We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed. Not long after the Underwear Bomber incident, all TSA officers at O’Hare were informed that training for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners would soon begin. The machines cost about $150,000 a pop.
Our instructor was a balding middle-aged man who shrugged his shoulders after everything he said, as though in apology. At the conclusion of our crash course, one of the officers in our class asked him to tell us, off the record, what he really thought about the machines.
“They’re [EXPLETIVE DELETED–ed.],” he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.
We quickly found out the trainer was not kidding: Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.
It worked like this: The passengers stood between two enormous radiation sensors—each of the machines twice the size of a refrigerator—and assumed the position for seven seconds, feet spread shoulder-width apart, hands above the head, making Mickey Mouse ears. The policy was to have three officers on the checkpoint floor to coach passengers into position for the machine and administer pat-downs when necessary. The images were analyzed for threats in what was called the I.O. room, short for Image Operator, which locked from the inside.
I.O. room duty quickly devolved into an unofficial break. It was the one place in the airport free of surveillance cameras, since the TSA had assured the public that no nude images of passengers would be stored on any recording device, closed circuit cameras included.
The I.O. room at O’Hare had a bank of monitors, each with a disabled keyboard—which perfectly summed up my relationship with the TSA. I spent several hours each day looking at nude images of airline passengers with a keyboard that didn’t work, wishing I could be doing what I loved: writing. To pass the time, I phantom-typed passages on the dumb keys: Shakespeare and Nabokov and Baudelaire.
The scans were grotesque, ghostly looking black-and-white images parading across our screens. I found comedy even in the I.O. room’s name. I had been brushing up on my Greek mythology for a writing project at the time, and couldn’t help but relate the I.O. room to the myth of Io and Zeus: Zeus shrouded the world with cloud cover to hide his relations with the beautiful Io from his jealous wife, Hera. But Hera suspected something was going on, and brought the affair to an end.
Most of my co-workers found humor in the I.O. room on a cruder level. Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues: Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies were easy to discern—their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred poses—mouths agape, à la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels.
There were other types of bad behavior in the I.O. room—I personally witnessed quite a bit of fooling around, in every sense of the phrase. Officers who were dating often conspired to get assigned to the I.O. room at the same time, where they analyzed the nude images with one eye apiece, at best. Every now and then, a passenger would throw up two middle fingers during his or her scan, as though somehow aware of the transgressions going on.
But the only people who hated the body-scanners more than the public were TSA employees themselves. Many of my co-workers felt uncomfortable even standing next to the radiation-emitting machines we were forcing members of the public to stand inside. Several told me they submitted formal requests for dosimeters, to measure their exposure to radiation. The agency’s stance was that dosimeters were not necessary—the radiation doses from the machines were perfectly acceptable, they told us. We would just have to take their word for it. When concerned passengers—usually pregnant women—asked how much radiation the machines emitted and whether they were safe, we were instructed by our superiors to assure them everything was fine.
We were also ordered to tell the public that the machines were 100 percent effective, security-wise, in the event that any citizens caught wind of rumors to the contrary.
Then, in March 2012, a blogger named Jonathan Corbett published a video on YouTube, titled “How to Get Anything Past the Full Body Scanners.” In it, Corbett revealed one of the greatest weaknesses of the scanners, known to everyone I talked to within the agency: A metal object hidden on the side of the body was invisible to an image operator. Corbett showed how a passenger could bring a pistol to the airport and get it past the full-body scanners and onto a plane.
—Jason Harrington. It’s official; the TSA is a joke.