5 things the TSA doesn’t want you to see

This is a picture of two Transportation Security Administration screeners leaving work last week.

But look closely. They’re nowhere near an airport. In fact, if you’ve ever been to Washington, then you’ll recognize the area just outside a Metro station near a congressional office building.

This is just one the images the TSA didn’t want you to see last week.

How do I know? Because when I asked the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems about the picture, its response was “off the record” — meaning that I’m not allowed to tell you what it said.

But a legislative assistant who works in a nearby office building filled in the details.

“The two agents were at the Capitol South Metro Station roughly between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Thursday evening,” he says. “They had a white table set up inside the station and were randomly inspecting purses and bags. There were also a few officers as you can see standing next to the dark blue van in the picture that were 10 yards or so past the table, standing watch.”

I was able to independently confirm that the TSA agents were there and that they were working. But beyond that, not much.

The fact that TSA operates outside of airports may come as a surprise to some Americans. The agency’s so-called Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams work mostly in mass transit in big metropolitan areas, but not exclusively. They’ve been seen at ballgames, truckstops and even reportedly got themselves banned from Amtrak stations for a short while.

But why were agents at the capitol? Maybe it had something to do with the presence of a group called Freedom to Travel USA?

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The TSA would probably prefer you didn’t watch this report about the organization, or its co-founder, Wendy Thomson.

But if you did, here’s what you’d learn: That almost every step the agency has taken to protect us from airborne terrorists has either been ineffective or wasteful, or both. And that they’ve got the data to prove it.

One Freedom to Travel member, who also happens to be a tenured mathematics professor, applied something called Bayes Rule and the concept of Base Rate Fallacy to the TSA’s behavior-detection methods. Stay with me, here. It revealed that even if TSA’s current screening practices were 100 percent effective, only one in 5 million flagged “high risk” passengers would be a terrorist.

“The experience to date is 50,000 false positives and 16 known terrorists not flagged,” says Thomson. “No known terrorists have ever been flagged.”

Here’s another image the TSA wishes you wouldn’t look at: it’s footage of Thomas Harkins. A decade ago, Harkins was a Catholic priest working at churches in New Jersey. But the Diocese of Camden reportedly removed him from the ministry because it found he sexually abused two young girls, and a third woman is now claiming to be one of his victims.

Guess where he works now? As a TSA supervisor at Philadelphia International Airport.

Don’t they screen their job applicants?

This doesn’t look good either. A TSA agent in Phoenix who reportedly insisted on screening a breast cancer survivor in public. TSA rules say you’re entitled to a private screening.

The result? The passenger, Cindy Gates, says she popped out her prosthetic breast and threw it.And finally, here’s a video the TSA really wishes it could delete, if such things were allowed. It’s the agency’s former administrator, Kip Hawley, who continues to promote a new book that’s highly critical of the agency.

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Hawley has called airport security an “unending nightmare” from which common sense has been removed, and like many other TSA critics, he thinks the time has come to reform the agency.

But we should see these images. All of them. Not because the TSA doesn’t want us to, but because more information makes us better travelers, and indeed, voters.

The problems of airport security don’t rise to the level of becoming an election-year issue, but this isn’t about airport security anymore. This is about getting scanned and frisked at a ballgame, the train station, and outside Congress.

The TSA doesn’t want us to see its documented arrogance and incompetence, doesn’t want us to know that it’s an out-of-control government agency. Because if we do — if we begin to connect the dots — maybe we’ll see how important this issue really is.

And maybe we’ll do something about it.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • frostysnowman

    A terrific group of TSA clips and stories today!  We all need to continue to question, question, and question the TSA and hold them accountable for their policies. 

    “Is there a resistance to working smarter?”

    This is so true of the TSA’s airport procedures.  They are the last line of defense in aviation security, not the first.  If they could look at themselves objectively, instead of trying to create a culture of fear, they would see they should be working smarter, hiring smarter people, and training them better.  What they do does not back up the law enforcement agencies on the ground that have been responsible for stopping the recent terrorist attempts.  It makes people who simply want to fly from point A to point B feel guilty until proven innocent by some TSA worker “following procedures” for a bloated government agency that I think is completely out of touch with what is really going on in the world.


  • Miami510

    O.K. Enough!

    How long will it take for Congress to require the TSA to “smarten
    up” and realize that screening in the interest of safety has moved in the wrong direction.  The Israeli system of very highly trained screeners asking, seemingly innocuous questions and looking for telling psychological and usually subconscious mannerisms, is both more
    effective and has more public acceptance. This also requires profiling and accurate intelligence databases. 

    Profiling has a bad reputation because it seems non-egalitarian.   It is
    something everyone does every day and shapes our behavior in relationship to everyone we meet.

  • Office_Bob

    I’m not trying to justify Harkins being hired but, as was pointed out in the news article, charges were never filed against him – so I’d guess those allegations wouldn’t have shown up during a background check unless the diocese was directly asked (not sure how deep the checks are) and, with the Church’s past history on the subject, they might not have mentioned them anyway.

    Asking if the TSA screens applicants might not be enough; we also need to determine just how deep those screenings go.

  • Elmo Clarity

    “They’ve been seen at ballgames”

    Did I miss something somewhere but when does being at a ballgame have anything to do with travel?  Did they hear the baseball term “home run” and figured there was travel involved in the game so needed to set up a check point?  I just wonder how much longer until these thugs set up a check point at the start of the Boston Marathon to screen the runners as they start the race.  Can’t have all those foreigner running through our cities without being screened now can we?

    Oh, in regards to the ballgame, if you refused to go through the TSA check, would you get your money back for your ticket like you would at the airport?

  • John P. Masseria

    The comment “if TSA’s current screening practices were 100 percent effective, only one in 5 million flagged “high risk” passengers would be a terrorist.” is mathematically inaccurate.

    If the screening practices were 100% effective then there would be no false positives or false negatives and therefore all flagged terrorists would indeed be a terrorist.

    That being said, no screening practice is 100% accurate.  The correct application of base rate fallacy needs to use the actual effective percentage.  See Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Base_rate_fallacy for more a more detailed analysis which shows that if the screening accuracy were 99% accurate, flagged terrorists would only really be a terrorist 1% of the time.

  • Extramail

    Why isn’t it a campaign issue? I have written my senator, Rand Paul, and encouraged him to continue his investigation of the TSA. As I have continued to point out to anyone who will listen, I feel safer traveling with my fellow airline passengers than I do having been assaulted by a TSA agent given that, once again, we’ve proven that we will not stand idly by as someone misbehaves on a plane. The terrorists have ALREADY WON because they have fundamentally changed our way of life and they continue to win everyday we allow the government to operate in the manner in which it is operating. My question is, do we have a right to refuse to a search of our personal belongings in order to be in a subway, enter a stadium, etc.? If not, then we are NOT a free country!!!!!

  • Extramail

    That’s assuming we could hire enough intelligent, objective people to work for the TSA. I think we all know the answer to that!

  • cjr001

    Don’t like it, don’t, uhh, fly… right?

  • cjr001

    TSA lends its eyes to Bowl Sunday
    Updated 1/30/2009

    “At the Tampa Police request, the TSA is sending dozens of its behavior officers to Tampa to watch spectators entering 75,000-seat Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, said Tampa Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. The TSA on Jan. 13 gave a four-hour training overview on behavior detection to 100 Tampa-area police, TSA operations chief Lee Kair said.”

    Isn’t that nice? Tampa Police got as much training as one of TSA’s “behavior officers” do.

  • The base rate fallacy is the failure to account for underlying incidence of the condition being tested for.  The numbers I used in my example are: imagine you had a near-perfect test, a test that always flags terrorists if they are present and only flags innocent people one time out of ten thousand.  Under these conditions, only one out of every five million people flagged would be a terrorist.  A screener doesn’t handle five million flagged passengers in an entire lifetime.  That means that, to all intents and purposes, every flagged person is a false positive, so whatever secondary screening you invent will be biased and geared towards finding that all positives are false positives.  Even if a real bad guy got flagged in a system like that, he would surely be dismissed as some sort of false positive.  The false positives aren’t just a waste of time and money – they undermine the entire system, because handling so many false positives alters the thinking of the people operating the system.

    It just can’t work to use universal screening on any population where the incidence of what you’re screening for is less than one in a billion, it’s impossible.  No demographic category of airline passengers has a large enough incidence of terrorism to be useful as a “risk-based-screening” subgroup.  The only groups it makes sense to target are members of extremist groups, and indeed, the only counterterrorism successes we’ve ever seen are those where intelligence and police resources are focused on finding the extremists and targeting their plots at the planning stages. 

    Universal screening for terrorists is mathematically senseless.   You can use universal screening to find common conditions: high blood pressure, for example.  You can’t use it to find one in a billion of anything, and the TSA’s effort to do so is the very definition of counterproductive.  They’ve managed to turn most travelers into enemies of their organization by treating us as enemies.

  • We planned our vacation around the train and boat to avoid the TSA at the airports.  It is a whole new area for the TSA because Amtrac has no posted security rules,  I can take a full bottle of shampoo.  Is the only way to not be manhandled by the TSA is to stay home?  Then I think the bad guys have won and we are no longer free.

  • Joe Farrell

    Here are the reasons why TSA will NEVER be reformed . . .

    1.  No one wants to be blamed when a terrorist attack occurs and TSA claims ‘if only’ you let us do what we were doing we could have stopped it.

    That is the only reason why because everyone knows that sooner or later the terrorists will out think TSA [its good thing that most of the terrorists are not western educated] and there will be a successful event – thus allowing TSA to ‘blame’ anyone who acted to restrain their authority.

    Politicians would hate to be blamed – hence – none of them will ever do anything about it.  

    The other reason are the government unions who are salivating at the thought of doubling their ranks with TSA ‘officers.’  So any effort to reduce the number of employees will be met with a whisper campaign by the relevant unions – which means you will not get a single democrat to ever vote for it.

  • You are correct.  Unfiled charges don’t show up on a standard background check. As such, there would not be any reason for the TSA to look further into the background of a relatively low level employee.

  • Joe Farrell

    Also – civil disobedience works in areas that the TSA lacks a sterile area . . . 

    I would and HAVE refused to allow TSA to randomly search me at a train station – they looked at me cross eyed and then had a quick confab and sent over a cop to try to intimidate me and I looked at him and asked him what law he was attempting to enforce. . . .

    He looked at me with that ‘cop look’ when a civilian knows their rights and said ‘free to go.’   Never got searched – I mean – you refuse – what can TSA do?  They lack law enforcement authority and a train station does not have a sterile area . . .  and last time I checked none of the passenger lines had security regulations REQUIRING consent to search – Amtrak is a government operation which means that absent consent, they need a warrant to perform even an administrative search. . . .

    Its not like going into a designated security area, such as a courthouse or govt building that has access restrictions that are published.

    Nancy Reagan was right . . .  Just say NO!

  • Jim

    So now we know what Chris & Family had to drive across the US.  The TSA won’t let him on a plane..  After they saw him on the road, they then started to do rest stops…

  • MarkieA

    I know the area where this picture was taken; I go down to the Library of Congress quite a bit to do research. That whole block has got little checkpoints and guard shacks, with those in-the-ground barriers that spring up. If I didn’t know any better – and I don’t, really – I would assume that that particular area has “special rules” for search and inspection; an area just ripe for heavy-handed police and/or TSA presence.

    So, my question is, where does the average Joe find out what the “rules” are for any particular area? In most parts of the country, I would be pretty confident in asserting my rights AGAINST unreasonable search; I would simply refuse to allow it, much like Joe Farrell’s example. However, in D.C and in and around Government facilities, where can I find out what rights I have and what rights I have to give up?

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    @Chris, the link to the article about the TSA being banned from Amtrak is for subscribers only.

  • Susan J. Barretta

    Ha ha, AWESOME that other websites are writing ABOUT Wendy and Freedom to Travel USA !

  • Susan J. Barretta

     You’ve asked the golden question.  So far, they make up the rules as they go along.  No court has ever clarified what TSA can or cannot do.

  • Elmo Clarity

    At the rate things are going, they will soon be going door to door to make sure you are not a terrorist.

    But that does bring up an interesting question. What sort of restrictions does the TSA put on these 4th amendment violating searches of things you can bring through?

  • Elmo Clarity

    That is not necessarily true.  Background checks are not limited to only police records.  Any public record can be searched.  If they found a newspaper story with an accusation, that could be enough for to fail the check.

  • Elmo Clarity

    This sounds like an inappropriate use of federal resources. Either that, or the Tampa police are so incompetent that they didn’t feel they could handle it.  And even if that was the case, county and state resources should be used before federal.

  • How many of us refuse to set foot in an airport until these corrupt assholes are all fired? A lot.

  • Charlie Funk
  • Thank you, Chris… a bit of clarification though:  FTTUSA has three co-founders – I am joined by Renee Beeker and Jeff Pierce.  I’m just the one with the biggest mouth LOL.

  • How about those fighter jets doing a flyover after then National Anthem? Do we really want to be paying for that?

  • Sorry, fixed that. Thanks for talking to Congress on behalf of travelers.

  • That would subject the employer to potential civil liability.  As a general rule, you cannot use criminal history in making a hiring decision unless charges were actually filed by the DA.  An ethical background checking company would not include that in their report to a potential employer.  There are exceptions of course, but not for a relatively low level employee.

    Think of it like this.  It is relatively easy to find out a job applicant’s race, religion, etc.  Except for gender, none of that will appear in a background report though its totally trivial to discover.

  • Elmo Clarity

    Then why are these employers that are dismissing employees because of the contents of facebook pages not being sued?  Could it be because it is publicly available information?  What would get an employer in trouble is if they obtained information that is not publicly available and used that information for the decision.

  • Elmo Clarity

    Those flyovers are paid for from the military’s recruiting budgets – viewed as advertisement.  But to be honest, I think that any group that “requests” the flyover be required to pay some sort of fee either directly to offset the cost of the flyover or be donated to a charity that supports the military.

    In the case where Tampa asked the TSA to screen the game, did Tampa pay the costs for this?

  • Elmo Clarity

    Raises his hand.

  • linda

    American Travelers should put on a hardcore united front and REFUSE to fly, or enter ballgames, malls, anywhere TSA is set up. Start hurting the $$$ bottom line of airlines, airports and all others and then maybe this nonsense will end!

    Too many are falling for that old propaganda line…”It’s for your safety”…BS!

  • Joe Farrell

    The rules exist but they claim they are secret and they don’t have to tell you.  If you have the balls to stand up to them – and then get arrested and then ask for the regulations – voila – the charges get dropped and they never have to prove anything . . . .

    Its only a matter of time before someone presses the issue in such a way that a court somewhere is going to rule on the ability of the govt to have doube secret rules about what the rules are and where they apply . . . 

  • LFH0

    Mostly true. TSA has no independent authority outside of airports. They can perform searches elsewhere at the request or acquiescence of the carrier involved, but doing so is under the carrier’s authority, not TSA’s authority. (Amtrak is an interesting case because it is, technically, a private corporation, but it court decisions it has been held to government standards on account of it largely being controlled by the government.) But simply because someone with apparent authority wants something does not mean that the person has actual authority.

  • Joe Farrell

    The justification on the FTTUSA website about strip searches has basically just been ruled upon – and the police have the ability to strip search anyone placed under arrest. . . . so that argument is no longer availing.

    I don’t think much, unfortunately, about the FTTUSA legal arguments . . . I think they need better legal advice or come up with a better argument. . . 

  • Elmo Clarity

    I haven’t read what is said on the FTTUSA website but the court case you are referring to is when someone is being booked into a jail the police have a right to perform a strip search on anyone, no matter how minor the infractions.  This only covers people under arrest and being brought into a jail.

  • Sadie_Cee

    Found the article at http://www.federaljack.com/?p=20757

  • Sadie_Cee

    Now that the TSA knows about his past history, are they going to do anything about Harkins?  As the woman being interviewed said, his title may indicate that he has a supervisory role relating to baggage, but how do we know that he will not involve himself in the screening of people, specifically women?  This to me is the tip of the iceberg! 

  •  How’s that different that what Joe said?  Granted its late so I might not be fully awake.

  • jeanneinVT

    Except that one of the main points of this article is that the TSA is no longer restricted to just airports…

  • frostysnowman

    Quit my job, which required a lot of travel, two weeks ago.  Will avoid flying like the plague in the future.  Starting with this weekend’s Memorial Day trip, which is a driving trip.

  • BillyGe


  • BillyGe

    “And maybe we’ll do something about it.”

    Or not.  The TSA flunkies have been at it for more than a decade now.  I see no large scale desire to turn off the TV and do something about it.  In fact, videos of humiliations are now entertainment courtesy of YouTube.

  • cjr001

    Yes, I know that. However, the TSA apologists bring up the “don’t like it, don’t fly” mantra every time they get the chance.

    Except, that phrase is completely meaningless and has been for several years due to TSA trying to put their dirty blue-gloved hands on anything and everything.

  • cjr001

    Some of them are being sued.

    But in this case, you’re talking about a situation where a pedophile is being hired into a position where he could be put in contact with children.

    He was removed from the ministry, which, let’s face is, is a pretty extraordinary act in of itself, considering how the Catholic church for DECADES sought to protect priests.

    We’ve warned for awhile now that TSA’s practices – whether in lax hiring or because of the groping of passengers – would encourage such individuals to try and get a job there.

    It’s pretty much guaranteed that we’ll hear about more of these cases in the future.

  • cjr001

    So far as we’ve seen, there are no such restrictions. TSA does what it wants, when it wants.

    The only way to stop them is through legislation, and they’re scared of the Terrorist Boogieman, or the judicial, where they’ve already all but declared that individuals in this country no longer have any rights, but continue to give them to corporations.

  • Don’t be so dismissive.  It only takes a active and fighting minority to push changes, so be part of the solution.  The public pushback has significantly impacted TSA’s room to maneuver; their budget is being threatened; congresspeople are calling for Pistole’s ouster; TSA finally implemented some privacy filters that should have been on the scanners before they were ever rolled out; TSA stopped purchasing the X-ray ionizing scanners; and further victories are on the horizon if we never give up.  End the TSA!

  •  Um, airline passengers aren’t under arrest?  I know it feels like a jail intake center, but it’s not.  It’s an airport.  The legal constraints are not identical.

  • Those flyovers are not only military recruiting, but they are scheduled weeks, if not months in advance. The squadron involved must be in a scheduled training period, and the flight is officially logged as a training flight for the pilots involved.

  • jet2x2

    Keep at it Chris!  There is simply no excuse to expose children to pedophiles, humiliate cancer survivors, and all of the other horrible things TSA does, in the name of “security.”  Please save the responses about stopping terrorists.  Breaking some poor man’s ostomy bag, taking away a nursing mother’s breast milk, or threatening to jail innocent citizens who try to take pictures in public, has nothing to do with keeping us safe.  It sounds trite but I think we all need to write to our representatives about this on a regular basis until we get their attention.  In the meantime I think publicity about TSA outrages is the only thing that seems to get attention – at least they hold an occasional hearing when it gets real embarrassing.  

  • Gov & its supporters have not been interested in the fact that it’s in the airlines’ best interest to NOT have their customers and/or planes damaged/destroyed. Consequently they have the incentive to provide safety (along with transportation in timely manner) in accordance with the individual customer’s value preferences. All this time airlines have been capable (and maybe wiling?) to offer various levels of safety assurance commensurate with willingness to pay for it, just as is done with cabin seating classes. Different flights would be screened to different levels decided on by individual companies, with the airlines of course responsible for any damage to those on the ground by any of its planes.

    But NOOOooo, the government decided that it would dictate what must be done by ALL airlines to ALL passengers (unless friends). Individuals are treated like cogs, which is of course the way governments view everyone except those at its top and their friends. And since it’s government, all of it (which extends beyond the TSA agents & their equipment) is being paid for by everyone, not just those buying the flight tickets.The increase in time spent by travelers related to all types of air travel alone is likely enormous. Plus long gone is the ability to spontaneously buy a ticket & take a flight… Everything is now suspect.

    And here we read again (thanks, Chris) that the gov has moved on to various types of ground travel……… Of course without all these many compliant citizens willing to be TSA agents – and worse, actual enforcers – the government couldn’t do a small fraction of the things the legislators/executives (Pres included) and department heads dream up to “protect” us. We could depend on the companies wanting to keep happy (returning) customers and good reputations. It use to work real well until, far too many fell for the political prattle of government “protection” from anything and everything.

  • Joe Farrell

    Then perhaps you need to go look and read . . . then you’ll understand the comment more fully . . . 

  • Elmo Clarity

    I did go to the link to FTTUSA provided in the story but could not find anything that applied to the original comment.  

  • cjr001

    As a counterpoint: secured cockpit doors were first suggested in the 70’s due to all the hijackings.

    The airlines balked because of the cost. Not surprisingly, we all paid a higher price for their “incentive to provide safety”.

    Edit: This was a reply to Kitty. Not sure why it didn’t thread.

  • TexanPatriot1

    If you see TSA in VIPR mode when getting on a bus or a subway, or on the highway, just refuse to submit to search. They have no powers to stop you from going anywhere. Summon the police over, force them to state to you their authority to search.

    Demand the search be conducted by an employee of the station or by a sworn law enforcmenet officer.

    If everybody did that, they would be out of a job.

  • jennj99738

     Same spammer, it appears.  This should be a game.  Let’s try to translate Google Translate/Babelfish back into English. My try, “It’s only a matter of time that somebody will end up in a courtroom because the guidelines are unclear.”  That doesn’t make much sense either.  

  • Tired of ex post office workers running us like cattle in the airports.
    It’s jobs for many who really are not too bright.

  • Joe, unfortunately courts in NY have ruled that bag searches on subways ARE “administrative ‘special needs’ searches” —


  • JAS64

     My corporation has eliminated 94% of ALL air travel from its’ budget do to the TSA. We even got a letter from 3 major airlines asking why we had closed our commercial accounts. The airlines are just as fed up with the TSA because of the economic state of the industry.

    We now teleconference, virtually for free. Thanks to the government destroying yet ANOTHER industry.

  • What do you azzwholes have against trying to keep the citizenry safe? If the job is done, it costs too much, if we have another 9/11, you’ll be the first to blame the Government.

  • BigTunaTim

    They’re not keeping us safe you moron. If it actually worked it might be worthwhile. As you should have read above, they have a 0% success rate of catching known terrorists.

  • This is another bloated unionised government agency that is to big to get rid of that the private sector can not afford.

  • Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
    -Benjamin Franklin.

  •  There is one thing that I do not understand. Are the people in charge really so stupid that they let this happen and continue. However, if you assume that they are not stupid, it leaves one explanation. They have no intention in protecting us (likely because all the info about terrorists is made up, after all, they could not tell us about the terrorists due to err security reasons (sure)) and as such, they have to scare us to death or we will not willingly hand over our freedom, allow the government to listen in on our phone calls, check our emails etc etc.
    I hate to seem like a conspiracy theorist, but I can not see why else they would be doing this. The threats always seem to happen when the volume of travellers is at its highest. More people to annoy, much better results. You don’t advertise on a channel when few people are watching do you?
    If the threat is real, how come I can get on a plane heading to one of these locations with few, if any checks, yet heading out of those locations, I get checked to an unbelievable level. The checks in place will not stop a terrorist. If they only catch 1 in 7 million, then it is clear that the terrorist threat is a complete fake. We have caught around 2 or 3 off the top of my head, so err where are the other 14-36 million terrorists?

  • neeneej6

    I am all for high security, especially in high-profile, congested places. I welcome being protected by some govt agency. However, it seems that our current TSA is so out of kilter that it is a waste of taxpayer money. The fact that they make so many mistakes and seem unwilling to take responsibility or make changes sends up a red flag!

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