Blogger Bob: “There is more to security than simply going through a checkpoint”

By | May 22nd, 2011

Editor’s note: I’ve restructured my Q&A feature a little. The questions are now yours. I’ll be soliciting queries for my next interview on Facebook soon, so please stop by and “like” my page.

Bob Burns, a.k.a. “Blogger Bob” doesn’t need any introduction. I’ve been following his work at the TSA for years, and refer to it frequently on this site and in my weekly TSA Watch column.

A note about the format of this interview: These were reader questions, and I didn’t have an opportunity for a rebuttal. Your comments are always appreciated. I can be reached here.

I started our interview by asking him a question that’s been on my mind for a while: Could Burns cite one example of responsible TSA coverage, either in a mainstream media outlet or in a blog? He declined. “I’ve been around the PR pros long enough to learn at least one lesson,” he told me. “Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel.”

Alright, then. Let’s get to your questions.

From Mary Ellen Adamson: Does the TSA believe it is making America safer? Can you name any specific, recent threats that TSA has stopped?

Of course we are. We act as a huge deterrent for anybody thinking about bringing something on to a plane. Our officers find two guns per day on a slow day. Just last week, 20 guns were found nationwide. We also find items that resemble IEDs or IED components.

Do you think it’s a coincidence that someone wrapped their cell phone around a block of cheese with a thick cord, or was it a probe checking to see if we’d find something that resembled an IED? Also, FAMs [Federal Air Marshals] have interceded on many flights to stop aggressive actions by passengers.

How many times you have gone through the full-body scanner, asks reader Karen Cummings. Also, have you ever personally received an “enhanced” pat-down, and what did you think of it?

I’ve gone through a scanner a few times at the Transportation Systems Integration Facility (TSIF).

I only fly about five times a year, so I haven’t had the opportunity to go through one yet while traveling at the airport, but I wouldn’t opt-out in case you were wondering. I don’t fault anybody for wanting to opt-out, by the way… It’s a choice we’ve given passengers and they’re welcome to make that choice, but we will need to conduct alternative screening that can detect both metallic and nonmetallic items.

As far as the enhanced pat-downs, I’ve received pat-downs and have had no issue with them. Also, TSA’s top leadership received the pat-down prior to approving it, and they’ve been through AIT screening numerous times when they travel.

Sommer Gentry wants to know if you can describe proper procedure for an enhanced pat-down. And if not, could you please explain why not?

Unfortunately, I can’t go into detail on security procedures such as the pat-down because we don’t want to provide a roadmap to terrorists. I know you can see and experience them for yourself at an airport, but we just don’t make a practice of openly advertising all the details of our procedures in a public forum.

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I can tell you that pat-downs are conducted by same gender officers. You can request that your screening be done in private, and you can have a traveling companion present during your screening if you like.

There have been reports of 500 agents being fired for stealing, says reader Richard Kline. What are the actual stats? Is there a plan to better train and compensate agents?

Between May 1, 2003 and January 2011, a total of 335 Transportation Security Officers have been terminated for theft. Keep in mind that number is for all theft, not just theft from passenger baggage.

While one theft is far too many, 335 is less than ¼ of one percent of the more than 130,000 TSOs hired by the agency since our inception. We have a zero tolerance policy on theft. It’s one of the quickest ways to get booted out of our agency.

Here’s one from Jeff Pierce: Why hasn’t the TSA closed off airport employee access to secure areas and subjected all airport and airline employees to the same screening as passengers?

It’s important to understand that there is more to security than simply going through a checkpoint. First off, anybody with access to these secure areas must have an access badge. In order to get one, you have to go through a background check.

We know better than most people that background checks are not a crystal ball. They just basically show you haven’t done anything wrong up until the time you obtained your clearance. That’s why we run these checks perpetually for all employees, have random employee screening for all airport employees, and have other layers of security in place to protect against so-called “insider threat.”

LeeAnne Pantuso Clark would like to know why passengers are threatened with fines if they enter into a TSA screening area, get selected for a random pat-down, and decide they would rather not fly?

Once a passenger starts the screening process, they must complete it. We do not want to provide terrorists multiple opportunities to penetrate the checkpoint only to “decide they would rather not fly” on the cusp of being discovered. As for fines, TSA has the legal authority to levy a civil penalty of up to $11,000 for cases such as this, but each case is determined on the individual circumstances of the situation.

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Marianne Schwab asks: What are the most unusual items TSA officials have discovered in a pat-down?

The one that always comes to mind is when one of our officers found a baby alligator strapped to a passenger’s leg. He was trying to smuggle it into the States. That’s probably the last thing you would expect to find during a pat-down.

Here’s a question from Barry Goldsmith: How do you feel about alliteration?

Perhaps Peter Parker or Bruce Banner would have a better answer?

Several readers have asked why TSA won’t provide a full-body scanner machine for independent testing, and why the agency hasn’t had an independent scientific study of the threat of liquid explosives?

The advanced imaging technology TSA uses is safe for passengers. TSA has performed additional third-party testing to further validate compliance with national safety standards. Backscatter technology has been evaluated by numerous third party health experts including the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).

TSA also recently posted radiation surveys of every backscatter unit used to screen passengers in U.S. airports, which confirm that each piece of technology operates well-within applicable national safety standards.

The 2006 liquids plot clearly illustrated the threat posed by liquid explosives. TSA’s security measures and technologies constantly evolve based on the latest intelligence to stay ahead of threats to aviation security, including explosives. Further, TSA uses bottled liquids scanner technology to screen medically necessary liquids brought through checkpoints in amounts greater than 3.4 ounces.

Emily Rose wants to know how you like working for the TSA.

I dig it. I’ve worked in many different positions at TSA and it’s an honor to be able to help educate travelers and defend the TSA. I believe in our mission and we have great leaders steering the way.

Judy Cloutier would like to know the qualifications for working at TSA. Also, how much training do agents get?

You can find the qualifications at and as far as the training, it never ends. You start off with a week of classroom training and then you have to complete on the job training with a mentor and pass certification tests prior to flying solo. From there, the training continues and each year, our officers have to recertify in order to remain in their positions.

Joan Hope wants to know why the TSA doesn’t profile. Wouldn’t that be preferable to the scans and pat-downs?

Profiling wouldn’t work for us. What does a terrorist look like? Take a look at one of my blog posts on this subject.

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Carrie Phillips Charney wants to know why the dangerous liquids that are confiscated during the screening process are merely thrown into a garbage can in the security area? Doesn’t that put the screening area in danger?

Since the UK liquid bomb plot of 2006, TSA has been looking for effective ways to screen liquids in an expeditious manner. That technology hasn’t arrived yet, so we still have to adhere to limiting liquids.

We have the ability to test each and every liquid, but this would lead to wait times requiring passengers to arrive at airports several hours prior to their flight. So instead of testing each and every liquid, passengers have the choice of disposing of the items prior to the checkpoint, or surrendering them to an officer at the checkpoint.

When they’re surrendered at the checkpoint, they are placed in bins and disposed of. Of course if there are wires attached to the liquids in question or a strong smell or anything out of the ordinary is discovered, additional steps are taken.

As far as hazmat, TSA has a contract with Science Application International Corporation (SAIC) to dispose of hazmat in compliance with EPA regulations. Common items such as shampoos and water are voluntarily surrendered by travelers at the checkpoint, periodically collected and disposed of under individual state regulations. Usually this is coordinated through the state’s agency for surplus property.

Update (7:30 p.m.): Whoa, this interview was more controversial than I expected.

But the commenters are right. I deleted this post on my Facebook page (it’s since been restored) and I zapped a few comments here. They’ve been un-deleted, too.

Why? I felt the discussion had veered a little off-topic, with readers accusing me of going soft on the TSA instead of talking about Bob’s answers. Which is kind of odd, considering yesterday’s post and my track record of covering the agency.

Oh, who am I kidding? I was ticked off.

I shouldn’t have scrubbed this site of any comments. Sorry about that.

My goal was to put your questions in front of Blogger Bob. I could have predicted how he would respond to some of them; others, I wasn’t sure. At any rate, I thought he deserved a chance to speak. I’ve been pummeling his blog for a long time, and he’s been a pretty good sport about it.

Why didn’t I ask some of the more controversial questions submitted by readers? Because I wanted to send him answerable questions. I exercised some discretion. For those of you who were disappointed — well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

I want to thank everyone who cared enough to offer their feedback this afternoon.

The comments are open, as before.

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