An American who worked for years on airport security has exposed some unsavory truths. Many of the measures employed are ineffective, unnecessary and demeaning to fliers. Jason Harrington, who was a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer from 2007 until 2013 has blown the whistle on the pointless procedures we all go through as we head for our flights. A lot of it boils down to being an elaborate farce.
Anyone who has ever wondered if their naked body is being judged as they stand in a full-body scanner will be chilled to hear the answer. The answer is yes; judged, and laughed at. Staff would indulge in all the “old crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size” and gawp with incredulity at the overweight, those who had had operations, and individuals with piercings. All this would be discussed over the two-way radios. The only thing they could not detect in these naked snapshots were any signs of guns or explosives. They did not show up.
Full-body scanners, by this account, merely serve a purpose as a ludicrous peep-show for immature airport workers, and none whatsoever in the deterrence of crime.
This was the answer international security expert, Nigel Richardson, came to when he was asked by the UK newspaper, the Telegraph, to look into airport security. He determined that many of the measures used by airports worldwide served no other purpose than to “perpetuate a climate of fear.” Among the issues he high-lighted as pointless, were the arbitrary on/off removal of shoes and belts, and the ban on some sharp objects like nail scissors. He saw these as being there purely for public relations, and nothing whatsoever to do with passenger safety. All they did was increase the workload of “already hard-pressed security personnel” and cause confusion.
Chris Yates, another eminent security consultant, agrees with Richardson. He has been quoted as saying that airport security has never “stopped anybody from doing anything, anywhere.”
The confessions of Jason Harrington both underscore and confirm these opinions. Writing on the website Politico, he has detailed the way people’s abnormalities were on “full, awful display” as he and colleagues would look on, and often giggle. A woman who had had a mastectomy would show up with a pixellated region across her chest. A man with a hernia would have a “bulging, blistery growth” around the groin. Caught off guard by the flash of the machine, people would pull faces, and these too were subject to ridicule.
Operatives had code names for attractive females about to pass through, these were tags like “Code Red” or “Fanny Pack.” He does not go so far as to indicate these were then selected for intimate pat-downs, but he does confirm that nationals of 12 countries were, up until 2010, always picked for enhanced screening and bag search. These were Iran, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Cuba, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Lebanon, North Korea and Sudan. Harrington now feels guilt at the amount of time he had to pat down a lady wearing a niquab or a thwawb. He also regrets having to check the crotch areas of elderly people or children. He calls it the “post 9/11 security show.”
Confiscation of bottles of alcohol is another subject where Harrington now feels shame. He admits he and his colleagues would often end up drinking them. One time he had to take a bottle of champagne from a homecoming hero. The passenger was a Marine who had been wounded in action and was a double amputee in a wheelchair. He was on his way back from Afghanistan, yet was not permitted to celebrate his return to the US on grounds of “national security.” In such instances, Harrington now insists, airport security is nothing more than an elaborate farce.
The TSA have responded to the claims made by Harrington in what they call his “opinion piece.” First and foremost the type of scanners they use have changed they say, to ones which are less revealing. In 165 US airports they now have 700 Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) units which have inbuilt automated target recognition software. They also said that their code of practice was that every single passenger should be treated with “dignity and respect.” Any TSA officer who did not comply, would get “swift disciplinary action.”
Harrington still plans to write a book about his experiences in the TSA and he continues with his blog, Taking Sense Away.
This comes as new fears about toothpaste have emerged for flights in and out of Russia for the Sochi winter Olympics, with gels as well as liquids now being confiscated. The ban on liquids over 100ml was brought in 2006 after three Britons tried to smuggle explosives on board a trans-Atlantic plane in soft drinks. Although that is eight years ago now, passengers are accustomed to surrendering their water bottles and packing up their toiletries in clear bags. Everyone wants to feel as safe as possible when flying, but reports such as Harrington’s do not reassure. They seem to make the procedure of going through security into more of a pantomime than a precaution. A recent poll indicated that 84 percent of fliers did think airport security measures had gone too far and it was time to pull back on the elaborate farce.
By Kate Henderson