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'New TSA in town,' agency says in response to screener's charges

A former airport screening officer at the TSA is revealing secrets about how members of the traveling public are treated. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

The federal airline security agency Friday sort of denied a scathing exposé of passenger screening procedures by a former security agent who said colleagues laughed at passengers' nude X-ray images, ogled attractive women and retaliated against rude fliers.

In an article in Politico, Jason Edward Harrington, a former screener for the Transportation Security Administration at Chicago O'Hare International Airport from 2007 until last spring, said the agency was wasting taxpayer dollars "on ineffective anti-terrorism security measures at the expense of the public's health, privacy and dignity."

The TSA issued a statement Friday that didn't contest that any of the behaviors Harrington described took place.

It said many of the "procedures and policies referenced in this article are no longer in place or are characterized inaccurately." But it talked about only one of them: "the analyzed images referenced in the article."

Harrington wrote that those images — ghostly X-ray depictions of individual passengers — were the fodder for endless jokes among screeners about fliers' weight, attractiveness and, for lack of a more family-friendly synonym, endowments.

TSA Administrator John Pistole stressed in an interview with NBC News that not only were all of the scanners replaced, but also that all of the actual screening rooms had been disabled. Software now does the work of identifying potential weapons, he said.

"There is a new TSA in town doing things 180 degrees differently than what he alleges was done," Pistole said.

Political editor Mike Allen talks about a former TSA agent's disclosures..

But Harrington — who declined to talk to NBC News — made many other allegations in his article, among them that "jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues."

"All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels," he wrote.

And he didn't stop there:

"One of the first terms I learned from fellow male TSA officers at O'Hare was 'Hotel Papa,' code language for an attractive female passenger — 'Hotel' standing for 'hot,' and 'Papa' for, well, use your imagination."

Screeners specifically issued "red alerts" for attractive women wearing red and "yellow alerts" for attractive woman wearing yellow, Harrington wrote.

And screeners did get revenge on difficult or rude fliers, subjecting them to "retaliatory wait time," he wrote, saying that's "what a passenger with a bad attitude gets."

"There are all sorts of ways a TSA officer can subtly make you wait longer to get through security, citing imaginary alarms, going 'above the SOP' [standard operating procedure] for 'a more thorough screening,' pretending that something in your bag or on your full body image needs to be resolved — the punitive possibilities are endless, and there are many tricks in the screener's bag."

In a longer post on its website Friday night, the TSA wrote:

"Today's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) looks quite different. Today's TSA has moved away from a one-size-fits-all approach, and toward a risk-based security posture to better execute our vital mission.

"TSA's top priority is to protect the traveling public, and every policy and security procedure in place is designed to mitigate threats to passengers and the aviation sector — which we know our adversaries continue to target. We are always taking steps to enhance our procedures, to most importantly stay ahead of evolving threats, and wherever possible to also improve the experience of the traveling public."