Jason Harrington worked as a Transportation Security Administration officer at O’Hare airport in Chicago for seven years. Harrington quickly became disgruntled. Not just with the day-to-day absurdity of carrying out what he saw as ineffective security tactics, but by how much the TSA kept away from the public. So, he started writing a blog, anonymously, called Taking Sense Away. Bob speaks to Harrington about his time in the TSA and his Politico article “Dear America. I Saw You Naked. And, Yes, We Were Laughing" which unmasked his anonymity.
BOB GARFIELD: Jason E. Harrington worked as a Transportation Security Administration officer at O’Hare Airport in Chicago until last March. He’d planned to keep the gig only briefly but well, with the economy and all, you know. There was the aspiring novelist, each day for seven years, performing what he and others call “security theater.” Harrington quickly became disgruntled, not just with the day-to-day absurdity of carrying out what he saw as ineffective security tactics, but by how much the TSA kept away from the public. So, he started writing a blog, anonymously, called, Taking Sense Away – TSA, get it? Harrington stayed anonymous for years, until the end of January, when he revealed himself to the public in a piece he wrote for Politico, called, “Dear America. I Saw You Naked. And, Yes, We Were Laughing: Confessions of an Ex-TSA Agent.”
JASON HARRINGTON: The TSA assured the public that the people viewing the nude images on the body scanners would never come face to face with the passengers they saw, but on a day-to-day basis, we were constantly seeing the same people we just saw naked face to face.
BOB GARFIELD: Give me some examples of the things that you had to do day-in and day-out that just drove you crazy.
JASON HARRINGTON: Up until 2012, we padded down children, babies, even. You can just look at the baby and see there’s not a gun or anything, but we still had to do this. I had to take nail clippers from pilots, the implied logic being that the pilots could use the nail clippers to hijack their own planes -
- constant things like that, really absurd.
BOB GARFIELD: There was one confiscation back in 2008 that you found particularly poignant, involving an injured Marine coming home from Afghanistan.
JASON HARRINGTON: Yeah, he came through in a wheelchair and his buddies had celebration champagne that they brought to surprise him with for when they got back to wherever they were going. And we saw the champagne on the x-ray screen, so somebody called the bag check, pulled the champagne out. And I was the first one who had to tell this group of Marines, you can’t take this champagne in the name of national security.
BOB GARFIELD: The big for you though is the scanners, which
you say you and everybody else in TSA knew were, no matter how expensive, utterly ineffective. Why?
JASON HARRINGTON: They couldn’t detect a metal object hidden in a sideways orientation on a passenger’s body.
BOB GARFIELD: Wait, so I go into the scanner, I stand in the footprints, I spread my legs, I put my hands up in half surrender, and they can get a very, very good look at my genitals, but if I’m carrying a sidearm they can’t see it at all.
JASON HARRINGTON: It would look black against the black background, so it would be invisible.
BOB GARFIELD: Before, actually, you started the blog you wrote a letter to the New York Times, and your management wasn’t too happy with you. What happened?
JASON HARRINGTON: When the TSA announced they would be rolling these body scanners out, a lot of security experts were opining in the news that they believed it was an over-reactive move. And I wrote to the New York Times, saying that I agreed as a TSA screener because the TSA often just put in place these blanket security procedures that were, you know, theater. The New York Times published it. My boss at the airport found out, and she wasn’t happy about it. She basically just said, “I wish you would have ran your First Amendment right past the Legal Department first.” And I’ll never forget that line.
BOB GARFIELD: Which I guess explains why, for almost the entire duration of your blog, you identified yourself as a “former TSA screener,” which is a lie.
JASON HARRINGTON: If I admitted that I was a current screener, at the time, maybe somebody could unveil me. Quite honestly, I wanted to see a little bit more of the security show, how all those new body scanners were gonna work out, didn’t want to be found out prematurely, I guess you could say.
BOB GARFIELD: In making public statements about the airport security apparatus, did the Transportation Security Administration itself tell any lies?
JASON HARRINGTON: Oh yeah. Probably the biggest one still in place is that their behavior detection program, it’s a billion-dollar-per-year program with officers walking around airports, looking at people’s faces, trying to determine who terrorists are. This is the most absurd program that’s still in place right now, and not enough people really know about this.
BOB GARFIELD: Isn’t that the one that the Israelis have been using for 30 years, with quite a bit of success?
JASON HARRINGTON: Yeah, yeah. It makes sense in Israel, with their one major airport. It makes sense with their political situation. It doesn’t make sense with our political situation, with our implementation, with the size of our country. There were many charges of racial profiling that have come out in the New York Times, from behavior detection officers saying that they’ve racially profiled people. Oversight committees come out saying this program has caught zero terrorists and racially profiled thousands of people. It’s just useless, and the TSA refuses to let it go. And this is a thing that’s never talked about.
BOB GARFIELD: When you first started writing your blog, you labored in obscurity. When you started writing about the Rapiscan full body scanners, all of a sudden you went viral. Three weeks after that, the TSA announced that it was going to stop deploying Rapiscans and go to another manufacturer of scanners, which provide a different kind of image that’s more of an outline of the body, instead of these graphic nudes that you and your colleagues had been staring at. Did that have anything to do with you?
JASON HARRINGTON: The Los Angeles Times, when they published their article announcing that TSA had canceled the contract, they linked to my blog. I don't know how much of an effect I may have had on that but, I mean, it is kind of a weird coincidence. BOB GARFIELD: Jason, thank you so much.
JASON HARRINGTON: Thanks a lot for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jason Harrington is a master of fine arts student at the University of Mississippi and, until recently, anonymous author of the blog, Taking Sense Away.