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Column: Exposed! An Airport Screener Lays Bare TSA’s Dirty Tricks

This was the week when America’s airline passengers got our sweet revenge. It happened right before our eyes.

We saw a federal bureaucratic body known as the Transportation Security Administration get summarily shoved through a high-tech machine (in this case, just a word-processing computer). Then one of its own former body image screeners did to his ex-bosses what he and his colleagues had done to us for several years: He stripped that bureaucratic body starkers! Suddenly, its bare-naked “T-S-A” was just dangling out there, no longer covered up by years of phony promises and flawed practices. TSA’s inadequacy was exposed for all the world to see.

It was not a pretty sight, and certainly not a comforting one.

On Jan. 31, former TSA security screener Jason Edward Harrington wrote an article for Washington’s agenda-setting online news organization Politico.com that exposed as blithering failures — and privacy invaders — those original TSA full-body scanning machines. And a number of the TSA folks who ran those machines that, since 2007, had been stripping airline passengers down to their anatomically accurate nude, X-ray-like images. Harrington, who worked at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport from 2007 until last year, unsubtly titled his article: “Dear America, I Saw You Naked — And Yes, We Were Laughing. Confessions of an ex-TSA Agent.”

But the article’s most damning revelation was not the bare-naked titillation that filled most of our old media’s coverage of Harrington’s confessions. Nor the TSA gang’s frat house shenanigans, as they’d gather in the Image Operator’s Room to gawk and crudely joke about our images on the screens. “Piercings of every kind were visible,” he wrote.

No, the article’s most unforgivable revelation was that the TSA put us through all of that even though it knew its Advanced Imaging Technology machines could reveal everything about a person’s body — except, maybe, his or her concealed weapon.

“We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed,” Harrington wrote. Indeed, when his training class instructor was asked for his off-the-record opinion of the machines, the trainer said: “They’re (naughty word deleted).” Harrington wrote: “He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.”

Actually, the TSA knew a lot more. In 2010, I wrote two columns about an alternative technology that would invade no one’s privacy — except maybe the privacy of someone sneaking a weapon through security. It is called Automatic Target Recognition (ATR), software for detecting contraband items on a person. And it wasn’t just theoretical — it was being used every day in Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport.

It was much like the TSA’s machines — with one crucial difference: Instead of producing an anatomically accurate X-ray image of a passenger, the ATR only shows a chalk-like outline of a generic human body (like the ones cops draw on sidewalks at crime scenes). If the machine detected a concealed weapon or suspicious item, a yellow box appeared over that spot on the outlined body. Then the passenger was escorted to a non-public pat-down.

But in 2010, the TSA was dismissive of this technology solution to the privacy invasion. Even when several U.S. senators urged it after seeing it operate in Amsterdam. Finally, they enacted a law requiring all imaging be done by the ATR chalk-outline software. After spending more than $80 million, TSA installed new machines with ATR software at all airports.

Today, the TSA’s machines show the chalk-like generic body — instead of your real one. And yes, the imaging features the telltale yellow box alert.

Now we get it. When those government officials kept promising you “transparency,” they were only talking about your clothing. Not their promises and practices.

After Harrington’s article had stripped the TSA bare — revealed it to be just another example of wasteful spending and disregard to the rights of ordinary citizens — the TSA’s Dickensian named administrator, John Pistole, went on NBC’s Nightly News.

But he didn’t deny the article’s disclosures. His message was that his TSA’s past is no longer a fitting prologue. Grown-up kids who once played cops and robbers may remember how, after they were “shot” dead, they would simply jump up and say “I’m a new man!” and continue playing the game. So too with this game.

“There is a new TSA in town doing things 180 degrees differently than what he alleges was done,” Pistole said. He added: “TSA will not tolerate the unprofessional conduct of officers, if proven.”

Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.