Former TSA Agent Explains Full Body Scanners Didn't Work, But Did Let Him See You Naked

from the but-of-course dept

There’s been less discussion over the TSA’s full body scanners recently, especially since the TSA’s brief but insanely expensive (with YOUR money!) experiment with the “nudie scanners” went away. However, Politico has a fascinating story from a former TSA agent revealing that much of what you suspect about the TSA is true: they were able to see you naked even as the scanners had little actual value. They do target attractive women and have a rather long list of official sounding “code names” for good looking women so they can alert each other to them while appearing professional. On those nudie scanners, he has the story of the guy who taught them how to use it, who was then asked what he thought of the machines:

“They’re shit,” he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.

We quickly found out the trainer was not kidding: Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.

Of course, what he leaves out is the real reason why these were installed in airports across the country. It had nothing to do with terrorist threats, but the fact that former DHS boss Michael Chertoff was getting rich off of helping to sell them to the government agency he used to run.

As for looking at you naked, yes, the TSA folks would look and laugh:

Most of my co-workers found humor in the I.O. room on a cruder level. 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. 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. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred poses—mouths agape, à la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels.

There were other types of bad behavior in the I.O. room—I personally witnessed quite a bit of fooling around, in every sense of the phrase. Officers who were dating often conspired to get assigned to the I.O. room at the same time, where they analyzed the nude images with one eye apiece, at best. Every now and then, a passenger would throw up two middle fingers during his or her scan, as though somehow aware of the transgressions going on.

And yes, he talks about the ridiculousness of confiscating nail clippers and liquids:

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—the implied logic being that pilots could use the nail clippers to hijack the very planes they were flying.

Once, in 2008, I had to confiscate a bottle of alcohol from a group of Marines coming home from Afghanistan. It was celebration champagne intended for one of the men in the group—a young, decorated soldier. He was in a wheelchair, both legs lost to an I.E.D., and it fell to me to tell this kid who would never walk again that his homecoming champagne had to be taken away in the name of national security.

Basically, pretty much everything we already knew about the TSA and its security theater seems to be more or less accurate. There’s a lot more in the article, but it really paints a picture of typical bureaucratic insanity. The whole setup of the TSA seems designed to do two things: to help make a few ex-gov’t officials very wealthy while giving the public appearance that current government officials are “doing something” about terrorism.

As we’ve noted in the past, even the TSA knows that there’s not much of a threat directed at air travel these days, which is probably why they’ve started giving up the pretense and waving large groups of folks through at times.

Of course, beyond the government officials getting rich part of this, the simple fact is that the political incentives here always will lead to these kinds of ridiculous results. When there is, inevitably, some other attack, questions will be asked about why we weren’t “doing enough.” So everyone has incentives to do as much useless stuff as possible, even if it’s all really useless. That way they can talk about everything they had already been doing — and then layering on some other idiotic idea (like taking off your shoes, or not carrying water bottles through security) and go on with the myth that they’re “protecting” people. It’s just that sometimes this leads to bored TSA agents staring at tons of people naked based on no warrant, no threat and no damned reason at all.

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Comments on “Former TSA Agent Explains Full Body Scanners Didn't Work, But Did Let Him See You Naked”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Which again shows just why we don’t need the TSA.

Face it, our parents flew in slower planes yet got there much faster than we do today. Not only that but somehow, they managed to fly with nail clippers, cigarette lighters, and jars of liquid and the planes made it there without falling out of the sky. Yet today, it’s a concern that passengers not have this stuff?

For the budget conscious congress, why is this branch of government not on the chopping block to save money?

S.M.I. says:

Re: Re:

Not just passengers. According to the former TSA employee, even the pilot(s) aren’t allowed to bring nail clippers on-board, with the (sad excuse for) logic being that it’s necessary to prevent the pilot(s) from using those nail clippers to hijack the planes that they’re already flying.

The truth really is stranger than fiction.

Anonymous Coward says:

Congress, DOJ, are you listening?

Why is it Congress can waste millions of dollars investigating Clinton for getting a blowjob from someone other than his wife which wasn’t illegal, but when the people are subjected to this sort of illegal abuse, they can’t find time to go after those responsible. why is it the DOJ can put all every imaginable resource into illegally raiding Kim Dotcom’s mansion at the behest of the MPAA, and hound Aaron Swartz until he kills himself over what should be a civil matters IF what they were indeed guilty of infringement, but you don’t have time to even investigate much less prosecute such a gross miscarriage of justice against such a wide swath of the general population. WTF is wrong with you people?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Congress, DOJ, are you listening?

That was prior to it and if they had kept the investigation to that then it would have been fine. But no, they had to go on ad nauseum thorough investigation of every detail of something that pertained only to his private life wasting millions of dollars in the process. And in the end, did the impeachment have anything to do with charges related to Whitewater? No of course not. That was related to him lying about questions about his blowjob which was none of their damn business in the first place.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Congress, DOJ, are you listening?

I still say when they first asked him about that he should have told them that he wasn’t going to answer questions that were related to his private life so they need to come back to him when they have questions that related to the business of running the country. I would have had a lot more respect for him if he had done that.

SMworld says:

Re: Re: Re: Congress, DOJ, are you listening?

Why are you sticking up for Clinton? So upset that he got impeached? Regardless of the reason they did it. It’s good congress used money and time to impeach him.
Bill Clinton and his wife are war criminals and rapists and pedophiles. Clinton was even on Jeff Epstein list of pedos. He deserved impeachment and jail.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Congress, DOJ, are you listening?

John Fenderson (profile), Jan 31st, 2014 @ 12:47pm

Re: Re: Congress, DOJ, are you listening?
Whitewater was a complete non-scandal. It was part of an orchestrated attempt to destroy the Clinton presidency, but was too feeble to actually have any real effect. The lying about the BJ bit was all they could come up with. Weak sauce.

Whitewater aside… you are a prime example of what is wrong with this nation. You should never support a public official after they lied under oath regardless of party. Typical my party can do no wrong attitude that will destroy, and not save a thing!

I wonder how much weak sauce you would be eating if a female member of your family was straight up taken advantage of by a superior that lied under oath? Greater men than Clinton have been ruined for less.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Congress, DOJ, are you listening?

When did he say he supported Clinton? All he said was that the basis for Congress’s impeachment of him was weak. Which it was.

She wasn’t underage. There was absolutely no evidence presented that she was coerced in any way. All accounts suggest that it was 100% consensual by both of them. Sure he was married but last I checked, adultery isn’t a crime. Sure he could have been divorced and sued by his wife. So nothing about the act was illegal and none of it had anything to do with the business of performing his duties as president.

So I ask again, how was the entire line of questioning any business of Congress and why did they spending millions of tax dollars pursuing it?

Smworld says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Congress, DOJ, are you listening?

Well by the way both of you are commenting you clearly are supporting Clinton even if you don’t like him. Even if the impeachment was done for a of reason of lying under oath. It don’t change the fact that Bill Clinton should of gotten impeached. He is a war criminal and pedophile. He abused many innocent woman. And took many innocent lives.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Congress, DOJ, are you listening?

You should never support a public official after they lied under oath regardless of party. Typical my party can do no wrong attitude that will destroy, and not save a thing!

You couldn’t be more off base if you tried. First, I’m not a Democrat. Second, I never supported Clinton prior to that, and I certainly didn’t support him after.

However, the BJ business was nothing but political theater. As near as I can tell, every politician lies, under oath or not, so it’s hard to get all upset about the lies that don’t actually matter when there are so many that do.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Congress, DOJ, are you listening?

Ken Starr was brought in to handle the Whitewater investigation. He couldn’t find enough evidence about it to do anything with it so it went nowhere. The affair happened while Whitewater was going on. After the deed happened Monica Lewinsky confided in Linda Tripp who brought it to the attention of Ken Starr. There was also the fact that Monica had filed an affidavit in the Paula Jones case against Clinton stating that they had not had a relationship which is where the allegations that Clinton convinced her to lie about it came from. Linda Tripp also had convinced Monica Lewinsky to save her dress that had semen stains on it, not have it cleaned, and eventually turn it over to Ken Starr who since he had nothing substantial to go after Clinton on from the Whitewater investigation decided to get Congress to pursue the affair and when he denied it and they had the stained dress with DNA evidence that they could use to prove he lied about it, they made a big deal about that and used it to start impeachment proceedings. Really though they had nothing to do with one another other than happening about the same time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Congress, DOJ, are you listening?

Ok here’s another instance of Congress wasting money sticking it’s nose where it doesn’t belong…

Will someone please explain WTF Congress is doing investigating professional baseball players for violating MLB’s ban on performance enhancing substances? How the fuck is that any of Congress’s business? Shouldn’t that be handled by well… MLB!?! Since when are MLB rules federal laws that are the concern of Congress?

Anonymous Coward says:

“I was even required to confiscate nail clippers from airline pilots?the implied logic being that pilots could use the nail clippers to hijack the very planes they were flying.”


Really? He really should have included the name of the supervisor that required him to do this so that we know who to remove from their position and that person should then be publicly subjugated to a mocking of epic proportions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

But they have authors and they have interpretations. From the statement made I can infer that he interpreted the policy not to apply to pilots but was required by someone higher up that had a different interpretation of that policy. And if the policy was written so explicitly that he had to interpret the policy to apply to a pilot then the author of that policy is the idiot that needs to be removed from their position and publicly mocked into oblivion.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

For all we know if the Pilots on 9/11 had had nail clippers things might have turned out entirely differently….

Can’t you just picture the hijackers and pilots facing off in a fencing match with a boxcutter vs a nail clipper (one of those bit toenail ones hopefully)… slash, parry, slash

Sounds almost as silly as the pilot needing nail clipper to “take control” of the plane he is flying…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’m sure this supervisor didn’t think the pilot would use the nail clippers to hijack the plane, but was thinking instead of all the terrorists and hijackers that are just waiting for an opportunity like this to wrestle the nail clippers away from the pilot, and use them to spread fear and panic far and wide among the innocent passengers.

Can you just imagine being trapped in a metal tube with a maniac with clippers, threatening everyone with a bad manicure?

These terrorists live for this kind of stuff, you know.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: well, this IS humanity...

trish, Jan 31st, 2014 @ 1:12pm

well, this IS humanity…
So nothing surprising here!

People should remember these things the next time they say they have nothing to hide.

If people are going to be okay with their government having zero respect for them, then they should keep quite when they are abused by their betters.

Anonymous Coward says:

Leaks of TSA misconduct and abuse – whether stealing from luggage, abusing the passenger screening process, or whatever else – will simply be brushed off on a few bad employees. The biggest problem is that the TSA can’t back down now, even when they are forced to admit that this ‘security theater’ is nearly worthless, because to back down is to admit defeat. (and risk having their budget cut or even eliminated)

The companies that make their living building and maintaining these expensive machines are not going to surrender without a fight. Neither are the labor unions representing the TSA workers — as tens of thousands of jobs (including layers of high-ranking bureaucratic posts) would be lost in a time of high unemployment. Like all entrenched federal programs, few politicians will want to take on this Frankenstein monster.

At this point the best that we can possibly hope for is for the TSA-Industrial Complex to move its in-your-pants security theater from the airports to some other place … like border crossings, perhaps.

Anonymous Coward says:


If the NSA was as good at using their Crystal Ball (aka Mass Surveillance) as they say they are, then the TSA is truly unnecessary.
If the TSA is as good at using their Crystal Ball (aka Naked Scanners)as they say they are, then the NSA is truly unnecessary.

If the NSA wants me to believe their tactics work, do away with the TSA!

I mean can’t they just stop the terrorist before they get to the airport?

Anonymous Coward says:

You don't understand

The 9/11 attack was an attack on the ruling class. They hit the financial sector, the Pentagon and attempted the White House. It has the ruling class scared. So they don’t care how the sheeple are treated or if there will be health effects from long term use of the scanners on the TSA agents or sheeple.

Pragmatic says:

Re: You don't understand

Yeah, but the actual people killed weren’t ruling anything, they were just doing their jobs. You can’t justify 9/11. It happened, it was bad, and it hurt us all in the long run because it’s being used to justify the mass surveillance and the overreach we’re experiencing now.

So no, it was an attack on us all, and we’re all paying for it.

HSO says:

Same old crap

The USA says the same every time I’m not a terrorist do I look like a terrorist do I look like an Arab. Every day I listen to Americans say the say crap if it was not for you people sticking you’re noises in other countries business people could keep there liquids. As for body scanners they do work if you are trained corrictly the TSA are poorly trained in all things they do from hand searches to queue management

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