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

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 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.

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.

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 Usajobs.gov 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.

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.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • UserName

    Chris,

    As someone who presented some questions on your FB page to Bob, I appreciate that you took the time to conduct the interview. While my questions weren’t directly answered, his lack of direct answers – as others have pointed out – are what’s most telling.

    While no hiring system is air-tight, the fact that they’ve terminated several hundred employees for larceny is probably an indicator that their screening system of their own employees isn’t sufficient. The irony is, of course, that this is the same group of people tasked with screening the entire flying public. As someone who has had items pilfered by a TSA agent, I’m deeply disturbed by the rampant unprofessionalism, and criminality, displayed by many agents (to be fair, some are very good).

    In regards to the health concerns related to the AIT machine, Bob cites several studies but a link is only provided to the TSA published data (not exactly unbiased). In fact, the TSA just recently admitted that their own analysis of the radiation levels were off by an order of magnitude of 10x. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/tag/l-3-communications/

    As someone who is exposed to AITs on a weekly basis I still am not comfortable with the data presented.

    So, I opt-out. Bob goes to great pains in his responses to say that opting-out is a passengers right. But I, personally, have experienced several occasions where TSA officers have acted in a hostile manner towards me, and aggressively questioned me, for my reasons of opting-out. I’m sure Bob would say that those agents are not following protocol and to fill out a comment regarding their behavior on tsa.gov and an airport customer service manager will follow-up.

    But do they? I have no idea. There’s no accountability, from a consumer of the system’s standpoint. Submitting a comment into the TSA is a black hole.  I’m the one who gets hassled, groped, and unreasonably searched, I have a right to know that my complaints were addressed.

    And finally I had to laugh at the response to the question regarding disposal of potentially hazardous liquids and gels (seized from the site). Bob dismisses this by saying “Common items such as shampoos and water are voluntarily surrendered by
    travelers at the checkpoint, periodically collected and disposed of
    under individual state regulations.”

    If they are common items, and the TSA knows they are common items (which they more or less default to based on their disposal methodology) then why are they seized in the first place? This is a fantastic example of the nonsense the traveling public is exposed to by the TSA.

    As a very frequent traveler based in NYC I want nothing more than to have a secure air transit system. Unfortunately, the TSA does not provide that. They’ve become a government behemoth trapped in the momentum of their own unimpeded growth. They are not policed nor held accountable for their actions. They’ve questionably kept us safe since their inception (no one knows if it was a result of their actions or simply that no one has tried, and those that have tried couldn’t pull it off) they’ve done so at the risk of the basic tenants of our civil liberties.

    Respectfully submitted.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    BRAVO, Joe!!

  • RonBonner

    Why are Gate Rape and TSA’s Touching of Private Parts  during screening not #1 on your list.  These things are what the public is up in arms about.  This is what the Texas bill addressing these things is all about.  TSA screening abuses the Freedoms of people in the United States.

    The questions asked should have had greater impact.

    Sorry, massive fail Mr. Elliott.

  • http://twitter.com/styree1 Sam Tyree

    Christopher seems to generally be as outraged as 90% of the American public when it comes to civil liberty violations by the TSA. However, he seems to be sleeping with the enemy in this particular case. I get that sometimes you have to use finesse when dealing with a tough opponent, but I agree that he went too far in this case. Handing over your blog to a propaganda machine like TSA in order for them to spew their rhetoric to your loyal readers was a mistake. We’ve heard their BS before…what we haven’t heard from them is the truth, or answers to the tough questions. If they won’t agree to provide the truth, then you should decline the interview. Agreeing to their interview demands in order to simply get the interview yields nothing, and it costs your credibility. If you think that making friendly with Blogger Bob is going to lead you to bigger fish who will be willing to answer the tough questions, you are naive.

    Christopher, you compounded your mistake by deleting the posts that called you out on your poor handling of the interview. You also showed tremendous indignation at the posts that questioned your decisions. You managed to come off a lot like the TSA itself, which seeks to silence and disparage its critics.

    I’ve always enjoyed reading your blog. This is the first post I’ve ever made, which gives you an idea of how strongly I feel about this topic. I’m not ready to write you off yet, but I’m extremely disappointed with the whole thing — the softball nature of the interview, the fact that you named the questioners without their consent, the way you rewrote some questions to make them less confrontational (but still attributed it by name), the fact that you deleted negative posts, and the tone of your responses to some readers. I’ve lost some respect for you, to be quite honest.

  • cjr001

    I’m sure there were *some* lobbyists, but certainly not enough with the kind of money to throw around as the makers of the pornoscanners have, or there would still be development with the puffer machines.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Thanks for setting me straight, Sam. I’ve lost a lot of respect for myself, too.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Coincidentally, I’m starting an airline soon. But I’m going to use my own pathetically low journalism standards, and will be skipping the usual FAA certification process. Any critics of this interview will be offered free tickets on the inaugural flight. ;-)

  • LeeAnneClark

    So, Christopher – how about an article telling us what you’ve learned from the Blogger Bob Boondoggle?  You have fans out here who are confused and concerned.  We trusted you to have our backs when it came to the TSA, and you didn’t.  And when you got called on the carpet for it, you got mad at us!

    So far, your responses indicate that you stand behind what you did, and disagree with your critics in here.  But do you still, now that you’ve had a chance to think about it?  Now that you’ve seen the sheer number of your fans and supporters that feel the same way?

    I’m glad that Sam Tyree brought up one of my biggest issues:  the fact that you didn’t inform us ahead of time that you were going to use our full names in your article…and, worse, that you were going to reword our questions, so that our names were now attributed to questions that we didn’t ask.  I’m grateful that he saw the problem with this.

    I still believe that you meant well.  But did you think that part of it through?  Are you really surprised that we didn’t appreciate that?

    What do you have to say now?

    You have an opportunity to win back some respect, if you really want to.  Do you?

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Sorry, LeeAnne. I hate to disappoint you again, but there will be no more articles on this. Although I’m thinking of giving Blogger Bob a guest column every week, in place of TSA Watch. (Just kidding, Bob, I know you’re reading this, you handsome guy, but I don’t do guest posts on this site.)

    LeeAnne, if you and the other well-meaning critics of this interview can really “lose respect” — whatever that means — over one interview comprised of your own questions, there’s probably nothing I can say to change your mind.

    Yep, I paraphrased a few reader questions. Some were simply awkwardly worded.

    And yes, I used real names. You’re talking to a journalist on his Facebook page, and you expect anonymity? Let’s pause for a moment to consider the absurdity of that expectation. A journalist. On Facebook.

    If the TSA is allowed to continue violating our civil rights, it will be because we turned on each other. And that’s exactly what’s happening now, much to the delight of those who would want to install more scanners and impose new rules on the traveling public.

    The decision, Sam and LeeAnne, is yours entirely. Every moment you take your eyes off the true problem, you’re giving the bad guys aid and comfort. 

    The interview is what it is. It is your interview; these were your questions. 

    Maybe, just maybe, your anger is misdirected.

  • Nikki

    Damn, people, how many more times do you want him to apologize…

  • Kweed

    I don’t think it matters what questions he asked. Bob would have just replied with some vague non-answers he provided for the questions he was given. This article was a HUGE waste of time and probably only succeeded in making Bob feel all warm and fuzzy for having the opportunity to piss on the legs of Christopher’s readers and tell them its raining.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Yes! I did a bad, bad thing! I’m kind of enjoying this spanking, though.
    Thank you, may I have another?

  • Lindsey B

    Christopher it’s gotta be tough for you to read some of these comments – especially the ones that appear to attack you.  I can empathize with some of the comments; they wanted their questions asked or at least more questions that dealt with ethical issues.  But I’m surpised at all of the comments who state they “lost respect” for you after one interview they were disappointed with.  Are they forgetting all of the hard work you’ve put into advocating for your readers on countless instances?  Clearly their choice, but ridiculous nontheless.  I’m 100% positive you’ll have additional opportunities in the future to ask more questions of the TSA. 
     
    At least you’ll have a strong backbone after this.  We look forward to reading your next column!

  • john4868

    Ok … I’m going in the opposite direction of almost everyone else… Chris great job on getting an interview with someone at the TSA. It was nice to see how they look at the world regardless of if I agree with it. Also, it was an interesting twist user reader questions instead of your own. I like how you chose questions that leave the chance of dialog staying open instead of asking questions that would have not only caused the interview to be cut short but also eliminated any possibilty of a future interview.

    For everyone else … get over it. Its Chris’s blog, his site and his career. If you want to ask the hard questions get your own site but good luck on getting an interview or having someone actually stay around to answer anything from you. Especially if some of you asked the vulgar questions you posted on the site.

    Hopefully Blogger Bob will continue to address concerns in the future and give Chris the chance to slowly move the needle or educate the public on why it isn’t being moved.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Folks, let’s keep tabs on this:

    Details Emerge on House FY 2012 DHS/TSA/CBP Funding Bill

    The House of Representatives has begun consideration of the fiscal year 2012 funding bill for DHS and its component agencies. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security approved its draft version of the measure on May 13, and the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to consider the measure Tuesday morning.

    In advance of full committee consideration, House leaders have released the committee report accompanying the bill. The report includes additional details on specific funding levels and congressional direction on a number of important areas, including TSA staffing, AIT deployment, EDS upgrades in airports, and passenger processing at international gateway airports.

    The House measure proposes $5.225 billion for aviation security, a slight increase over FY 2011 levels — $4.155 billion for screening operations and $1.068 billion for aviation security direction and enforcement. The measure proposes to continue a cap on TSA screener personnel at 46,000 FTEs. In addition, the legislation proposes a total of $472 million for the purchase and installation of explosives detection equipment in airports – down from the $541 million provided in FY 2011.
    http://www.aviationnews.net/?do=headline&news_ID=192194

    This is different from what Napolitano proposed, according to a past article:

    Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the TSA’s proposed budget for fiscal 2012, which raises spending 5.7 percent, to $8.1 billion. Much of the $459 million increase would go to hiring another 3,270 employees, for a total TSA work force of 58,401, most of them screeners.
    http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/02/newark_airport_security_lapses.html

  • cjr001

    “It is your interview; these were your questions.”

    And yet, YOU chose to lob the softballs.

  • cjr001

    Bob addressing concerns? How about Bob be honest and truthful for once, instead of being evasive, giving spin, and telling outright lies.

  • Guest

    Chris, that was ugly.