I recently had a bad flashback. I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep when I was hit with a vivid memory from my time as a Transportation Security Administration officer at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. It was 2008, and I was conducting a bag check when three of my TSA colleagues got into an argument with a passenger at the checkpoint. Things got pretty heated.
The subject of debate? Whether mashed potatoes were a liquid or a solid.
In the end, of course, the TSA agents had the last word: Since the potatoes took the shape of their container, they were determined to be a liquid—specifically, a gel. That’s the official TSA line. “Liquids, aerosols and gels over 3.4 ounces cannot be brought through security.” The potatoes were forcibly surrendered.
If you’re anything like me, you may have thought, “Well, mashed potatoes are technically gelatinous, so…”—which sends one down the rabbit hole of bureaucratic absurdity that ends with a passenger looking a TSA officer in the eye and saying, “Do you really think my mashed potatoes are a terrorist threat?” And the officer, if he or she is just an all-around tool, saying: “Ma’am, possibly. Rules are rules.”
I’ve had a lot of flashbacks lately—nearly buried memories that have come flooding back ever since Politico Magazine published “Dear America, I Saw You Naked,” my first-person account of working for the TSA and anonymously blogging about my adventures in airport security.
Another one: It’s 2010, and a passenger is trying to bring her live goldfish through security. One of my co-workers informs her that the fish can go through but the water cannot. The woman is on the verge of tears when a supervisor steps in to save the fish’s life.
And another: Working alongside a screener who always demanded that pacifiers be removed from infants’ mouths and submitted for X-ray screening before the babies and their mothers were permitted to pass through the metal detectors.
Perhaps the biggest surprise to come out of what I now see as the life-changing experience of having my story go viral is the realization of just how much I still have left to tell about my six years at the TSA—the strange checkpoint happenings, the colorful passengers and the outrageous, real-life TSA characters.
Americans took my initial report as confirmation of what they always dreaded about a humiliating experience so many millions of them had shared. But I also realized that there was a part of the story I hadn’t fully told: about a government agency and its leaders, and how they came up with the absurd policies that turned me and my colleagues into just-following-orders Mashed Potato Police.
Soon after the article went up on the Politico website, I sent a note to my editor marveling at the fact that I had 30 new Twitter followers, up from a grand total of 240. I’d thought my article would get passed around in government and civil-liberties circles—a curiosity story of an anonymous TSA blogger unmasking himself, and that would be it.
Little did I know that within a few hours I’d be getting an average of three emails a minute—in the middle of the night—including interview requests from Good Morning America, Today, NBC Nightly News, The Kelly File and many others. And while my 30 new followers had at first seemed like a big deal, a few days later I had more than 5,000. Stephen Colbert even joked about my story. Stephen Colbert!
I got more emails in response to the article than I had in my entire year and a half writing my blog, Taking Sense Away, even when I revealed on the blog that the “nude” scanners didn’t work and that TSA employees were making predictably awful jokes about passengers’ bodies. I got only one piece of hate mail in response to my Politico Magazine article: an anonymous message that informed me that I was a “goon” because, it said, “Once a TSA goon, always a TSA goon.”
A few people did reach out to warn me that I am almost certainly being monitored by intelligence agencies now that I have revealed myself as a critic of the TSA. “My ex-husband is now a senior executive at the NSA at Fort Meade,” one said. “The NSA will probably track you.”
I’m not sure how credible these warnings are, but after being the subject of two official government responses—in which TSA denied and downplayed the claims made on my blog and in my essay—it’s hard not to worry that I’m being watched. I’ve received so many letters making this point that I now take it for granted that my every online move is being monitored by someone, somewhere. If the truth is more banal, so be it: I’d much rather be paranoid and wrong.
Most of the responses from current and former TSA employees were just as supportive as those from the general public—and that was another surprise. Quite a few read like letters from inmates: “Hi Jason. Remember me? We worked Terminal 1 together for a year-long bid. I am so glad you made it out and are doing something interesting with your life! Patting down crotches all day was the worst, wasn’t it?”
But some TSA employees saw my essay as an attempt to smear frontline workers. They were angry that I seemed to place responsibility for the agency’s problems squarely on the shoulders of low-ranking employees, rather than focusing on upper management and underlying organizational problems.
That was the argument in the email that gave me the most pause, a note from one of my former co-workers at O’Hare: “Obviously, TSA is not my dream job,” it said. “Sometimes I go home crying. I’d love it if you wrote more about the incompetency of the managers who got their jobs because of who they know. What you did will definitely make my job harder, because who will be attacked? Every worker on the floor in a uniform. Am I angry? No. But write more. Tell about those unqualified managers who take no part in the checkpoint operation, and who humiliate their workers. I know you’ve seen it all. Tell them.”
It’s an important point, and in fact that was my goal in launching my blog while still working on the TSA payroll: to call attention to the agency’s systemic flaws, while also defending the good, hardworking members of the nearly 50,000-deep frontline TSA workforce.
The agency was the product of a panicked national moment—fertile soil for poor decision-making—and irrationality was etched into the TSA’s DNA. Like most passengers, the average screener regrets the atmosphere of “permanent emergency” that has permeated airport checkpoints since 9/11,a reactionary culture passed down from TSA leadership year after year. And yet the most common concerns among TSA screeners usually stem from organizational flaws closer to the checkpoint floor.
One of the agency’s biggest problems is its arbitrary promotion system, which is also the source of a lot of outrage in letters I’ve gotten from current and former TSA workers. I saw signs of rampant cronyism and favoritism at O’Hare while I was there, and the emails I’ve received from around the country contain similar observations. And it’s not just me seeing this: Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced it would launch an investigation after a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report found “rampant” favoritism at the TSA.
The second most common cause for complaint that I’ve heard from floor-level employees is the yearly re-certification system. While I was there, an officer’s suitability for his or her job was determined in large part by a two-hour test administered once a year, in which a TSA screener was put before two clipboard-wielding test administrators and observed while giving patdowns and doing bag searches on test subjects.
In practice, this meant that screeners who were rude to co-workers and passengers or just generally incompetent but had made it through their probationary period could hang onto their jobs by learning to work the system. All they had to do was give a convincing two-hour performance once a year—their conduct the rest of the time carried relatively little weight.
I personally experienced the absurdity of the TSA’s certification bureaucracy when I was informed one day—more than two years after I’d been hired, and after having checked thousands of driver’s licenses and passports—that I was not on-record as having ever received travel-document training from the TSA. Apparently, my certification papers had been lost, so I was pulled off the travel-document checking position on the spot and de-certified until I took the training class again.
“So does this mean,” I asked my supervisor, “that all the passports and driver’s licenses that I’ve cleared through security over the past two years have been security breaches?”
“Let’s not think about that,” my supervisor said.
Coming out from anonymity has allowed me to take part in trying to change the TSA: I was contacted by a staffer for Sen. Tom Coburn, the ranking member on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and the watchdog group Judicial Watch, which asked me to help in an investigation of assault and molestation claims against the TSA. I told Judicial Watch everything I knew about how complaints are handled at TSA checkpoints, including that the yellow complaint cards passengers are given to voice their concerns are widely regarded as a joke by TSA supervisors. “Rarely does anyone actually read those” was something I heard all the time.
I also signed a declaration for blogger and civil liberties activist Jonathan Corbett’s ongoing lawsuit against the TSA over its use of the body scanners, swearing that everything in my essay about the agency was true so that he could submit it as evidence. He had a 24-hour deadline; if I’d had more time I would have added a statement describing how I had repeatedly witnessed TSA breaking its promise to the public that the screeners who reviewed the full-body scanner images would never come face-to-face with the passengers whose naked bodies they’d just seen.
In a few places around the Internet, I’ve found my name and Edward Snowden’s mentioned in the same sentence—in one case framed as “Jason Harrington is no Edward Snowden.” But let’s be clear: I never fancied my crotch-patting tales to be on par with revelations of top-secret global surveillance programs.
One thing I wrote—my very first blog post, which informed the public that many TSA employees felt the radiation-emitting Rapiscan imagers were ineffective, and that the TSA tried to work around the machines’ inherent flaws with secret directives involving additional patdowns—qualified as a whistleblowing act. Other than that, I’ve mostly just been telling stories of public interest.
That doesn’t mean I don’t consider some of what the TSA has been doing the last few years scandalous; I do. Perhaps the most egregious waste of money at the agency right now is the SPOT program, in which “Behavior Detection Officers” are supposed to read people’s body language in order to identify would-be terrorists.
A decade in, we’ve now spent a billion dollars on the program despite the fact that it’s based on pseudoscience that has been debunked in one study after another, and there’s no proof it has turned up even one terrorist threat. Many of the Behavior Detection Officers I knew at O’Hare privately admitted that their program amounted to a lot of walking around all day getting paid a lot of money for doing nothing.
I used to hear all the time from both passengers and TSA agents that airport security would make great fodder for a TV show or book. Since my essay was published, I’ve heard from agents and producers who share that sentiment, and I recently signed with a literary agent. With any luck, my true TSA stories will be bound for bookshelves soon.
One of the most common questions I get now is: “Do you get extra screening when you fly these days?” I haven’t flown since my essay was published, but I will soon.
Then again, there’s a train that can get me to New York. It may take 16 hours longer, but sleeper cars are kind of nice, and besides, the nation’s railways are relatively clear of the Transportation Security Administration. For now.