History, Politics, Security

The Real Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

This article does not reflect the views of the Transportation Security Administration. 

It is most living Americans’ “Where Were You When” moment, the day we all watched looped film of airliners crashing into the Twin Towers, watched victims trapped by raging flames forced to choose between being burned alive and jumping to their deaths. Readers not old enough to remember the horror of that day can get a sense from audio of 9/11 released by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2018. The TSA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that was created as a response to the 9/11 attacks to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.

As that collective trauma fades into history, the TSA, where I work, enjoys about the same level of public support as a measles outbreak.

The Threat and Why We Do What We Do

If you worked for the federal government on 9/11 in any sort of national security capacity, you knew fear of further attacks were pervasive, particularly after the anthrax mailings sharpened the impression of being under attack by unknown assailants on multiple fronts. (I worked in a building that got one of the letters.) Fear is hardly conducive to good policymaking, yet it was in this environment that the Department of Homeland Security, and its red-headed stepchild, the Transportation Security Agency, was born. It’s mission: to avoid a repeat of the airport security failure that allowed 19 Al Qaeda terrorists to hijack four jetliners using smuggled box-cutters.

For whatever reason, militant Islamists have long been fixated on attacking commercial aircraft.  9/11 carried the highest body count, but other equally ambitious attacks have been foiled by bad terrorist planning, good intelligence work, the intervention of brave passengers, and sheer luck.

Most Americans’ first acquaintance with Al Qaeda was 9/11, but that was not their first attempted attack on commercial aviation. In 1995, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed put together the “Bojinka Plot,” which was to start with the assassination of Pope John Paul II when he visited the Philippines, and conclude by placing bombs on 11 US bound planes. Luckily, members of the terrorist cell accidentally started a fire at their safehouse apartment and were subsequently arrested.

Few now remember that just three months after 9/11 would-be suicide bomber Richard Reid was stopped from igniting the explosive packed into his shoes by observant passengers on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami. You can thank Reid for having to take your shoes off and get them x-rayed when you fly.

In 2006, another massive Al Qaeda bombing plot was disrupted. Seven US-bound airliners were to be taken down with bomb’s assembled mid-flight from the liquid explosive TATP smuggled in sports-drink bottles. You can thank the perpetrators of that plot for why you are limited in the amount of liquid you can carry on board. (As an aside, if you want to carry a liquid on board, freeze it solid. No quantity restrictions.)

Then came the attempt by the “Underwear Bomber,” Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to detonate PETN explosive powder sewn into his underwear to take down a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit. Again, an observant passenger intervened. In response, the TSA rapidly deployed full body scanners to all major US airports.

In 2010, intelligence was passed to the US warning that three US-bound cargo planes had bombs on board. They were stopped and searched before reaching the US.

Outside the U.S., Islamist terrorists have been more successful.

In 2015, a chartered jet bound for Russia, Metrojet Flight 9268, was blown from the sky by a bomb planted by ISIS, killing 224.

In 2016, the Somali Affiliate of Al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, smuggled a bomb on board Daallo Airlines Flight 159, which detonated and blew a hole in the aircraft, sucking out the suicide bomber. The bomb was likely concealed in a laptop, which is one reason passengers are now required to get their laptops and other large electronics out of bags.

The onerous but performative aspect of the TSA’s job is designed to show bad guys watching us that everyone, even grandmothers and war vets, are subject to thorough screening. Of course we know it is extremely unlikely that a grandmother managed to pack plastic explosives in her oversize tube of toothpaste. But until some security genius comes up with a reliable way to read hostile intent, we have to react as if she might have. Which gives bad guys less motivation to enlist grannies—through bribery, trickery, or compulsion—as smugglers.

We cannot know how many, if any, terror plots aimed at commercial aviation the TSA has disrupted or deterred. By definition, deterred plots didn’t happen. But we do know we are being “probed” by would-be terrorists and smugglers to see what our screening catches, and how the TSA reacts.

“Probes” can be as simple as submitting a bag containing a giant block of cheese with a cell phone taped to it to see if we will catch large organic masses connected to electronics. But it can also involve classic “casing” behavior. At my airport, a small regional airport in the southwest, TSA officers noted and reported a foreign student doing suspicious things, including abandoning a moving truck in front of the terminal, and abandoning a large bag outside the screening checkpoint. Shortly after reporting this, the FBI arrested the student hundreds of miles away, outside Fort Huachuca, the training ground for the US military’s intelligence officers, with guns in his possession. That’s what a stillborn terrorist plot looks like.

While we have no figures for plots deterred, we do have numbers for gun seizures. In 2008, the TSA seized 926 guns from passengers attempting to bring them into an airliner’s cabin. Every year since, gun seizures have climbed substantially, with 4,239 guns, 86 percent of which were loaded, seized in 2018, up 457 percent since 2008. (To be clear, its fine to bring firearms on board-but only in checked baggage. The weapons cannot be loaded, or accessible to passengers in flight.)

 The Challenges

Considering that the TSA screened 813,000,000 passengers in 2018, and well over a billion checked bags, 4,239 gun seizures means roughly one in 200,000 passengers is carrying a serious threat item (not counting knives, which are legion: every large airport confiscates dozens a day). You don’t have to be an organizational psychologist to understand that when serious threats appear in one out of every 200,000 screenings, you have a problem. Humans are novelty-seeking creatures. Maintaining vigilance in the face of a steady stream of false positives, of possible threats that turn out to not be threats, is a situation humans are poorly wired to cope with. That’s one of the reasons the TSA sends covert testing teams around with a wide variety of simulated threat items. It helps keep us alert in face of routine and boredom. Some of the equipment we use also generates automated tests to help maintain vigilance.

TSA security is far from perfect, but also far better than you’d think from the skewed press coverage claiming that the TSA misses 95 percent of threats. Those numbers are vastly inflated—based on covert testing failures that do not include some key facts. The TSA’s covert testing teams are already “inside our perimeter.” A real bad-guy has to pass through several layers of unseen security that can flag them as a threat and our covert testing teams automatically bypass those, creating the impression of more weakness in the system than there really is. In addition, the testing teams know from the inside every weak point in the TSA’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and equipment, knowledge that the vast majority of terrorists wouldn’t possess. Their testing is designed to exploit those weaknesses in ways that working level Transport Security Officers (TSOs) are often ill-equipped to prevent. Our “failed” tests, therefore, are carried out by the equivalent of terrorists who happen to be expert in every piece of equipment the TSA has, every procedure it uses, while skipping layers of security both before and after the checkpoint screening process. These tests “steel-man” terrorist capability by assuming the TSA has been penetrated at every level by hostile aviation security experts, and then trying to see if those experts can still pull something off. And the answer is, with all those cards in their hands, they often can. But real terrorists don’t hold all of those cards, so the success rate of the testing teams is misleadingly high.

When passengers without “insider” advantages try to fool screeners they have a harder time. As when seven members of a reality TV film crew were arrested on multiple charges in 2018 in Newark airport trying to smuggle in a simulated bomb. The fines they faced for that shenanigan aren’t known, but considering the fines for attempting to carry a loaded gun onto a plane can exceed $13,000, and Uncle Sam is not above “making an example,” trying to trick the TSA with a fake bomb probably won’t be repeated soon by other TV production companies.

Looked at broadly, any security protocol should be reduced to the absolute bare minimum of complexity that can still do the job. It is too easy to screw up otherwise. The TSA’s basic screening SOP (there are others) is already 130 pages of individual decision trees that can easily confuse people who have been doing the job for years. The wise thing to do, then, is to avoid increasing complexity wherever possible, because as complexity increases, so do mistakes that create holes in security.

The TSA has to act as if the techniques used to smuggle drugs can also be used to smuggle weapons, for the obvious reason that they can be. Smugglers’ “mules” are paid to move a product, but the mules have no way to know whether white powder hidden in a bra is the instantly-lethal-to-touch drug Carfentanil, or the explosive oxidizer ammonium perchlorate. We don’t know either, unless everybody gets screened.

And a failure to screen everybody, to create exceptions, because it is, say, a pregnant woman, introduces points of failure. Any time you create a protected category, and subject people to lesser level of scrutiny, you can count on that protected status immediately being exploited.  There is literally no category of people who haven’t tried to use a perceived protected status to smuggle. Women with sick infants smuggle. Old men smuggle. Old women smuggle. Women faking pregnancy smuggle. People with deliberately disgusting feet smuggle (one can only imagine the smell from the Underwear Bomber, who was rumored to have worn his explosive-laden undies for two weeks straight ahead of his flight to “get used to it.”) In all cases, smuggling techniques can be adapted to smuggle bomb components. And it has been done many times by female suicide bombers.

All of which explains that while TSOs have to respect all passengers, we cannot give deference to any identity groups, however vulnerable. You are not special, because nobody is. It is as egalitarian as any process gets. We’re not there to hold your hand. We’re there to make sure you are not a threat to aviation security. Period.

Your In-Flight Security Courtesy of Low-Paid “Racists”

There is a recent trend in press coverage of the TSA that either implies, or outright states, that the TSA is a racist organization out to humiliate black people. Cosmopolitan, for example, asserts that if black women (allegedly) get more hair pat downs after going through the body scanner, it must be a result of racism. At no point is it acknowledged that the physical structure of black hair is, on average, different to Caucasian or Asian hair, notably curlier and kinkier. Or that black passengers’ choices to wear more elaborate and dense hairstyles can come with the cost of more hair pat downs. Fashion choices do have costs when it comes to screening: clothes with sparkle or bling trigger body scanner alarms, and elaborate hairstyles can too.

The scanners aren’t perfect. They react idiosyncratically to a whole host of factors, including hair and hairstyles with different physical properties. Also, to any physical objects in a person’s hair, including barrettes, beads, extensions, wigs, alligator clips, hairpins, hats, all sorts of headbands and head-wraps. That fact that the scanner highlights those objects means it is working as designed. These facts are ignored in place of a narrative of institutional racism, and racism so diabolical that it has somehow been foisted on one of the most racially diverse workforces in the federal government—TSA employees are 25 percent African American and 23 percent Latino (roughly 12.5 percent of the US population is black and 17 percent is Latino).

Oddly enough, nowhere in the press coverage is the view that TSOs, if it were up to us, would rather see passengers move through the screening process as quickly as possible, because it’s less of a headache. Or that when a body scanner alarms on a passenger’s hair, we have no choice to pat the area down, or lose our jobs. Instead, we’re portrayed as mustache-twirling racists who hate black women so much we take every opportunity to humiliate them, even though every screening delay makes TSOs’ lives harder.

Perhaps Cosmo is nobody’s idea of a hard-hitting news outlet, but even generally respected outlets like ProPublica imply scanner issues are proof of careless design on the part of the scanner manufacturer, and enable discrimination by the TSA.

Why not consider that maybe body scanner algorithms struggle with complex or dense hair styles? And maybe TSOs are just doing their best to cope with the limitations of imperfect scanner technology? I suspect articles saying that the TSA is racist get more clicks. Nuance is boring.

Passengers may say, not without cause, that TSOs are rude. Its definitely a complaint you will hear more at big airports where TSOs are under pressure by management to maximize passenger throughput. I try and avoid those airports myself as a passenger. Also, as in any job, there are some employees who are rude by disposition.

There are also TSOs who become rude over time, a defensive reaction to the endless stream of passengers who come through the screening process insisting they deserve special treatment and accuse TSOs of acting in bad faith when they don’t get it.

The Bulldozer Mom

Here is what a bad faith accusation looks like from a TSO’s point of view. One of my male colleagues was called to do a pat down on a 17-year-old boy after the body scanner showed a groin alarm. Any groin alarm means a pat down, front and back, from hips to knees. Again, thank the underwear bomber for that. Ninety percent of the time passengers get a groin patdown, it’s a self-inflicted wound. Before directing them to the body scanner, a TSO has asked the passenger (usually men, as men’s’ clothes have more pockets) to check their pockets and make sure there is nothing in them. Nothing means nothing—not coins, gum, a wallet, your phone, or Chapstick. The whole point of the body scanner is to find small objects so anything left in your pocket will set it off.

The 17-year-old boy left something in his back pocket. That alarmed the scanner. My colleague advised him that because the body scanner indicated an anomaly in that area, the passenger had to get a groin pat down to resolve it, and explained the steps he would be taking. This is standard, and the passenger had no problem with it. My colleague performed the pat-down in the exact same way he’s done hundreds of times before, per the TSA’s SOP. In full view of several passengers, including the boy’s father, and several TSOs.

And his “bulldozer” mom. What she saw was something everyone else has somehow missed. In her mind, my colleague was molesting her dear young boy. She complains loudly to my colleague. Then to his supervisor. Then to the police officer at the checkpoint. (And, of course, later in writing.) And while this complaining is happening, the boy and her husband, mortified at the unnecessary fracas, literally move to the other side of the seating area to be as far away from her as possible.

And then it gets even more delightful. When a passenger creates a big stink, and then leaves the TSA checkpoint to get on their flight, that’s not the end of it for us, it is just the beginning. The first thing every TSO who witnessed the pat-down has to do is write an official statement ahead of the inevitable investigation. In this case, three TSOs had to write statements about the event, in which nothing happened that doesn’t happen literally hundreds of times a day at every busy checkpoint in the country.

Underlying the mother’s claim was the assumption that the TSO that gave her son the pat-down wasn’t simply doing his job, but was a pervert in a TSA uniform and she was the lone crusader who sniffed him out. Another implication was that his colleagues saw what was going on, and in doing nothing to stop it, conspired to ignore his transgressions.

When passengers look at a TSA checkpoints and see cameras everywhere they might presume it is to spot potential security breaches. That is their official function. But what they are far more routinely used for is to protect TSOs from exactly the kind of baseless complaint described above. Practically speaking, those cameras are not for the passenger’s protection, but the protection of TSOs from time-wasting complaints.

When you have to perform mildly unpleasant procedures on a daily basis, and get accused of sexual assault, or racism, or any of 100 other kinds of bad faith, think of how that might make you feel.

In 2018, the TSA was ranked by employees as the 395th least desirable federal entity to work in out of 415. (395th was actually a slight improvement on 2017.) And dead last when it came to pay. Small wonder that the TSA has an awful employee retention rate. Turns out people don’t like being poorly paid to do a thankless job while being treated with contempt.

Or not paid to do it, as was the case when tens of thousands of TSOs, myself included, showed up and continued doing our jobs without being paid for over a month during the government shutdown of early 2019. Our pay checks were held up, while much of the rest of the executive branch, the courts, and of course, Congress, got paid.

We know all this, but also that, in addition to the meager paycheck, we’re standing between U.S. airline passengers and a repeat of 9/11. So we do the job anyway.


The author is a Transportation Security Officer who has served in the U.S. Army, the U.S. intelligence community, and now works for the TSA. He has been writing about national security topics for over a decade. A Kelleher is a pseudonym. Comments can be sent to TSAarticle@mail.com. 


  1. This is the type of job that only the dedicated are suited for. Having travelled to the US and Canada recently I was very impressed with the efficiency of the US security systems compared to Canada. I always appreciate professionals doing difficult tasks diligently, This is an excellent article that should be spread far and wide.

  2. I’m sympathetic to the agents point of view, but frankly, the TSA for the first 10 or so wasn’t particularly efficient nor customer friendly. They frequently ignored their own rules and were annoyed when they got push back. They constantly changed the rules and were belligerent with passengers who would follow the rules at one airport, but then get in trouble for doing the same thing at the next airport.

    It was routine 10 years ago to have a poorly trained agent try to confiscate tools in your check-on that were allowed by TSA guidelines. Then you had to ask to speak to their manager. Who would reach over, grab the ruler, place the tool beside it, then tell the agent that it met guidelines.

    Also, I’ve had the experience of starting to take my shoes off, and being told gruffly by a TSA agent that it wasn’t required. Then I get to the scanner, to find that the passenger ahead of me is being chided for not taking off her shoes.

    That being said, my experiences have improved dramatically over the last 5 years.

  3. Well, as a teacher in an urban district, I was just told today by one of my 14 year old students that I was a “crazy ass white bitch” because I took his cell phone away while I was teaching. He also physically grabbed my arm and thigh and tried to take it back by force. We dont have cameras in the classroom and it wouldnt matter much anyway as the students would have the same repercussions regardless: nothing happens to them. He was back in my class in 10 minutes.

    I think the TSA does good work and thank the author, and i empathize about crazy passengers. But my own take is people are becoming rude and more entitled and enabled across the board. Everyone is waiting for The Video that will make them rich with a giant lawsuit or settlement because the media always runs with stories that conform with their narrative (racism and sexism and Islamophobia) and utterly ignores incidences that dont, which is why most public servants get treated like crap now from both internally - if it’s you or bad publicity, administrators will throw you under the bus in two seconds - and externally, from really entitled customers.

  4. Yeah, I teach in the inner city as well, though in a school that is much better and would never put up with THAT nonsense. That would be an automatic suspension and possibly expulsion.

    My first school was like that, though. My sympathies. If the board and the administration can do discipline, that stuff never happens because the kids know better, unless you are a horrible teacher, and even then it shouldn’t.

  5. I’ve been teaching for 15 years now; in all modesty I’m a strong teacher, and I do get top ratings. But your schools must be a charter? Charters can be very strict about discipline whereas public schools are beholden to state ratings (they track suspensions and if you have “too.much” - defined by feelings as opposed to hard stats- then your school is ipso facto racist and Bad and off with its head), and the media biases; currently there is an idea that if you pretend poor behavior doesnt exist and tell the offending student how awesome they are, the problems will magically disappear. Meanwhile none of the board (or media) sends their kids to district schools…

  6. Great article. I was astounded at the number of guns people try to bring as carry on. Many of these people are probably just stupid, but if even a fraction are serious that is a huge risk. Since there’s been no major attack on US soil since 9/11, complacency is a natural instinct, but articles like this remind that there is a huge amount of effort going on behind the scenes that’s maintained the peace.

    I do wonder if a fully-blind screening process is desirable, though. I understand the danger of creating “protected” classes, but couldn’t we supplement the random screenings with targetted screenings on Muslims, particularly young Muslim males and women in niqabs?

  7. Stephanie that would be profiling and you know the problem with profiling. It works.

  8. I see the logic as well for protected groups, but I suspect - as you are implying, I think - that the actual reason is so they don’t get into trouble with the “profile=racism” crowd and that they’re doing it ‘under the table’ so to speak. There’s ample evidence that profiling works although obviously it can be abused. This is strictly anecdotal for what it’s worth, but one of my kids looks rather Arabic/'ethnic" and gets security checked at the airport all the time, whereas my kids who don’t look as “ethnic”, don’t get security checked. I myself got checked all the time, too, but I’ve noticed now that I’m in my later 50s, they don’t check me anymore. I mean, I used to assume they’d pat me down - what the crazy mom was objecting to for her son - and now, without changing anything on my part, they’ve stopped. It could also be they’ve changed their own procedures, but I do have to wonder about the profiling. I think it’s foolish to not profile. But I’m not in charge of this stuff!

  9. I get “randomly selected for additional screening” a solid 50% of the times that I fly. My husband didn’t believe me when we met, but he flies through security and I get stopped. Last time, I was stopped at 3 different security checkpoints in the same airport. I also get the sense this isn’t random, but I don’t look ethnic and can’t imagine how they’d know I’m 2nd generation Moroccan (top security threat, especially in Europe) except for my bangles. Whatever non-random screening goes on behind the scenes, it doesn’t seem well-calibrated to me.

  10. Stephanie, please don’t normalize “whiteness.” You know how delicate sensibilities are these days. On a more serious note, while I’m sure you appear as pasty white as the rest of us (or myself, at least), I can’t help but wonder if you’re abnormally high selection rate doesn’t have more to do with your demeanor (confident), age (30s I’m guessing), and surname (conditional to it being readily identifiable as non-anglosphere in origin). If this were the case, I can imagine how this might prompt a closer inspection. Aside from their ethnic appearance, my understanding (and correct me if I’m wrong) is that all or most of the 9/11 hijackers were fairly well-educated, in their 30s/40s, and well, yeah, had surnames that didn’t comport with what one normally thinks of as anglosphere in origin. Of course, this is little more than mere speculation, but to your point, something has to account for what is seemingly a non-random, random selection rate.

    As an aside, I work with a lady from Morocco (though she’s Muslim, not Jewish). She was a doctor in Casablanca but gave it up to come to America.

  11. I get stopped every now and then for a pat-down but I suspect the true reason is optics. They have to be seen patting down pale white men with blue eyes.

    As for you, I don’t know. But I twice observed a middle-aged TSA woman in full Arab/Muslim garb (minus the face covering) at the Denver airport, and her only job appeared to be staring at people. She didn’t talk to anyone, she didn’t fiddle with luggage or machinery.

    She just stared. Like a hawk. She’s was a mean-looking woman. You could almost believe she was once a guard in a Saudi women’s prison.

    I eventually decided that her job at TSA was to look for Muslims who were trying to not look Muslim. Or Moroccans, trying to not look like Moroccans. TSA probably learned to do this from the Israelis.

  12. Good observation. My father always used to get stopped coming back through customs. The reason was that he was a trained observer, given that he was military police in the USAF (he used to work with dogs). As such, he profiled behaviourally in a way very similar to criminals (smugglers in this instance), in that he was watchful and always looking around. I believe even retired police, routinely take their ID on flights with them, because their ingrained habits make them potential persons of interest to trained observers.

  13. It is true that implying that white people don’t have an ethnicity is weird, kind of like “Aboriginal” can only apply to someone from a Stone Age culture and can never mean “ethnic Brit.” Just imagine the implications for Aboriginal rights movements if the lefties would stop normalising whiteness for real.

    I’m in my 20s and all my names are very white. As for the confidence, I try to be extra cheerful when going through security because I’m aware of how miserable the job must be when passengers are sour about it (as the author describes). I take the expected extra screening in stride. When I was single and getting offered either a pat-down by a female agent or a body scan, I’d sometimes flirt with the young man and ask for a pat-down by a male agent.

  14. @ Geary

    Further to that, I once worked with a Jewish man raised in New York City who had a body type and facial features that could be taken for either Sephardi or Arab.

    He was also a jerk, who loved confrontation as a kind of sport. It juiced him up. One day, he shaved his skull and let the stubble grow out a few days before boarding a flight to somewhere. I asked a mutual friend if he was deliberately trying to look like an Arab and, to my surprise, the answer was “yes”.

    He liked messing with the TSA agents, I was informed. I don’t know how long this guy kept it up, but for a while he was scheduling his layovers with a cushion for the occasional interview.

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