The 5 Best Answers From a Fascinating Q&A With an Ex-TSA Agent

Over on Slashdot yesterday, ex-TSA agent and controversial blogger extraordinaire Jason Harrington answered users' questions about the life of a TSA agent. And as one of the TSA's most outspoken critics, Harrington isn't one for tiptoeing around sensitive issues—which, much to TSA's dismay, makes for wonderfully fascinating Q&As.

Harrington was answering questions for over four hours, so there is quite a bit of info to sort through. We've picked out the five most interesting and/or surprising answers below, but it's definitely worth going over to Slashdot to check out the whole thing. And if that still isn't enough to satisfy your craving for some good, ol' fashioned TSA bashing, you can head on over to Harrington's blog to really get your fill.

On the weirdest thing he's ever seen someone try to get through security:

I would say the all around most interesting weird thing that occasionally shows up would be exotic pets. People trying to bring exotic baby snakes from the U.S. to Britain, for example. There were cases of that happening at O'Hare, I was on the checkpoint for a snake smuggling situation, someone had a bag of baby snakes taped to his leg, I believe it turned out to be. .... Off the top of my head ... I would say that another of the funniest things that turned up sometimes were people wrapping their bottles of alcohol in tinfoil, thinking that would prevent the x-ray operator from being able to tell that it was a large bottle of liquids. One Russian lady did that at least twice that I knew of, on separate occasions. An old lady who, each time, acted as though she had no idea why her vodka was wrapped in tinfoil, or how it got there, claiming to speak no English.

On whether TSA agents should be able to make judgement calls on the spot:

I used to think that every TSA employee should have the right to make judgement calls on the job— to use common sense. To look at a jar of peanut butter, look at the owner, size up the situation, and say "This can go on the plane. You and your peanut butter aren't a threat, despite what the official rules say." ... But I eventually realized I was wrong; I eventually came to regret most of what I said in the letter to the Times, at least about behavior detection. Quite frankly, the majority of TSA employees aren't the brightest stars in the galaxy. Many of them are perfectly intelligent, perfectly nice people. But the majority are not, in my experience. To be frank, I think it would be a really bad idea to give the entire TSA workforce the power to make judgement calls and arbitrarily decide who gets pulled aside for extra screening, and who doesn't.

On how to get through security as quickly as possible:

I noticed a lot of clever frequent flyers who learned to work the opt-out system to their advantage. If the line to go through the full body scanner was long, and if the passenger saw that there were spare screeners hanging around who would be able to quickly do an opt-out pat down, the passenger would get his or her stuff onto the x-ray belt, opt-out, get taken for the pat-down immediately, and be done with it all before the people standing in line for the full body scanner.

...The old wheelchair trick would get used here and there: a couple or a family would have one of their own in a wheelchair, claiming the inability to walk, and thereby get ushered to the front of the security line due to it. Other than that, it's just obvious stuff: no liquids in the luggage, no huge clutter in the luggage, avoid food items larger than snack-size, since an apple or an orange can look like a liquid that "needs to be called for a bagcheck" to an inexperienced x-ray operator— a hunk of meat or a loaf of bread will look even more like a questionable organic item, e.g. plastic explosives, and so will also likely slow you down.

On what TSA agents aren't allowed to do:

TSA agents are told that they are not allowed to physically restrain a passenger in any way, or use force in any way. If a passenger just screams "Fuck this" and runs through security, TSA agents are, by agency policy, not allowed to do anything besides follow that person and call for help. The agent isn't supposed to even lay a hand on that passenger's shoulder to try to get him or her to stop.

On what happens to all those lighters:

Lighters I'm pretty sure are disposed of as hazardous material, as opposed to auctioned off. I would research it via Google right now but my internet connection is mysteriously sucking right now and this window is about all I can count on. I would think that there would be some sort of law preventing the TSA from wrapping up hundreds of pounds of flammable items and shipping them off to be auctioned. Most everything else gets auctioned away by state governments.... You can find websites for most states where confiscated airport items are being auctioned off.

Obviously, food items should not be eligible for this (i.e., hummus, apple butter, anything considered a liquid or gel substance) because what if someone eats that shit and dies for any number of reasons. I would honestly hope that the same would go for any product that could be consumed, so the alcohol should really not be auctioned off, either, in any ways, even if it is an awesome bottle of killer fine wine, because what if someone just brought some poisoned shit to the airport on purpose. Large snow globes, Swiss Army knives, all other types of knives, Leatherman tools, golf clubs, baseball bats, club-like items in general, lava lamps, etc. etc. etc., all get sent to state organizations that auction the items off, as far as I know.

[Slashdot]