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

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

A Kelleher
A Kelleher
12 min read

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.


9/11HistorySecurityterrorismTransportation Security Administration

A Kelleher

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. A Kelleher is a pseudonym.