Dialing D (as in, "Duh!") for Homeland Security Richard Forno 10 January 2004 Copyright (c) 2004 by Author. Permission granted to reproduce in entirety with credit given.
Article with interesting in-line URLs available at: http://www.infowarrior.org/articles/2004-01.html 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 downright crazy..." 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 policy." 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--" Me: "What?" 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!" [chuckles] 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 with today?" Me: (recovering) "Yeah. One more question, if I may... " TSA: "Yes?" 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 troublemaker." 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--" Me: "Yes?" [ 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!" [hangs up] 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 orange. # # # # # Richard Forno is a Washington, DC-based security consultant and author of "Weapons of Mass Delusion." 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