An Open Letter to Congressman Michael T. McCaul

First of all, good morning, Chairman McCaul. Congratulations on your new appointment. I’m sure you’ll find that the TSA is more than eager to offer you their best obfuscation, excuses and attempts to mislead, as the Full Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has consistently found. I look forward to answering any of your questions, I can be reached at takingsenseaway@gmail.com.

In response to your recent statement of interest in probing the full cost of the ill-fated Rapiscan Backscatter AIT Full Body Scanners,  I would today like to give you something that the TSA, as well as far too many of our elected officials in Washington D.C., strives so hard to ignore insofar as possible: a floor-level, everyday account of how things actually worked, as a result of their government’s decision.

BACKGROUND:

The Transportation Security Administration screens approximately 1.8 million people who travel each day through 450 U.S. airports.

In response to the failed December 25, 2009, attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound international flight using an improvised explosive device–a plot that was yet again foiled by brave passengers– the TSA accelerated its investment in AIT technology– a result of a collaboration between TSA and private industry.

STATEMENT:

1. We, the TSA screeners, were given classes in 2010 on how to operate the Rapiscan backscatter machines, classes which, in at least one case, included an instructor telling his students that “…the general population of America cannot be trusted anymore… which is why (the machines were being deployed).” Though this may have represented an anomaly in the TSA’s training operations, representative only of one misspoken regional TSA training instructor, I believe it would be useful for the TSA to issue a statement to all TSA training instructors, advising that categorical remarks about the American public’s perceived trustworthiness, or lack thereof, by TSA training instructors while on duty in their capacity as trainers of TSA officers will not be tolerated.

2. We, the TSA screeners, now freshly minted as being Whole Body Image certified, were sent to the floors of our respective airports in 2010, in order to operate these machines, which we were told represented “Transportation Security Officers having the best technology available to detect both metallic and non-metallic threats.” There was only one problem: the Rapiscan AIT machines were not very effective at detecting either.

This quickly became common knowledge to screeners on the checkpoint, such as myself, who were obligated, through a sense of loyalty or fear of retaliation, to remain silent on the ineffectiveness of the scanners, while simultaneously, for instance, compelling toddlers to get inside of the radiation machines in order to assume the position (Children under 12 years old were not exempted from backscatter radiation screening until approximately one year after the full deployment of the machines.)

On an April 22, 2010, conference with Canada’s House of Commons Transport Committee,  Rafi Sela, former chief of security at the Israel Airport Authority, stated:

“I don’t know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747. That’s why we haven’t put them in our airport.”

We quickly realized the truth of Sela’s statement, as routine, covert self-testing of the Rapiscan AIT machines proved time and time again that organic substances, meant to simulate explosives, oriented in all but the most conspicuous manner on a human body, were extremely difficult, if not impossible to detect.

3. Then came the question of metallic items. Almost immediately, it was discovered that the Rapiscan backscatter AITs were shamefully ineffective when it came to detecting metallic items, such as guns. To give you a quick idea as to the level of gross incompetence involved in the TSA’s purchasing and deployment of the Rapiscan backscatter radiation machines, look at the header of this website– the x-ray images of nude human bodies. Surely, the Chairman sees the black background of those images.

Do you know what color metallic items, such as guns, show up as on the backscatter AIT images? Black. So in the case of detecting a malicious actor attempting to bring a gun through the Rapiscan  AIT scanner, it was a matter of finding the color black, outlined within the same color black.

This laughable weakness quickly became common knowledge among a small circle of experts and insiders within the field, knowledge which came to the attention of a blogger named Jonathan Corbett, who, in 2012, fully explicated this technological flaw on-video, and then filmed himself bringing a large metallic item through the Rapiscan machines, repeatedly.

The TSA downplayed the video’s significance to the public, while at the same time ordering us, the front line screeners, to begin giving passengers who had gone through the Rapiscan AIT scanners additional body pat downs, in order to compensate for the egregious, embarrassing, now-public flaw of the Rapiscan backscatter radiation machines that the TSA was using on passengers. Many frequent flyers noted that something strange was going on with our operations, as the sides of their bodies were now systematically being patted down in addition to having complied to their government’s request to get inside of backscatter radiation machines– the intrusive screening had doubled for passengers, all as a result of the TSA’s failure to properly test the Rapiscan backscatter radiation machines before purchasing and deploying them en masse.

4. As if this comedy of errors weren’t enough, the means of communication between the remote viewers of the nude images and the machine operators out on the floor was extremely poor. The whisper radios that the TSA purchased for use on the checkpoint and in Full Body Scanner operations were oftentimes completely non-functional, meaning that there was dead air or broken transmissions between the floor operators of the nearly-useless machines, and the image analysts in the remote rooms (who were, additionally, in at least some airports, acting unprofessionally in regard to passenger images, as a result of the TSA’s Privacy Impact Assessment’s conclusion that the remote viewers of the images could in no way be supervised or monitored by anyone besides the image analysts).

These routinely malfunctioning radios represent another expenditure that should be probed and included in any tally of the Rapiscan Full Body Scanners’ cost to the American public.

5. The radios further exacerbated the general failure of the Rapiscan machines to process passengers in anything resembling an expedient manner. The Rapiscan AIT machines were absurdly slow.

I had many 8 hour days with which to spend counting the number of passengers processed through security by the AIT full body scanners as compared to the walk-thru metal detector. Over the course of several months, I calculated that it was 5 passengers through the old walk-thru metal detector to every 1 through the Rapiscan AIT. (The metal detectors, used in conjunction with random pat downs, were no less effective than the full body scanners in terms of security value– the full body scanners had become, in essence, random alarm generators. The same can essentially be said of the TSA’s current mission to make L3 Micro Millimeter Wave scanners the primary mode of screening).

6. As a result of this fiasco of errors compounding errors,  passenger wait times began to balloon. This caused management to begin rushing the floor rotations of AIT scanner operations in order to counter the increasing wait times, which in turn led to breaches of the TSA’s Privacy Impact Assessment’s assurance to the public and to government oversight committees that the “officers viewing the nude images of passengers would never come into contact with the passengers themselves.”

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This systemic folly– this apocalypse of incompetence which unfolded daily at airports for years– is representative of a larger pattern of negligence, misuse of funds, and breaches of public trust to be found within the Transportation Security Administration. While I am but an anonymous source, to be blithely dismissed by TSA spokespeople and representatives, I am confident that a widespread investigation, in the form of discrete and retaliation-free inquiries given to floor level TSA screeners, would corroborate my claims.

I sincerely hope you make good on your promise to probe the cost to the American people of the Rapiscan backscatter radiation machines, Congresssman McCaul, not only in monetary terms, but in terms of their dignity, as well.

-NJR

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