Letters from Passengers: Extended Release

TSAs Anatomy

First up is a short but sweet letter from Rob.

Is my TSA cartoon/article worth a plug? 

-Rob

Your TSA cartoon/article is absolutely worth a plug. It turns out Rob’s an author and contributor to Boing Boing, the website whose founder had his daughter “slut shamed” several weeks ago, as I’m sure we all remember (he posted that cartoon before the shaming incident even occurred, so it’s not retaliatory or anything, though I doubt anyone would much mind if it were). In the cartoon linked above, Rob brings up one of the most interesting statistical tidbits in the history of TSA-related cost/benefit analysis research: the very real possibility that post-9/11 airport security has actually killed more people than it has theoretically saved, due to the increase in road fatalities as a result of more people forgoing air travel in favor of driving to their destinations.

Up next is Clint, with an idea for a brand new sitcom:

I can’t help but think that there is a niche for a TSA sitcom. While there is plenty of outrage and drama to go around, I imagine it would make exhausting viewing. Mockery and smartassery have the potential to keep the audience coming back. Beyond the absurdity of the actual rules, there is a meta-absurdity in that not only do the passengers not want to follow the TSA rules, the TSA agents themselves don’t particularly want to enforce them (Barny Fife’s aside).

I can only hope the blog someday leads to you getting cushy gig as consulting writer/editor for a show poking fun at the TSA.

You have no idea how much I would love to write a sitcom centered around the TSA. Almost every TSA screener with an ounce of imagination has at some point uttered the words, “This job is so ridiculous, there should be a movie, or TV show, or book about it.” My only concern about being a writer on a TSA sitcom would be that the show’s producers would require a current TSA employee to be on-set as a consultant, constantly going over the script to ensure both accuracy and compliance with Sensitive Security Information regulations. This would likely lead to a TSA officer constantly asking me to remove the script from my briefcase for inspection, leading to a twist worthy of the Greeks: in professionally making fun of the TSA, I would be doomed to suffer eternal torment by the TSA.

Here’s Lucas B, chiming in on the “Valet-parked cars searched under TSA regulations” story that caused a stir the other week, prompting our buddy Blogger Bob to issue an official TSA repsonse that could have come straight out of the TSA Policy Generator. Please email and let me know if you guys really are using the TSA Policy Generator, Bob.

Dear Taking Sense Away,

Chances are this has already been submitted to you, but here it is anyway:  “Valet- Parked Cars Searched Under TSA Regulations.”

Some fun points about the implications of these regulations:

1) The TSA is apparently now concerned about what happens on the non-secured side of the airport. It’s no longer a free-for-all of water bottles of any size, concealed pocket knives, and rolling pins. Nope, now we have to fear bombs going off outside the airport. No word about their policy regarding bombs inside.

2) I’ll give them credit for coming up with a security measure that addresses something that hasn’t been attempted yet. Only partial credit, see above for reasons.

3) The searches are conducted by the valets. Who don’t have to be certified every six months. Who aren’t being showered with free TSA uniforms. Yup, valets are now partially responsible for the security of airports.

The TSA’s official “short version” response to the story of a woman in Rochester, NY discovering a note in her car informing her that her “vehicle had been inspected under TSA regulations” is as follows:

The short version: While we deploy numerous layers of security, TSA officers are not inspecting cars or mandating that they be searched. In this case, it turns out the car was searched by an employee of a car parking service. 

Each airport authority, along with its state and local law enforcement partners, is responsible for securing airport property, including the outer perimeter. At this particular airport, car searches are part of their ‘airport security plan.’ “

It seems that this search came about from a local policy at Rochester, whereby city-mandated random searches of valet-parked cars are performed with TSA approval. I like Lucas B’s observation that, at that airport, the valets are partially responsible for performing in the security theater show, without having to suffer the TSA’s training department or useless recertification tests. In fact, parking valets are just about as qualified to provide security at airports as almost any TSA employee, as the common profile of a parking valet will show you. I did some research into the parking valet profession, and was delighted to find:

CONFESSIONS OF A VALET PARKER

From the story, which originally ran on Yahoo News:

“Most parking valets fall into three general categories. The first is student types seeking flexible hours and a job that doesn’t require much training. The second group is often working nights after another job, and are often the most dedicated employees. The third and smallest group are folks often unable to hold down any other work, and they’re the most prone to hitting poles in parking lots, losing keys and disrespecting customers.

I have known valets who lower tire pressures, change climate and radio settings, or intentionally ding the door or scrape paint in a place where it’s not easily noticed. There’s nothing better than getting your revenge and getting them to tip you, too. Though I personally never riffled through anyone’s belongings, I hear plenty of, ‘You should have seen what I found in this person’s car’ while we’re standing around waiting for cars to pull in.”

Sound familiar? Again, you can read the whole story here, and then the people flying through Greater Rochester International Airport can decide how much safer they feel with Rochester’s local policy of giving federal approval to bad behavior on the part of parking valets.

Up next we have Chaim:

Hi there, NJR,

You mention some people who were TSA agents in the beginning who were misguided patriots, and I’m sure that at least a few of the TSA agents out there are or have been people desperate for any job in this rough economy. Still, it’s the disproportionately high number of bullies, perverts and thieves within the agency which give it the well-deserved negative image which it has.

So, what I wanted to ask was this: If you had to guess, how many people who work for the TSA would you say are the scummy people who see this sort of thing as their dream job in their twisted minds, and how many are the well-meaning yet misguided dupes or people just desperate for a paycheck? (I’m not asking for some exact, scientifically-proven figure, just a rough estimate).

-Chaim

All I can give here are of course very rough estimates, informed by 6 years working at a Category X airport (a really big airport) and by occasionally talking to TSA employees based out of other airports, usually NDF screeners (traveling TSA screeners). In my mind, I usually used to split the TSA workforce up into two main categories: those who were making at least some kind of effort to get out, and those who were dug in deep, and not really planning on going anywhere, any time soon (though even those employees usually had vague plans to one day leave, too, especially in light of the fact that there was always the possibility that a recertification test could come along and unfairly knock them out of employment at any time).

The vast majority of TSA screeners feel that they are capable of getting an all around better job, and occasionally make at least a symbolic effort to get out. The most common manifestation of this impulse is screeners applying to local police departments, Customs and Border Patrol, and various other federal jobs. Of course, within this demographic of TSA screeners are all sorts of maladjusted people. Off the top of my head: 8 out of 10 TSA screeners want to get out of TSA, and have at least some sort of escape plan cooking in their heads. Of those 8 screeners, maybe 1 is friendly, reasonable, and of at least average intelligence.

The other 2 screeners out of my mental sample of 10 are dug in for life. Usually, both of them are dug in for life due to their age and un-marketability (over 60 or so and unskilled), or due to some manner of crippling disability that severely inhibits their ability to get a better paying job with similar benefits. Every now and then, however, you’ll find a young, healthy TSA screener who proclaims to love working for TSA, and who plans to never leave. Most of those people simply love the authority that comes with being able to confiscate people’s bottled water, and such. I would say that only 1 out of 100 TSA screeners is the actual employee that TSA and the public theoretically want: an employee who genuinely likes his or her job (for the most part), is of at least average intelligence, and doesn’t just like the job due to a power trip mentality.

So the final estimate/tally: about 80 percent of TSA screeners desperately want out and have some sort of actionable plan for doing so, and 20 percent of TSA screeners are dug in for life if they can have it their way, for whatever reason. Of that 80 percent who are scrambling to get out, only a small fraction would even consider reading the last 3 paragraphs over watching a reality TV show, barely legal porn, NASCAR or a rerun of COPS. Of the 20 percent who are dug in for life, a similarly small fraction are tolerable human beings capable of holding an intelligent discussion with you on the checkpoint.

David wrote in:

I do not travel very much, in fact the last time I did travel was to Philly. I was asked to perform a ceremony there and needed to bring some of my gear, feathers, canumpa, etc. Most would call a canumpa a peace pipe, not accurate but it will provide the perfect image. 

To the TSA peoples credit at Denver International they did not even take a second look. On my return from Philly it was a completely different story. My bag was hand checked. I stood by nervously as a TSA agent removed the bag containing my canumpa, sniffed the bowl first… sorry only tobacco, red willow bark and a bit of sage smoked in there. Then pulled out the stem. The agent checked the heft, gave it a few practice swings. I wasn’t sure if she looked more like the ape in 2001 swinging that bone around or a braves fan doing the tomahawk chop. The agent shrugged her shoulders, put everything back in the bag and into my luggage and I was allowed to proceed.

I was too intimidated to react openly but I was very uncomfortable with the handling of a sacred item. I am sure if the inspection had gone any further I would have been forced to react or ask that it not be handled in such a manner. Are there any TSA rules regarding religious or spiritual equipment so they are less likely to be improperly handled by agents?

For the most part, TSA employees have it drilled into their heads that they are not to confiscate or mess with almost anything that the passenger claims has a religious significance. For example, try bringing your bottle of water in a slightly fancy-looking container, and then claiming– with a completely straight and somber face– that it’s holy water that was sanctified by a priest, and of the utmost importance for a religious ceremony you are headed to. You will at least cause a TSA supervisor and or manager to have to come over and think long and hard over the situation, and in the end, may very well succeed in being able to keep the water.

As for your letter, David:

1) I loved your image of a TSA screener swinging the canumpa around like the primates in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sounded about right.

2) I personally had no idea what a canumpa was until I Googled it, and even then it took me a couple minutes to find this clear image of it:

 3) There is absolutely no way that you’ll be able to get a canumpa through the average TSA checkpoint without one or more TSA screeners toying with it a little, and speculating about how high one could get by using it. Sorry. Your best bet is to hit the checkpoint wielding the words “religious item” with a really serious face. That will scare the majority of TSA employees away from doing more than mindlessly swabbing it or picking it up to feel its heft.

Steve wrote in:

Hi,

I thought you might like this column.

-Steve

An excellent essay. Thanks for the link, Steve.

And last but not least, I received several inquiries regarding the TSA’s pat-downs. It seems that some kind of digital scuffle broke out on at least one internet forum, resulting in more pat-down questions than usual arriving in my inbox. Here are two letters, first, from Susie, of “Tell us, what really happens in the I.O. room?” fame:

Would you share the grope procedure? Does it, in fact, require genital contact?. . . does TSA teach trainees to make up rules or do they just generally have no idea what the rules actually are?

And now, Andrea:

Hi,

Long time listener, first time caller. In your most recent post, this caught my eye: “He blanks, and– gasp– fails to use enough pressure when patting down the test subject’s crotch area.” So indeed, “resistance” does equal “crotch”, yes? Can you clarify exactly what the screeners are supposed to be applying pressure to in my crotch area, or is it just a blind feel? Screeners on the message boards get all coy when asked and insist there’s no crotch or genitalia involved, just this nebulous concept of resistance, like they’re total prudes. And how much pressure is called for to be applied to my lady parts anyway? Let’s get to the nitty gritty here, shall we?

I think it’s time to just get down to the nitty gritty, indeed. There isn’t much to the TSA standard pat-down outside of what you can see in any video of a passenger being patted down. TSA screeners are trained to advise a passenger that he or she “will be using the backs of the hands when coming to a sensitive area,” both before the pat-down begins, as well as just before that very special moment arrives in the course of the pat-down. At that point, the TSA screener applies the backs of the hands to the top of the subject’s groin area, hands positioned like this–

I am so sorry that the hand form that TSA screeners use when reaching your groin area just so happens to be the ASL word for “more.” I Googled “ASL words” and there it was: the picture I needed to illustrate the procedure.

— with fingertips distanced slightly farther apart than in the above picture, and slides the hands down, which in practice– due to differing body sizes and techniques of individual screeners– usually means that the TSA screener comes into contact with the genitals at this point, especially on a male. The TSA screener then puts one hand on the hip, another on the inner thigh, like this–

–slides the hand on the inner thigh up until he or she “meets resistance,” which of course means yes, up until the hand comes into contact with where the upper leg meets the lower abdomen, meaning that the back of the hand is either neighborly, or touching the vagina on the female, and snug against a testicle and or penis on the male. At that point the screener slides both hands all the way down, as the TSA screener in the above picture is about to do.

It took me 10 seconds to find an essential description of the resolution pat-down online, posted on this traveler’s website in August of 2011. Thousands of people undergo that at checkpoints across the nation, every day, and leave the private room to tell their friends all about it.

As for Andrea’s question regarding “enough pressure being used” while TSA screeners are testing for certification or recertification: one of the more common reasons that TSA screeners are told that they have failed a portion of a recertification pat-down is due to “not enough pressure being used.” This results in one of the most common pieces of advice I used to hear veteran TSA employees doling out to new-hires: “When you go into test, rough the test subject up like hell; beat the hell out of that tester with your pat-down, so that they can’t say you failed to use enough pressure.” (I remember a lot of screeners I knew used to say that they went so far as to sort of strike the test subject in the groin area, as a means of exacting revenge for the absurd testing). 

This is the training and testing environment from which your TSA screeners emerge, ladies and gentlemen! Small wonder that a former TSA screener wrote me a couple months ago telling me that his co-workers used to have a term for “Striking a passenger in the groin area during a pat-down in retaliation for bad attitudes,” AKA, Splitting the Uprights. 

As for Susie’s question regarding whether or not the TSA tells its employees to just make up rules or whether the TSA employees simply have no idea what the rules actually are: the TSA generally drills about 100 new rules into a screener’s head every few months and then places them into a confusing and contradictory SOP, resulting in most TSA employees only possessing a vague idea as to what the rules actually are.

With any luck, that covers all pat-down/grope questions for the foreseeable future.

—-

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