Dialing D (as in, "Duh!") for Homeland Security
10 January 2004
Copyright (c) 2004 by Author. Permission granted to reproduce in entirety
with credit given.
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Having done plenty of flying since September 11, I've noticed a pretty
diverse range of security 'standards' at our airports despite the
government's assertions that a single security policy and standard applies
equally for all. Flying in America used to be tedious - today, it's
confusing, mind-numbing, and nobody seems to have a straight answer for
anything you ask them. Given these observations - and as a concerned
security professional - I decided to call the Transportation Security
Administration (TSA) for some clarification.
The following is a transcript of a recent telephone chat discussing my
concerns with a phone agent at the Transportation Security Administration on
8 January 2004. (NOTE: This transcription was based on both real events and
a somewhat creative memory.)
[after twenty minutes and two songs by Lee Greenwood]
TSA: "Hello, and thank you for calling the Transportation Security
Administration Citizen Services Ombudsman Office. How can we help you?"
Me: "Good morning. I was flying from Washington Dulles to Los Angeles the
other day, and have some questions about airport security procedures. I'm
wondering - just curious, really - what some of this stuff is really doing
to improve security for us. I mean, besides being annoying, some of it is
TSA: "Yes? I'm sorry to hear that. We'll try and help you make sense of
these regulations, if we can. Of course, I'm obligated to inform you that if
you ask too many questions, or questions that get too detailed, this call
may be turned over to federal law enforcement -- citizens asking too many
questions or thinking too independently are deemed suspicious by both the
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Official Committee to
Re-Appoint the President (OCRAP)."
Me: "Don't worry about me -- I watch FOX News! Anyway, for starters, on my
outbound flight to LA from Dulles, my Nike tennis sneakers weren't
inspected, and I could walk through security okay. But, when I flew back
from LA, the TSA manager made me take them off and get them x-rayed before I
could go through the metal detectors."
TSA: "Any heels over one inch could be a weapon."
Me: "I was wearing flat-soled tennis sneakers, ma'am. I don't wear women's
shoes. They're solid rubber soles."
TSA: "I'm sorry, sir. All heels over one inch."
Me: (incredulous) "So why weren't my sneakers inspected at Dulles? Or
Denver? Or at JFK last month when I transferred to a domestic flight after
returning from overseas?"
TSA: "I'm not sure, sir. All airports should be doing the same passenger
checks. That shouldn't have happened. We have a standard policy for these
things on our website that is supposed to be followed at all the airports. "
Me: "Fair enough, thanks. Secondly, I noticed that when my boarding pass has
a frequent flyer number on it, I breeze through security; but when there's
no frequent flyer number on it, I get extra screening. Last month, I was on
a business trip using a ticket purchased by a foreign company, paid for in
cash at a foreign travel office, and until my return flight, didn't have my
frequent flyer number printed on it. I was searched at every airport until I
got my frequent flyer number added to the boarding pass on the last leg of
my trip. Then I walked through security without any delays."
TSA: "Yes, our increased passenger security measures include having a
frequent flyer number as a method of helping know, identify, and trust our
passengers while weeding out potential terrorists. We currently believe that
frequent travellers are less likely to be terrorists than infrequent ones."
Me (politely): "Oh, okay. [makes mental note to get frequent flyer numbers
on as many airlines as possible] But when I made the trip from LA to
Washington, there was an announcement telling us not to congregate near the
bathrooms during the flight. What's that all about?"
TSA: "Too many people standing up during a flight might be the first sign of
a possible terrorist attack. Currently, this is supposed to be only for
selected international flights, but if a domestic airline wants to make such
policies, they're free to do so."
Me: "Even the bathrooms in the back of the plane? What harm can we do back
there? Open the door?"
TSA: "Quite possibly, sir. With terrorists, you never know. That's the
Me: (pleading) "We'd been drinking coffee and juice and soda for two hours,
and many of us needed to go to the bathroom! How can we go to the bathroom
when we're not allowed to wait on line for our turn? Because of the delays
getting through your security checkpoints, we couldn't use the bathrooms at
the airport, or we'd miss our flight! [pause] It was a good thing y'all
didn't find a guard sleeping at the metal detectors - or found one of them
unplugged again - and then had to evacuate the terminals to re-screen
everybody. I don't know if I'd have been able to hold it for that long."
TSA: "Sir, that's the advice our law enforcement and aviation security
professionals gave us, which we made public the other day. I'm sorry it was
inconvienent, but we are trying to improve airline security using all
available tools. It's also why nobody can stand during the first or last
thirty minutes on flights to and from Washington National airport."
Me: (upset) "I haven't waited or asked permission to use the bathroom since
kindergarden!! This is --"
TSA: (apologetic) "Yes, sir, I can agree with you - and I do feel your pain.
[long pause] I probably shouldn't tell you this, but next month, to assist
passengers in complying with this new directive, TSA is announcing a free
Bladder Control Training program that includes--"
TSA: "Yes. We'll be offering one-day classes at major cities or a
self-taught program on VHS or DVD. Also with that announcement, we're
issuing a ten-year contract for Procter and Gamble to provide TSA-approved
adult diapers at each seat on domestic airlines for people who just can't
wait and need to relieve themselves while waiting for a lavatory to become
available. For security reasons, they're see-through, but that's been
determined to not be a significant problem since these diapers will be used
while a passenger is still seated. They'll be located in the pouch under
your seat, right next to the life vests."
Me: (relieved) "I'm glad TSA is taking passenger's concerns seriously. Wow
-- I just hope folks remember which pouch to use for which emergency!"
TSA: [giggles] "Me too! Since September 11, we've seen that good citizens
don't mind a wee bit of embarrassment or incontinence - pardon me,
inconvenience - during air travel, especially when it's to help improve the
collective security of our great homeland. Also, we're investigating
in-flight paging systems like you find at family restaurants that cabin
crews can issue passengers to alert you when your lavatory is ready. When it
vibrates and blinks, it's your turn - and an announcement will be made in
the cabin announcing your turn at the lavatory. This is just another way
that we try to make you feel comfortable while maintaining security over
everything happening in America's airspace, and we think it will be a
welcome benefit to the flying public. Is there anything else I can help you
Me: (recovering) "Yeah. One more question, if I may... "
Me: "Given the long lines at security checkpoints, I recently started
FEDEXing all my belongings to my destination, and now board planes with only
my boarding pass, passport, and either a book purchased at the airport or my
iPod music player. I don't even send luggage through anymore. Yet, I still
get extra security screening. Why?"
TSA: "Well, sir - statistics show that people who travel as 'light' as you
may be a potential terrorist because the lack of personal articles on the
flight could mean you don't intend on making it to your destination alive.
As a result, you might get singled out for extra screening from time to time
-- it's all based on the computer models and intelligent predictive
simulations that our McLean, Virginia-based homeland security contractor,
Dewey-Cheatem, and Howe, runs for us. I'm very sorry about that."
Me: "One time I got extra screening just because I was looking around while
waiting my turn to go through the security checkpoint."
TSA: "Yes, the computer models indicate that people who take special
interest in the new security measures might be a person of concern to us,
and based on how these computers - and those running our Evildoers Watch
Lists - are set up, they're never wrong. In all honesty, sir - you really
should just face front and not deviate from the line or talk to anyone but
uniformed security personnel until you're cleared and inside the terminal.
And when you do talk with security personnel, always be docile and never
question what they're asking of you. That's a clear sign of a potential
Me: "Okay....I understand that, but how about the time when I was just
standing in line and not talking to anyone or looking around? Did you think
I was a terrorist then, too?"
TSA: "Sir, you were likely flagged for looking 'too normal' instead of
'normal enough but not overly normal' -- again, computer simulations
indicate that's one of the signs of a potential terrorist trying to sneak
past our new security. Had you been unshaven, hung over, or otherwise looked
evil, we would detect that instantly and require extra security screening."
Me: "Looking evil? How do you figure that out?"
TSA: "There is a classified DOJ-TSA memorandum for all airport security
directors outlining what we believe constitutes an 'evil' look and how to
screen such passengers. This memorandum also lists a number of questionable
carry-on items that could be used by a passenger to conduct evil deeds
against the mother-- pardon me, the homeland."
Me: "Oh. I guess that explains why the air marshal followed me to the
bathroom last month after he saw me reading the 2004 Farmer's Almanac on my
one-way flight from JFK to Atlanta."
TSA: "Yes, those almanacs might be helpful to terrorists. The FBI was right
on top of that one when they brought it to our attention last month. You
were lucky, sir -- if you'd been reading a Michelin Guide or something
equally sinister they'd have diverted your plane and taken you in for
questioning. And, the air marshals are supposed to be undercover agents --
I'm sorry you noticed him!"
Me: "That's okay - he looked like every other air marshal I've seen since
September 11 - but I wasn't scared or anything. Anyway, that pretty much
answers all my questions. Thanks for your time today."
TSA: "Our pleasure. And, sir? Before you go--"
[ patriotic music begins to play softly in the background ]
TSA: "You may be interested to know that starting in April 2004, TSA will
require all passengers on domestic flights board the aircraft wearing
nothing more than TSA-issued hospital scrubs and only after being
administered a shot or two of Demerol and being subjected to full-body
cavity searches for plastic explosives. Paper booties will be freely
available for first class passengers, and for about $3 in the main cabins.
The costs for the Demerol shots will be covered by a small increase in the
'airport security fee' we've levied on all tickets since September 11. It's
just another way that we're working with America's airlines to make ours
skies the most friendly, comfortable, and safest in the world..."
Me: [after humming along for a minute or so to confirm to the TSA
representative that my patriotism is unwavering in the face of stupidity]
"Thanks for the help --I feel much safer knowing you folks are on the job.
Have a great day!"
For the rest of the weekend I sat at home, watching football and wondering
if the unseasonably cold weather here in Washington would make Tom Ridge's
teeth chatter so loudly that he'd raise the national alert level back to
# # # # #
Richard Forno is a Washington, DC-based security consultant and author of
"Weapons of Mass Delusion." His home in cyberspace is at
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