by JASON EDWARD HARRINGTON
On Jan. 4, 2010, when my boss saw my letter to the editor in the New York Times, we had a little chat.
It was rare for the federal security director at Chicago O’Hare to sit down with her floor-level Transportation Security Administration officers—it usually presaged a termination—and so I was nervous as I settled in across the desk from her. She was a woman in her forties with sharp blue eyes that seemed to size you up for placement in a spreadsheet. She held up a copy of the newspaper, open to the letters page. My contribution, under the headline “To Stop a Terrorist: No Lack of Ideas,” was circled in blue pen.
One week earlier, on Christmas Day 2009, a man named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had tried to detonate 80 grams of a highly explosive powder while on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. He had smuggled the bomb aboard the plane in a pouch sewn into his underwear. It was a masterpiece of post-9/11 tragicomedy: Passengers tackled and restrained Abdulmutallab for the remainder of the flight, and he succeeded in burning nothing besides his own genitals.
The TSA saw the near-miss as proof that aviation security could not be ensured without the installation of full-body scanners in every U.S. airport. But the agency’s many critics called its decision just another knee-jerk response to an attempted terrorist attack. I agreed, and wrote to the Times saying as much. My boss wasn’t happy about it.
“The problem we have here is that you identified yourself as a TSA employee,” she said.
They were words I had heard somewhere before. Suddenly, the admonishment from our annual conduct training flashed through my head—self-identifying as a government employee in a public forum may be grounds for termination.
I was shocked. I had been sure the letter would fall under the aegis of public concern, but it looked as though my boss wanted to terminate me. I scrambled for something to say.
“I thought the First Amendment applied here.”
She leaned back in her chair, hands up, palms outfaced. Now she was on the defensive.
“I’m not trying to tread upon your First Amendment rights,” she said. “All I’m saying is: Couldn’t you have run those First Amendment rights past the legal department first?”
She dismissed me with the assurance that we would discuss the matter further at some point in the future.
I never heard anything more about it during the next three years of my employment at the TSA, save for some grumbling from one upper-level manager (“What’s this I hear about you writing letters to the New York Times? You can’t do that here.”) It was the last time I would speak out as a government employee under my real name.
But it was by no means the last time I would speak out.
My pained relationship with government security had started three years earlier. I had just returned to Chicago to finish my bachelor’s degree after a two-year stint in Florida. I needed a job to help pay my way through school, and the TSA’s call-back was the first one I received. It was just a temporary thing, I told myself—side income for a year or two as I worked toward a degree in creative writing. It wasn’t like a recession would come along and lock me into the job or anything.
It was May 2007. 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. We drank and talked politics on the balcony in the evenings, pausing only to sneer at hipsters strumming back-porch Beatles sing-a-longs. By night, I took part in barbed criticism of U.S foreign policy; by day, I spent eight hours at O’Hare in a federal uniform, solemnly carrying out orders passed down from headquarters.
What Those TSA Guys Are Really Saying
Definitions in “The Insider’s TSA Dictionary” taken from James Harrington’s blog, “Taking Sense Away.”
10-100: Originally, CB radio lingo for a bathroom break. This is what some TSA officers say when they’re tired of their co-workers.
Alfalfa: TSA malespeak for an attractive female passenger.
Baby-shower-opt-out: When a woman opts out of the full body scanner and accidentally lets slip the explanation: “I don’t want to go through the scanner. I’m pregnant,” evoking a shriek from her fellow traveling companions, “Why didn’t you tell us, Becky? OH EM GEE!?” A mini celebration then takes place right there in the line. It is one of the few heartwarming things that ever come about due to the full body scanners.
BBC: Bogus Bag Check, or Bullshit Bag Check. What happens when a not-too-bright x-ray operator decides to call a bag search.
Bin Loader: What a TSA employee is for the first month of his or her employment.
Code Red: Officer malespeak. Denotes an attractive female passenger wearing red.
Fanny Pack, Lane 2: Code for an attractive female passenger.
Jif Peanut Butter: One of the main things you’ll be saving the world from in your day-to-day activities as a sworn federal security officer devoted to protecting the nation from the existential terrorist threat.
Opt out: A smart passenger.
Retaliatory wait time: What happens when a TSA officer doesn’t like your attitude. There are all sorts of ways a TSA officer can subtly make you wait longer to get through security, citing imaginary alarms, going “above the SOP” for “a more thorough screening,” pretending that something in your bag or on your full body image needs to be resolved—the punitive possibilities are endless, and there are many tricks in the screener’s bag.
Run the Cat Through the X-Ray (idiomatic): Denotes a passenger, usually someone from out of country, who is so unfamiliar and lost in U.S. airport security that they are likely to make significant errors, such as running their cats through the x-ray tunnel. Ex: “We need an officer to go out and help that flustered gentleman out front before he runs the cat through the x-ray.”
Suitcase Surgeon: Informal term for a TSA employee, derived from the blue gloves they wear. Used ironically, because it’s not like what the TSA ever does requires anything remotely approaching the mental capacity of a surgical procedure anyway, even though you may feel as though you’ve undergone a surgical procedure after they’re done with you.
TSA Baby: Officer slang for the result of procreation between two TSA officers. This is not advised, because statistics show that the likelihood of a TSA baby turning out to be a mediocrity who reflexively snatches and cries incessantly about people’s liquids, gels, creams and aerosols and who tells airplane pilots that they are not allowed to bring Swiss army knives on the plane because they may use it to hijack the plane are substantially high.
White Shirt: A TSA employee who still believes his or her job is a matter of national security.
Xray Xray Xray!: Code for an attractive female passenger, general.
Yellow Alert: Code for an attractive female passenger, yellow clothing.
Ziptop baggie: A magical thing that renders liquids safe for airplanes.
I hated it from the beginning. 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—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.
There I was, an aspiring satire writer, earnestly acting on orders straight out of Catch-22.
I quickly discovered I was working for an agency whose morale was among the lowest in the U.S. government. In private, most TSA officers I talked to told me they felt the agency’s day-to-day operations represented an abuse of public trust and funds.
Charges of racial profiling by the TSA made headlines every few months, and working from behind the scenes we knew what was prompting those claims. Until 2010 (not long after the TSA standard operating procedure manual was accidentially 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. 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:
Syria, Algeria, Afghanistan
Iraq, Iran, Yemen
People’s Republic of North Korea.
People holding passports from the selectee countries were automatically pulled aside for full-body pat-downs and had their luggage examined with a fine-toothed comb. The selectee list was purely political, of course, with diplomacy playing its role as always: There was no Saudi Arabia or Pakistan on a list of states historically known to harbor, aid and abet terrorists. 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.” So it was mostly the Middle Easterners who got the special screening.