X-Rays, Mashed Potatoes and Agents Paid to Do Nothing: Eight Horrible Claims From an Ex-TSA Agent

Jason Harrington shocked the nation when he confirmed in his January write-up, “Dear America, I Saw You Naked,” what many Americans had already feared about the Transportation Security Administration: That it’s a bloated organization managed by petty bureaucrats.

An air traveler is patted down after passing through a full-body scanner at the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport, Feb. 20, 2014 in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

Now, three months after Politico published the former TSA agent’s original exposé, Harrington is back with more details on the federal organization that has for the past decade harassed American flyers. But instead of focusing solely on the antics of low-level TSA employees, as his original piece did, Harrington has decided to shine a light on the agency’s management.

“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,” Harrington wrote. “And yet the most common concerns among TSA screeners usually stem from organizational flaws closer to the checkpoint floor.”

Here are eight horrible claims from Harrington’s latest TSA exposé:

8. Mashed Potatoes

Harrington recounts the time TSA agents actually argued with a woman over whether her mashed potatoes should be classified as 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,” Harrington wrote, adding that the official TSA line claims that, “Liquids, aerosols and gels over 3.4 ounces cannot be brought through security.”

The woman’s potatoes were confiscated.

7. Fish Out of Water

A TSA officer almost killed a woman’s pet goldfish: “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.”

6. Pacify

The TSA is wary of almost everything, even baby products: “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.”

5. They’re Watching

Since publishing his first article on the TSA, Harrington is certain that his actions have come under close scrutiny from the federal government: “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.”

4. Arbitrary Promotion

Harrington identified one of the biggest management problems with the TSA: Its arbitrary system of promotion.

“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,” he wrote. “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.”

3. Certified

The former TSA agent called the agency’s annual re-certification system its second-biggest failing.

The system involves a TSA supervisor observing an agent perform mock searches on test subjects — and that’s it. It’s a nearly two-hour test that requires agents perform pretend searches, and that’s how they become “certified.”

“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,” Harrington wrote.

An air traveler places his shoes in a bin before passing through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security check at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on February 20, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The TSA recently launched a PreCheck program that allows those enrolled in a trusted traveler network to enter about 100 US airports through a special security lane where they dont have to take off shoes, belts and jackets or remove laptops, liquids or gels. AFP PHOTO / ROBYN BECK ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
An air traveler places his shoes in a bin before passing through the TSA security check at Los Angeles International Airport, Feb. 20, 2014 in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

2. No One Is Listening

Yellow complaint cards are available at airports to anyone who wants to voice their concerns about the TSA.

But no one actually reads them.

“[T] he yellow complaint cards passengers are given to voice their concerns are widely regarded as a joke by TSA supervisors,” according to Harrington. “’Rarely does anyone actually read those’ was something I heard all the time.”

1. Billion Dollar Babies

The U.S. government has sunk more than $1 billion into a program that pays so-called “behavior detection officers” to look for suspicious behavior among travelers.

“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,” Harrington wrote. “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.”

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