has to have dreams, right?

Thank you for the letter, Ron. While a dedicated ombudsman on the checkpoint is a noble dream, I believe that in practice what you would get is a man or woman profusely apologizing all day, while explaining that there is “nothing that he or she can do about” this or that idiocy, because his or her “hands are tied by the SOP.” The TSA could definitely focus more on a screener’s interaction skills with the public when it came time to assess his or her suitability for the job, though.

But I think Ron’s onto something.

Let’s start by taking what the TSA already has, and trying to rearrange it in a better way. Let’s look for a moment at former chief Kip Hawley’s belief that the there should be more screener accountability and judgement-call capability on the floor. Now, in my nearly-7 years of employment with the TSA, I can verify the truth of what you’re probably thinking right now, dear passengers and screeners: it wouldn’t be wise to give the kind of people the TSA has on its frontlines carte blanche in regard to procedural decisions. You’re absolutely right. The average TSA screener is not the best and brightest that America has to offer. But there is someone on every checkpoint who sucks up just a little more more tax-payer dollars than the other screeners, and who has already been vested with some authority to make judgement call-like decisions: the checkpoint supervisors, or STSOs.

Now, on one hand, we have a lumbering government bureaucracy with its ever-present endless tangle of rules and labyrinthine SOP red tape, all looped into hoops that must be jumped through. But on the other hand, for whatever reason, this same organization has granted thousands of minimally-trained people the authorization to look at people’s behavior, facial expressions, and body language, and on that basis, determine whether or not they represent a potential threat to be pulled aside for additional security scrutiny at the airport.

And finally, you have tax payers who have been shouting in unison, for nearly 10 years, “Bring common sense to the TSA!”

Now I know this suggestion may seem completely outlandish to you, dear TSA, but I’m going to put it out there, anyway:

How about we take all of these ingredients, and produce one, just one, tax-payer funded TSA employee on every checkpoint who is authorized to use– in common parlance– common sense? Put that wasteful BDO program to work for the American people who fund it. Wrap the common sense in government-speak– go ahead, we know you have to do it– so call it an Authorized TSA Behavior Detection Threat Level Judgement Call for Common Sense Optimization Procedure.

As I, and any TSA current or former screener will tell you, the number of times that a TSO finds him or herself standing around on the checkpoint, helpless and completely de-clawed of the ability to use common sense to clear a 99.99999 (repeating) percent certain non-threat (such as, say, a 12 year old girl in a wheelchair going for her routine brittle bone disability medical treatment who alarms on a hand swab– one of the day’s 200 false alarms, in terms of people with actual malicious intent), is countless.

Maybe lawmakers should clean a little house at the K, L, and M-band salary tier of this “top-heavy organization,” (per the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and the Government Accountability Office’s perennial findings) and spread a little of the high-paid thinking out to the checkpoints, where the public actually deals with the TSA.

Maybe the TSA could use some of the billions of tax payer dollars being wasted on the Behavior Detection program in order to certify supervisors as dual-certified BDOs– trained “behavior detection officers”– who would then be authorized– with the burden of full accountability if anything went wrong– to, for instance, look a tearful, sick little girl in the eyes, talk to her mother for a few minutes, size up the whole situation, in toto, and say, “Just another false alarm. No need for this to go on any longer. This little girl and her mother are not a threat. Clear.”

So, in response to the question of the person who sent me the hate mail:

Yes, Virginia, there is a need for this blog.


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One Response to Hate Mail, Part 2: Wherein I am Called an Asshole Who is Only Trying to Make the TSA Look Bad.

  1. Pingback: Fair and Balanced Mail, Part I. | Taking Sense Away

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