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My TSA Encounter at Chicago O’Hare Checkpoint

NOTE: I wrote this post Sunday while sitting in a hotel after a canceled flight.

I’m in Chicago, fresh off a Lufthansa 747 from Frankfurt. I’m happy that I spent two weeks with my wife and little person – and reconnected with family I hadn’t seen since the 80s, plus one of my best friends and his family.

I’m trying really hard not to let the TSA and its collective competence and attitude disorders overshadow the rest of the trip. It’s not easy, though.

Here’s the deal: we had to connect with a flight to Phoenix. That involved a change of terminals, which also means a trip through security. With a baby (admittedly, a baby about to board her 17th flight). We got into a long queue in the checkpoint at Gate B9 in terminal 1 right around 2 p.m. As we waited, a short,  bearded and needlessly officious TSA employee – think Jason Schwartzman – ran a monologue that ran the gammut from contradictory to vaguely threatening. My favorite part: his digressions on fanny packs (Actual quote: “And don’t play games with us on fanny packs – we mean business!”). NOTE: I do not refer to TSA employees as officers because they are not, regardless of the TSA designation; they have no immunity from state or local laws, and do not have the power to arrest people.

(As a side note, I’ve been through security checkpoints in a laundry list of countries.)

I stepped through the magnetometer holding my little person. The TSA screener swabbed my hands. A few seconds later, the agent determined that I triggered some sort of “positive” and that I required more screening. I turned the little person over to Sarah.

I figured a second swab, or they’d swab me and send me on my way. The screener asked me to walk with them, which made me think they just needed a little extra room.

But no – he took me to an enclosed room. The alarm bells went off.

At that point, I told the TSA screeners that I wanted my wife present, and that she’s an attorney. (I wanted them on their best behavior.)

I also asked whether he minded if I recorded the screening. He told me that’s not allowed, and I asked to see that in writing. He fetched a higher ranking official, who told me that it’s against their procedures and is only available – and he really said this – on a need to know basis. “And because you’re a civilian, you don’t need to know.”

“Just so we’re clear here, ” I told him,” you’re a civilian too. ”

“Sir,” he said, somehow making the word sound like an insult, “I am a federally employed civilian.”

Why that matters, I have no clue. He also pointed to a sign that says recording or photographing in the private screening area is prohibited. Of course, putting something on a sign or even enacting it as a policy doesn’t make it law. It is well-known that filming a TSA checkpoint is, in fact, legal. Not even the ACLU seems to address this. The TSA website says “We don’t prohibit public, passengers or press from photographing, videotaping, or filming at screening locations. You can take pictures at our checkpoints as long as you’re not interfering with the screening process or slowing things down. We also ask that you do not film or take pictures of our monitors.” I was technically in a screening area, so it seems I should’ve been allowed to film my screening. The “federally employed civilian” implied that there might be something to be gleaned from the screening process, but what I experienced was no different from any other public pat-down I’ve had (I frequently opt out).

I figured I’d come back at this recording issue later. Regardless, every TSA employee involved refused to show me any written statute that prohibits a person from recording a private screening. This is disturbing, for obvious reasons. I let the first guy (who was actually pretty genial) swab me again.

Guess what? Another positive.

He told me that he needed and expert to review his info, and the expert was about 5 minutes away. Five minutes became about 15.

The expert showed up – he had a paramilitary bearing, but I could clearly see that he would bet a year’s pay that he was on a wild goose chase. I listened to them carefully and heard the word “nitrates.” The expert seemed amused, and I overhead him ask – clearly knowing the answer – if the screener found any relevant objects. No.

Then the expert asked about the screener’s gloves. He ferreted out that the screener used blue gloves both times.

“You didn’t use the pink gloves?”

Cue headshaking and a patronizing smile from the expert. The screener told us we were free to go, and he trotted off so fast it was like he vanished. No apology, either. The “federally employed civilian” supervisor had also long since scuttled away.

And it’s with our “federally employed civilian” and our fanny pack-obsessed screener that I want to conclude: They both typify what’s wrong with TSA screeners. They are needlessly officious and demeaning. They conducted themselves with an arrogance (can anything be more ludicrous than a civilian calling another civilian a civilian?) about their status, and use whatever small amount of power they posses incorrectly. They don’t understand the difference between their agency’s policies and this nation’s laws. They also seem to be the type of employees who contribute to the TSA’s abysmal record for lying to passengers about their rights.

I mentioned earlier that I’ve been through security checkpoints in a laundry list of countries. In each of these countries, security personnel are more personable, efficient and articulate than those in my own country. The Department of Homeland Security should put some serious thought into the impression the TSA’s conduct has on not only Americans, but our visitors from abroad. What I find most concerning about the conduct of the two officers I’ve named (there were two others who were not a problem at all) is their insistence that they are above scrutiny. This is clearly a cultural problem within TSA, and one of the first aspects of the agency I’d encourage elected officials to address.

On a lighter note, this might be the funniest piece ever written about a TSA pat-down. And if you still want something heavier, this Cracked.com article shows why TSA is so ineffective. Still need more to read about the TSA security theater? Check out my encounter with them at Denver International Airport!

6 thoughts on “My TSA Encounter at Chicago O’Hare Checkpoint

  1. Peter

    Hey Justin,

    merry christmas to you and your family. It seems ORD has the worst TSA ever. When I had a quick layover there, an TSA agent demanded that people put their shoes on the conveyer belt of the scanner and not in the bins. If they people wouldnt comply he would call the CDC. Yes you heard right. Well so diseases and viruses are only contagious if they are in bins but not on a conveyor belt. So funny but more sad then anything else.

    http://gatetoadventures.com/lounge-review-air-france-klm-lounge-chicago-ohare/

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