8 Things You Don't (Want To) Know About TSA Checkpoints
If you've been on an airplane in the last few decades, you've had a close encounter of the TSA kind. We're all annoyed about taking our shoes off, throwing out our sweet pocket machetes, and emptying all of our delicious exotic liquids just to please The Man. We sat down with someone who spent most of the last decade working for the TSA, and he explained to us just what it was like being inside that most hated of organizations ...
It's The Easiest Way To Become A Federal Officer
It's not easy to become a federal officer. If you want to join the FBI, CIA or DEA, for example, you're going to need a four-year degree, plus a lot of professional qualifications and experience. But if you don't have the time to gain all that pesky experience and pain-in-the-ass knowledge, you can always try joining the TSA.
TSA screeners aren't law enforcement officers, but if you work with the TSA for several years, you do qualify for their "interchange agreement" with the Department Of Homeland Security, which means the guy growling at you to take your flip-flops off before stepping through the body scanner might be just a couple of years away from running the X-Files.
Our source originally applied to join the TSA because he saw it as the shortest possible path to a career as a federal officer.
"I applied because ... well, for people without any sort of real job experience they're the only federal agency that'll pick you up. ... There are no requirements to get in. You need a year of security experience or a high school diploma. In other words, high school dropouts could be protecting us from terrorists right now."
"I say 'could be,' but I really mean 'are' -- one of my earliest supervisors had no diploma or frickin' GED. Yep, he's still there, and no, still no GED."
"You don't learn FREEDOM. You feel FREEDOM. Don't need no fancy book-reading for that."
So drop out of high school and spend a year guarding the Cinnabon at your local mall and you too can join the probably-thicker-than-we-need blue line. Our source wound up working with the TSA for a startlingly long time, considering the agency's sky-high turnover rate.
"I was with them for nearly 10 years. I was there from the beginning, where they didn't know what the hell they were doing, to the end, where they ... still didn't know what the hell they were doing."
We No Longer Care About The Weapons That Made 9/11 Possible
Remember when the TSA announced that they were finally going to allow people to bring tiny pocket knives on planes again? Fans of wee blades had a sweet few weeks before the TSA reversed that decision and reinstated the ban. But according to our source, TSA upper management has shifted a lot of emphasis away from policing those little knives.
"They wanted us to focus more on larger things that could bring planes down."
"Larger things" like explosives, for instance. This sounds perfectly reasonable on the outside, but our source made a good point:
"9/11 happened because of a bunch of guys with box cutters. Those get through on an hourly basis."
"Have a good flight, Mr. Dundee."
Most of the actual scanning of your carry-on luggage is done by machines, which are programmed to discern things like explosives and firearms from harmless stuff like dildos, scale models of Boba Fett, and dildos molded to look like Boba Fett. These scanning machines also have test programs, which periodically quiz the operators. And what happens when you fail these random tests?
"Miss three of them and your ass goes back to remedial training, which is so, so boring."
"This is a bomb -- true or false?"
With all due respect to our source, we're more concerned with the fact that a TSA screener is allowed to miss three (fake) bombs and/or guns before facing any kind of punishment. Our source also worried that an obsession with not failing those tests (and thus not going to "boring" remedial training) causes agents to miss real threats.
"They might miss knives because they're so focused on not missing one of the built-in tests."
"Sure, you let the guys with box cutters through, but I try to bring my alarm clock
and wire collection through and suddenly it's 'suspicious'!"
Since our source has such a broad base of TSA experience, we asked if he's noticed any improvements in the agency over the last decade, because, holy shit, at this point we're kind of terrified of even driving past an airport.
"I might have to think about this one for a bit. I know there have been improvements in the software of the machines; the machines are a lot better at detecting actual potential threats. Umm ... training? No. That hasn't really changed at all."
We're Shitty At Racial Profiling (Gender Profiling, On The Other Hand ...)
Racial profiling by the TSA is a real problem; just ask anybody with a slick suntan who's had the audacity to try to fly in the United States. But our source thinks the focus on racial profiling is "overblown." Not because profiling doesn't happen but because the worst profiling he's seen has nothing to do with race:
"I witnessed myself detection officers would pull very attractive women aside because he had a 'reasonable suspicion' to search her carry-on bags."
"A push-up bra? Ma'am, do you know it's a felony to lie to a TSA agent?"
Our source clarified that he saw this on "several different occasions" with different officers.
"It even became a running joke at the checkpoint, 'Oh, look who he pulled aside this time.'"
"You've been 'randomly' selected for additional screening."
"I CAN SEE YOU MAKING THE AIR QUOTES."
Our source isn't the only person who has brought this up as a problem: Multiple women have come forward alleging that the TSA targeted them for repeated "inspection," with at least one woman claiming the inspections came after an agent commented on her "cute figure." A Freedom Of Information request revealed that this formed a pattern in complaints against the TSA.
"I don't care what you say -- you just wanted to see what was in her bag ... or find some embarrassing sex toy."
Hey, Boba Fett is not a toy; he's a sculpture, practically a work of art tha- oh, you mean the dildo. Fair enough.
Officers Absolutely Traded Pictures Of Your Junk
Hey, remember a few years back when a bunch of TSA officers got busted for sharing naked pictures of passengers taken by full-body scanners?
So does our source!
"It goes along with the fact that TSA requires no experience and the people they hire are young 20-something-year-old guys who don't understand the concept of privacy. I personally have witnessed that happen on more than one occasion. The TSA rules state you can't bring your cell into the X-ray room. It didn't matter; if it was in their pockets, nobody -- not the supervisors -- would check. They'd be bringing their cellphones in. It was pretty much just a blatant disregard for policy."
He even had several co-workers try to show him naked pictures:
"I didn't go as far as I should have ... just said, like, 'I'm not interested.' But I have kinda glanced, when a phone is shoved in your face it's hard not to. I did see a couple."
"Yep. Those sure are mannequin gray breasts."
Ah, yes, the forbidden allure of washed-out pixelated ghost genitals. Who could resist?
No One On The Job Actually Cares About Security
"Whenever a story breaks on the TSA, the most I have ever seen done is this thing called a 'TSA Announcement,' typed up by some analyst in D.C. with the director's signature copy-pasted on the bottom."
There was a recent news story about TSA checkpoints letting undercover auditors sneak fake bombs onto airplanes an astonishing 67 out of 70 times. Turns out airport security is about as secure as your favorite blankie.
Less so, actually. At least you know if your blankie has a bomb in it.
"The TSA has been taking, and failing, those tests for a while."
Our source underwent these tests too, conducted by so-called Red Teams. His co-workers were similarly ineffective at catching a goddamn thing ...
"When I was working, our own airport had that team come through, and every single checkpoint failed. There was a meeting at the checkpoint ... 'Oh, the Red Team checked in; we failed three out of four tests. ... Then they'd go on to something else."
"Probably no lesson to be learned here. Forget I even mentioned it."
Our source explained just how his co-workers could miss so many major problems:
"When I was working there ... the guy operating the X-ray machine is supposed to be focusing fully on the machine, but he's talking to his buddy next to him, talking to passengers ..."
He then, terrifyingly, added, "People who text and drive pay more attention to the road than some of these guys do on X-rays."
Drugs Aren't A Major Concern
If you're looking to smuggle a crotch-load of acid from Memphis to Minneapolis, we've got good news for you: "TSA is not ... a drug enforcement agency. They're not the DEA, and they're not authorized to look for drugs."
And what does that mean in practice?
"Let's say a guy has a bag of weed sitting on his bag. Sure, we'll notify the sheriffs that there's a 'suspicious object' here. But if it's stashed in a shoe, not that I condone that, and it isn't seen by TSA, they can't look for it with the purpose of looking for drugs. If we do, the court will throw it out. There's no reasonable cause."
"Just put 'air freshener.' I'm not filling out that paperwork."
Our source and his co-workers were required to let the sheriff's department know when they found something suspicious. But they usually ignored the call when it was something they considered "silly." Such as "a single bullet or even a single fired bullet, just the casing. And in those, the sheriffs show up but they're pissed: 'What is the guy going to do with a fired shell casing?'"
Shockingly, a lot of people haven't gotten the message that you can't ever fly with guns in your goddamn carry-on.
"There have been a whole lot of guns. And where I'm at ... there's not a lot of people who own guns. This isn't their carry-on. It's not a handbag they carry daily. It's some specifically used for flying, and when the gun is found they're like, 'I didn't know that was in there.' Those are found way more often than I like to think of."
"I didn't even see it in there."
Our source also noted that the TSA isn't actually allowed to confiscate items without the traveler voluntarily abandoning them. And if all this seems weird to you ...
There Are No Official Rules For Most Things
Our source noted that TSA operatives are allowed to use "judgment," but he also noted that this "judgment" didn't matter much:
"Can they take this through a checkpoint? Shit, I don't know, let's ask the manager. Who would say, 'No, I guess you can't take that particular pie.'"
"Ew, pumpkin? Give him a cavity search just for that."
Speaking of pie: "If it's frozen, then it's fine! That I never understood. See, because frozen pie isn't a liquid."
That's discrimination against fresh pie lovers, you sons of bitches. But the double-standards don't end there:
"We had a lot of short flights, and people sometimes brings coolers on with food, water, drinks -- they're allowed those blue ice packs, the reusable ones. And if those are frozen solid they can go through the checkpoint. If they're not frozen solid, they can't go through the checkpoint. It's like ... OK, if it's frozen solid it's OK, but if it's not frozen it's now dangerous and could blow up? That's just never made sense."
"Wait! I see some water around the ice in that bottle!"
"God help us all."
A source we had from an article a couple of years back, a former Israeli head of airport security, termed what the TSA does "security theater." We asked our source if he felt any safer while flying, based on his many years of experience as an agent, and he told us ...
It's Only The Illusion Of Security
"Y'know? I do. Not because of what they're doing. But because of the fact that they're there. Like those houses with a sticker that says 'protected by so and so alarm company,' but there is no alarm in the house. I don't know if that's the definition of 'security theater,' but if there are terrorists who still want to attack airlines, they'd look at the checkpoints and either take out the checkpoint, or move on. Even though the TSA gets shit for not finding explosives. I'm sure whoever wants to do harm has at least a chance of getting caught ... and maybe their mission won't be worth the risk."
"Plus, I'd have to take my shoes off, and I got this odor thing, and-"
We're ... slightly less optimistic. Especially in light of the next thing our source told us:
"The question I've had since Day 1 that no one answers: If you find something suspicious in a bag at a checkpoint and it's obviously a threat. You see it's a pipe bomb, a little movie alarm clock wrapped in dynamite ... my question was ... 'OK, so we find this, and then what? If it's actually a terrorist, and he's obviously not right in the mind, he's not going to throw up his hands in defeat. What do we do? I got no answer to the question, 'If we find a bomb, what next?'"
This is actually the same question former head of airport security for Israel's Ben Gurion Airport asked us: If the TSA ever finds a bomb, what next?
So far, no one we've talked to has had an answer to that shit-house-terrifying question.
Robert Evans runs the Personal Experience section of Cracked, and he has a Twitter.
Oh, we aren't finished with you yet, TSA. See how these experts can be fooled by a laser pointer in 7 Reasons the TSA Sucks (A Security Expert's Perspective). Or learn about other not-great security measures in 4 Horrifying Behind-The-Scenes Realities Of Your Local Mall.
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