TSA Watch: Agents do the strangest things!

What’s with TSA agents’ bizarre behavior lately?

Take Ellen Terrell, who was flying out of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. As she was being screened, one of the agents asked, “Do you play tennis?”

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“Why?” she responded.

“You just have such a cute figure,” the agent said.

As the Dallas CBS affiliate reported last week, that wasn’t all. Terrell says she walked into the body scanner, but was repeatedly told that she had to back up and walk through again.

After the third time, Terrell says even the agent seemed frustrated with her co-workers in the other room, the men reviewing the digital images of a svelte Terrell.

“She’s talking into her microphone and she says, ‘Guys, it is not blurry, I’m letting her go. Come on out,’” she says.

Boys will be boys. But this latest reported incident is just one of several recent cases of truly unusual behavior exhibited by the agency workforce.

Margaret Hillers and her 91-year-old mother were traveling through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which gets an inordinate number of complaints about its agents, a few weeks ago. When they reached the metal detector, the conveyor belt on the X-ray stopped.

“I watched as a TSA employee — a young man who looked like a sulky 16-year-old but was probably mid-20s and who had just sat down at the scanner — sat there and looked liked he was ready to fall asleep,” she says.

Passengers began lining up behind the Hillers, but the agent was unconcerned.

“He looked as if he were going to take a short nap,” she says.

An airport employee helping the women with their wheelchair explained that the young agent really didn’t care, and that he wouldn’t work unless a supervisor was nearby. He said several passengers had even missed flights because of his sluggish screening practices.

The Hillers made their flight, but not before Mom had to stand up, totter through the magnetometer without her cane and walk through a full-body scanner.

“I was struck by the complete lack of courtesy demonstrated by the TSA employees in Seattle,” she told me. “They treated us all like cattle.”

Yeah, but sleeping on the job? That’s a new low.

Actually, I wouldn’t call it “new.”

Just last week, six TSA baggage screeners in Newark — another troubled airport, as far as the TSA is concerned — were suspended for sleeping on the job.

One of the strangest recent cases of inexplicable TSA agent behavior was what happened when a screener found an adult toy in attorney Jill Filipovic’s baggage. Instead of quietly admiring the electronics, he slipped her a note urging her to, “get your freak on, girl.”

The TSA initially disputed her claim, but after an investigation, it tracked down the employee and fired him. In a prepared statement, the agency called the screener’s actions “highly inappropriate and unprofessional.”

It’s not the first time the TSA has targeted sex toys. Nor have agents abstained from leaving passengers notes in their luggage since then.

Who can forget the utterly strange note — “C’mon son!” — left in rapper Freddie Gibbs checked luggage when an agent discovered a bag marijuana in it?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the TSA is staffed by a bunch of perverted, incompetent, lewd, pot-heads. But incidents like these make you wonder when the a TSA urges us not to judge the agency by the actions of a few, as it did last week.

How should we judge the agency, then? Perhaps by the number of domestic terrorist attacks it has stopped?

Oh wait, that would be zero.

I have a better idea. Let’s stop making silly public statements about the integrity of the TSA and put the agency to some good use. Why not use those overpaid Behavior Detection Officers to keep an eye on the agency’s own workforce? After all, they’re experts at ferreting out strange behavior, and if anyone can stop TSA employees from doing bizarre things, isn’t it them?

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38 thoughts on “TSA Watch: Agents do the strangest things!

  1. The kid who “doesn’t care” and just sits there at Sea-Tac needs to be FIRED. Not retrained, not coached, not any other buzzword, just flat out fired.

    Has TSA said what they intend to do with that guy? Or are they just ignoring complaints as usual?

  2. There are a lot of other countries that screen passengers.  Why do all of the stories we get seem to come only about incidents at the TSA?
    I’ll tell you one observation – you can’t take people off the street, who have the education level of a primate – and expect them to do the job.   You need some reasonably intelligent people.

    1. “Why do all of the stories we get seem to come only about incidents at the TSA?”

      Some guesses, Europe vs the US:

      #1 Since when does the US care about the rest of the world? (No really, I do think it’s a matter of prioritising the news-worthiness of these stories – small TSA incident beats big Belgian TSA incitent – or whatever TSA is called in Belgium).
      #2 Pat-downs just don’t seem to bother Europeans to the same extent as Americans. It’s on par with a handshake in terms of how much it’s perceived as sexual harassment.
      #3 The the-stupid-government-is-doing-this-just-to-annoy-ME philosophy seems to be mainly an American thing, and consequently there’s not really a big audience craving these “they singled me out because I’m blonde!!1!” and “they asked me to remove my belt and I’ve never before been so humiliated in my life” kinda stories.

      1. Philippa_FRA writes: “#2 Pat-downs just don’t seem to bother Europeans to the same extent as Americans. It’s on par with a handshake in terms of how much it’s perceived as sexual harassment.”

        You’re out of touch.  We’ve addressed this shibboleth umpteen times.  The so-called “pat-downs” here aren’t pat-downs like they do in Europe.  They’re gropes.  That’s the way John Pistole wants them done, and that’s the way thousands of TSA agents are doing them.  The ones who don’t grope and who give just a cursory pat-down still have a shred of conscience.  If you’d read the thousands of accounts of TSA abuse, including strip searching, sexual assault, confiscation of people’s money and credit cards, detention, etc., you might understand.

        And by the way, some of us love nude beaches, so please don’t lecture us on American prudishness.


        1. What are you talking about? It’s hands-on everywhere, not just in the US – and we can call it a grope-down if you will. The divide across the pond is not about whether it’s a “gentle” or a “firm” grope-down, it’s about what’s inappropriate touching and what’s not.

          Besides, the Europeans are not complaining about the (American) TSA anymore than they’re complaining about the “TSA” in Europe. Just doesn’t seem to bother them that much.

          1. I meant to hit reply when I hit “like.” There should be a way to “unlike” a post.  Anyway, here in the US, we’re educated about our privacy rights, including the right to not to be subject to unlawful search and seizure.

            I find both the full body scanners (not the new ones that just show a stick figure) and the full-body pat-down to be an unlawful infringement on my 4th Amendment rights and my freedom to travel.  Whether you disagree with me is your prerogative.  My opinion is based upon my education as I’m an attorney.

            I don’t believe there is such an abiding view of these rights in Europe.  Europe has a lot of laws that would never pass Constitutional muster here in the U.S.  I’m not going to get into one’s better than the other but they’re different.  I think that makes Americans more assertive when we/they believe our rights are violated.

            In any event, I have never been subject to a pat-down like the ones in the US anywhere I’ve traveled including China and Israel, and those visits were in the last 2 years. 

          2. One “like” void – duly noted.

            What makes you think I disagree with your view on what a TSA-style pat-down feels like to you? I don’t.

            Bill asked why these stories are always about Americans vs the TSA, and I offered some suggestions.

            The stories (i.e. complaints) that make their way to the European media are about ESTA and the “immigration” process (CBP agents) – plus the weather, water at $4 per bottle, etc. But in the rare case TSA gets a mention it’s for seizing sodas and confiscating clementines.

          3.  So perhaps the reason for a dearth of “Europeans v. TSA” stories is that Europeans come home much more angry about the way Customs and Border Protection treated them?  Both organizations have lately been making a habit of treating innocent people like dangerous criminals.  I’d say detaining, threatening, and banning someone from the U.S. because our idiotic CBP agents aren’t up to date on British slang is quite a horror story, one that even rivals the TSA’s prediliction for unwelcome sexual encounters. 

          4. I think I know the story you’re referring to (twittering Brits?), and it’s an extreme – probably why it made it to the US? The mainstream media angle on this story has been fairly neutral – the Brits were stupid (or naïve) and the CBP agents overreacted.

            I wouldn’t say that particular story is representative of the usual CBP complaints – typically it’s about the obnoxious questioning plus the fact that CBP is even there. But have in mind that the privileged (Western) Europeans are used to just flashing their bordeaux EU passport and marching through the ‘EU citizens only’ fast track upon entering a foreign (European) country. But the TSA… you’d hardly know of its existence if you were only following European news. 

          5.  Wow, defensive.  I didn’t write anything about what a TSA pat down feels to me.  I never said it made me physically uncomfortable.   I said I believe it violates my rights as an American citizen against unlawful search (and seizure, in some cases).  You were discussing why Europeans don’t get upset about TSA-style patdowns like Americans do.  You made it the U.S. v. Europeans so I made some points on why I think it is so. There are other people who are permitted to comment on Chris’s commentary. Yikes.

  3. So we’re not supposed to judge the TSA by their not-few but legions of abusive low-lifes, but we are supposed to assume everyone is a potential terrorist because one guy tried to light his shoes on fire and another tried to light his crotch on fire?

    Okay, now I get it.

  4. “I’m not saying the TSA is staffed by a bunch of perverted, incompetent, lewd, pot-heads.”

    You should be, because they are.

  5. At least the sleepers in Newark were napping when there were no travellers or baggage to screen, during a flightless period on the graveyard shift!

    Napping while your holding up the X-ray machine is an entirely different kettle of rotten fish.

    Obviously the management at SeaTac is extremely compromised for this TSO’s behavior to be so well known, yet tolerated. And taxpayers and travellers pay for this. Outrageous.

    The entrire agency needs to be scrapped. It’s rotten top to bottom.

  6. None of these “behaviors” are acceptable!!!  But, who has time to report them when you are hurrying to get through security for your flight.  What can we the public do about any of this.  NOTHING!

    1. There are things you can do.  Protest takes many forms.  There are several ways to resist, not just one.  But it takes actually doing it and not just talking about it.  Nothing unjust in life, anywhere in the world, throughout history, has ever been changed without sacrifice.  A few suggestions are here, and I bet other people can come up with some others, too (and it goes without saying that you should be bothering our admittedly mostly worthless elected reps relentlessly):

      Comment #16

      1. Lisa:  Great response.  I am one of those people who is “always” singled out.  5’3″, 109 pounds, blonde hair, not really “young.”  For some reason they object to me wearing 2 watches, that my dress looks like a “coat”  (trench coat styling), and so many other things that bother them about me.  I’ve learned to be “quiet.”  Once one of those air machine blew up my t- shirt and showed about 1/2″ of flat stomach and TSA woman shouted “cover your stomach.”  Ah, yes.  I was a “brazen hussy.”  Husband always goes ahead of me because he knows I’ll be singled out.

  7. Why not use those overpaid Behavior Detection Officers to keep an eye on the agency’s own workforce?
    Good idea.  The idea that most people, even extensively trained law enforcement officers and professional psychologists, let alone half-witted TSA agents, can reliably predict microexpressions and use them to validly determine a person’s intentions, has been scientifically disproven.  SPOT is an enormous waste of money.

  8. Chris, I love your TSA reports and I’m glad we have someone like you to call the organization out on its (plethora of) misdeeds.  However, I think the repeated scanning of Ellen Terrell is more grave than just “boys being boys.”  I know that when I was a wee lad I heard that phrase quite a bit but never in response to mistreatment like this, and I honestly don’t think this sort of incident can be so easily excused. 

    The article didn’t specify what kind of strip-search machine she walked through, but if she was repeatedly re-scanned in a backscatter X-ray scanner, then she was needlessly exposed to ionizing radiation each time.  Even if it was “only” a millimeter-wave machine, the fact that TSA treats passengers so capriciously and unprofessionally is deeply troubling and further proof that TSA needs not to be reformed, not to be retrained, but to be abolished outright.

    Don’t mean to attack you or anything, Chris – I’m glad we’re on the same side.

  9. I am so dreading my upcoming flight to Seattle and back!  It will be just my luck to get “sleepy boy” and miss my flight to Alaska! Lets see if he gets fired in the next 4 months!

  10. As long as the TSA keeps defending its bad apples and does nothing to change this prevailing culture, it is begging us to judge it in that light. It is actually sad that the thousands of agents who I am sure are dedicated to their jobs and we know they are there because we get in touch with them every time we travel, are judged in such a dim light.
    If that was a private enterprise it would have been out of business ages ago.

  11. I love the suggestion that Behavior Detection Officers should spend their time finding the criminals among TSA’s workforce.  That might work as long as it’s not the BDOs themselves who are the criminals – oh, wait, wasn’t Minneta Walker a BDO before she was charged with running drugs through a checkpoint?  So much for that plan!

    As for the sexual exploitation enabled by having men choose which women and girls go through a machine that shows a woman’s naked body to other men in a pornobooth …  I recall that a pilot overheard a comment from a male screener to his buddy in the booth, “Heads up, I’ve got a cutie for you” right after that man had singled out the pilot’s 17-year-old daughter for the nudie box.  Sure, men don’t ever take advantage of opportunities to see womens’ naked bodies, and also I have a bridge to sell you.

    It’s this simple: TSA deliberately set us up to be sexually exploited and harassed by screeners.  John Pistole couldn’t give two sh*ts about our safety.

  12. Woops,  I checked the wrong one this time. I guess I have been just treated properly. I don’t think all this stuff stops hijackers. It may put an obstacle in their way, but they can get it done if need be. Need some better pattern watchers that can watch TSA also. I once had a TSA ask if he could take my picture with my camera. I said yes, but could have said no and gotten a lot of hassle. Try not to make waves. I think most of these people are just trying to do a job and go home. No they are not the best educated, but that is why they do the job for the money it pays.

  13. “truly unusual behavior”

    Np, it is completely expected behavior.  There have been numerous studies done plus the evidence of history to show what happens when you have a ‘security” force that can hide behind anonymity and act with almost no public oversight or regulation.

    When there is no responsibility for your actions, authority always becomes tyranny.

    Even something as simple as requiring a way to identify the person who rummaged through your underwear “backstage” is not done even though almost everything you buy has an “Inspected by #12” tag or card in it somewhere.

    If you want to hear some serous tap-dancing, ask “Blogger Bob” why this is not done for luggage inspection.  The answers are a real hoot and such obvious lies that it boggles one that anyone can utter them.

  14. What more can we expect from under-trained, under-educated & under-paid individuals who now are in a uniform with a position of power?

  15. On May 6th, 2012 my wife and I were passing security for a United flight to SFO. As I approached the first ID screening Agent, a ‘supplemental’ agent began screening one passenger of the two approaching the basic agent. She took my passport and began closely observing it. After a number of seconds she asked the other agent for a magnifying glass. Then she carefully examined my passport. I asked what was wrong with my ID, and she carefully explained they had to examine these documents(?). Then she also explained she did not usually do this poarticular job, so she was very slow(her words). I finally was admitted through. Then my bag got caught up in the x-ray machine. When it finally got through, in the hands of an agent, some one screemed, whose bag is this?. It has to have supplemental screening: We went to a separate tabole where there was another x ray image of my bag——-the screener opened my bag, stuck one hand inside, looked down into the bag, then pulled away to close my bag, almost breaking the zipper had I not stopped her. This whole scherade was only to pay me off for questioning the original actions of a TSA Mini-GOD. Return on our taxes

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