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Newest Debate Over TSA Still Not Taking Into Account Very Basic Things About TSA

February 3, 2014 at 2:09 PM | by | ()

Last week saw a good deal of travel politics news - we'll unpack most of it as the dust settles this week - but there was something in particular we wanted to post today, if only because it's kind of aggravating.

The end of last week saw a back-and-forth in Politico between TSA and a TSA ex-agent who wrote an expose confirming every bad stereotype people have about the agency. Neither side comes off particularly well, but what got our attention is how even at the top levels of public debate, people still don't get a very, very fundamental point: you can have lots of very specific rules, and then you get TSA employees who implement stupid regulations, or you can empower TSA employees to 'use common sense,' and then you get douchebags who use the wiggle room to abuse travelers.

It can be one or the other, but - unless you're going to get better TSA agents or abolish TSA completely - you have to choose one.

An ex-employee named Jason Harrington wrote a huge article in Politico Magazine, based on his old whistle-blowing blog, describing various TSA abuses. TSA subsequently responded. Both articles are worth reading.

He comes as somewhat self-important and a bit douchey - "it was by no means the last time I would speak out," "I was living with a bohemian set on Chicago’s north side, a crowd ranging from Foucault-fixated college kids to middle-aged Bukowski-bred alcoholics" - and it's nothing you haven't read before. The first generation full-body scanners could be easily defeated because of a coloring error, assurances about data storage were shaky at best, TSA is always chasing the last terror threat rather than anticipating the next one, etc.

There were two parts in particular, however, that caught our eyes. On one hand, Harrington complains about having to follow very strict guidelines set out by top TSA officials:

It was a job that had me patting down the crotches of children, the elderly and even infants as part of the post-9/11 airport security show. I confiscated jars of homemade apple butter on the pretense that they could pose threats to national security. I was even required to confiscate nail clippers from airline pilots... I had to confiscate a bottle of alcohol from a group of Marines coming home from Afghanistan. It was celebration champagne...

On the other hand he describes at length how "random screening" loopholes allowed employees to abuse their power:

But we would also sometimes pull a passenger’s bag or give a pat down because he or she was rude. We always deployed the same explanation: “It’s just a random search.”... Then there was the infamous “guyspeak” in my “Insider’s TSA Dictionary.” One of the first terms I learned from fellow male TSA officers at O’Hare was “Hotel Papa,” code language for an attractive female passenger—“Hotel” standing for “hot,” and “Papa” for, well, use your imagination.

We've made a very precise point about random screening over and over and over and over again: actual random screening is a myth, and what actually happens is that agents get to make their own choices based on their own biases. If those agents are douchebags, those choices could be to bad touch and humiliate passengers. We've also made the point more broadly in the context of letting TSA agents make choices based on "common sense," but it's especially true when discussing random screening.

You can complain about setting strict rules for TSA agents, so that they end up searching the elderly, or you can complain about the absence of strict rules, so that TSA agents get to pick-and-choose-and-abuse travelers. But choose already. We're genuinely running out of ways to write this.

[Photo: fox6now / YouTube]

Archived Comments:


it would appear some of the tsa agents are low lifes...with the hot papa and all. ARe they really THAT DESPERATE!!!