The use of misogynist code words by male agents for female travelers, laughing at people being examined by full body scanners and other unprofessional behaviors were commonplace by agents.
John E. Brennan stands naked after he stripped down while going through a security screening area, as a protest against airport security procedures. (AP)
Many Americans have had an aversion to the Transportation Security Agency’s policies since the organization was created in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S. The agency was well intended, but problems — like racial profiling — have exposed the organization’s flaws, according to a former agent.
Jason Edward Harrington, who worked for the TSA for five years and wrote a piece for Politico on Thursday exposing some of our worst fears about the behavior and guidelines of America’s transportation surveillance authority, claims morale in the agency is low and that agents know full well they “abuse” the public’s trust and funds on a daily basis. Agents for this security service, unlike most other federal security or law enforcement agencies, only need to pass a background check, a series of basic skills tests and hold a high school diploma to be considered for employment.
Harrington’s piece, unsurprisingly noted that agents carried a selectee passport list, which was an official policy for profiling people from certain countries. The list included Syria, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Cuba, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and North Korea.
“Until 2010 (not long after the TSA standard operating procedure manual was accidentally leaked to the public), all TSA officers worked with a secret list printed on small slips of paper that many of us taped to the back of our TSA badges for easy reference: the Selectee Passport List,” Harrington said. “It consisted of 12 nations that automatically triggered enhanced passenger screening. The training department drilled us on the selectee countries so regularly that I had memorized them, like a little poem.”
He added that anyone from those countries was automatically “pulled aside and full-body pat-downs and had their luggage examined with a fine-toothed comb.” The TSA stamps passenger tickets with an “SSSS” for those travelers who have been pre-labeled for a full pat down once they reach the screening lanes because for whatever reason they have been branded as a threat to national security.
However, no one from countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan — where most of the 9/11 terrorists came from and where the attacks were planned, respectively — were included on the country profiling list. Most agents were not educated enough to know where many of the countries on the list were located on a map, Harrington claims.
“Besides, my co-workers at the airport didn’t know Algeria from a medical condition, we rarely came across Cubanos and no one’s ever seen a North Korean passport that didn’t include the words ‘Kim-Jong,’” Harrington, who is now writing a book on his experience in the TSA, said. “So it was mostly the Middle Easterners who got the special screening.”
After a while, he began to feel the weight of the duties he was sworn to carry out. Harrington worked at O’Hare International Airport outside Chicago and was employed with the TSA when the infamous “underwear” bomber made the Christmas 2009 attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound plane. After that, the TSA brought in the controversial and expensive Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners, which the public and rights groups initially balked at, claiming privacy concerns. And the TSA agents being instructed on the $150,000 machines didn’t have much faith in them.
“Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns,” Harrington writes. “The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.”
According to the former agent, the image operator room turned into a room where agents looked for an excuse to take breaks, looking at people passing through the body scanner on a bank of computer screens.
“Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues: Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display,” he said. “Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies were easy to discern—their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions. … All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels.”
He also claims the image operator room turned into a private hook up room for TSA agents dating each other, alluding that passengers might be perversely viewed by TSA agents engaged in sexual activity while watching the nude scans.
The scanners proved to be useless, Harrington said, after a blogger exposed a critical flaw in them in 2012, claiming — and proving, via YouTube video — that a metal object hidden on the side of the body was invisible to an image operator monitoring the scanners.
“Behind closed doors, supervisors instructed us to begin patting down the sides of every fifth passenger as a clumsy workaround to the scanners’ embarrassing vulnerability,” he writes.
Eventually, Harrington started an anonymous blog called “Taking Sense Away” to detail TSA activities and experiences, which gained some popularity not long after he began posting. Until the Politico piece Thursday, Harrington was still writing anonymously on the his blog using TOR, the same network that WikiLeaks uses to ensure its informants’ anonymity.
And in January 2013, the TSA got rid of the Rapiscan Systems scanners for ones that were less graphic, which many who followed Harrington’s blog attributed the official TSA decision to one of his posts claiming agents laughed at passengers as they were scanned.
Harrington is now a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Mississippi, Oxford. We’re guessing it’s him who is having the last laugh in the end, having not broken any laws while at the same time exposing a federal waste of funds on $40 million for security screening equipment that didn’t work. In the end, that’s not going to make anyone feel better about the TSA the next time they travel through the airport and watchfully scrutinize the TSA agents herding passengers through the lanes, looking for any hints of unprofessionalism.
An attempt to contact Harrington for comment was not immediately returned.