Former TSA Agent Jason Edward Harrington offers an inside look at what really goes on behind the airport body-scanners

By Nate Jones
January 31, 2014 11:00 AM
Scott Olson/Getty

Life working the airport security line as an employee of the Transportation Security Administration isn’t just mind-numbingly terrible – it’s actually much, much worse. At least, that’s the impression former TSA officer James Edward Harrington gives in his tell-all over at POLITICO.

The revelations inside may not surprise you, exactly, but they’ll likely have you considering just taking the train instead of your next domestic flight.

A run-down of the most troubling anecdotes:

The much-maligned body-scanners don’t work as well as advertised. Harrington outlines how the front-and-back images produced by the scanners leave crucial blind spots at the sides. Also, agents are forbidden from tracking how much radiation they were exposed to from sitting next to the scanners all day.

The I.O. room, where TSA agents examine the images from the body scanners, is a wretched hive of sex and gossip. Since CCTV cameras were forbidden from the room, Harrington claims that agents would use it for clandestine hookups – when they weren’t poking fun at travelers’ naked bodies, that is. (Because of concerns about this exact thing happening, in 2013 the TSA replaced the old scanners with new machines that show a generic outline of the human body.)

• Like the old saying about Inuits and snow, male TSA agents had a variety of words to describe attractive female passengers entering security lines. Besides “Code Red” and “Code Yellow” (used to alert fellow agents of a woman wearing the colors in question), TSA dudes also enjoyed scoping out “Alfafas,” “Hotel Papas” and “Fanny Packs.”

Passengers from a country on the Selectee Passport List – Syria, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Cuba, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and North Korea – were automatically subjected to the most rigorous security screenings the TSA offered. “It was purely political, of course,” Harrington explains, “There was no Saudi Arabia or Pakistan on a list of states historically known to harbor, aid and abet terrorists.”

Harrington’s personal low point was confiscating a bottle of champagne from a group of injured soldiers returning home from Afghanistan: “There I was, an aspiring satire writer, earnestly acting on orders straight out of Catch-22.”

During all the drudgery were brief moments of joy, particularly in what Harrington calls the "baby-shower-opt-out": “When a woman opts out of the full-body scanner and accidentally lets slip the explanation: ‘I don’t want to go through the scanner. I’m pregnant,’ evoking a shriek from her fellow traveling companions.”

Read the full essay over at POLITICO.

Like us on Facebook for more stories like this!