Bad At Spin Control

Okay, so this guy named Aditya Mukerjee reported on his blog that he was detained for many hours by the TSA when he tried to fly to LA.  According to his story, basically he got hit with a false positive for an explosive residue, and then was detained for hours and hours more or less for looking Muslim.

Some guy who apparently thinks that the TSA is pretty awesome responded, here.  (Edit:  The author of the linked post, Steven Frischling, commented below, defending his record of not always thinking the TSA is pretty awesome.  Fair enough.  In this instance, he apparently thinks that the TSA was justified, and I think that he has an un-nuanced view of the situation.  For more, read the comments.)

But his spin control is kind of hilarious.  I note:

… an interview with someone within the TSA, at JFK Terminal 5, revealed that Mr. Mukerjee appears to have been flagged by the Behaviour Detection Officer (BDO) while in line for what appeared to be unusual behaviours.  As the official Incident Report makes no mention of the BDO’s involvement it is impossible to assess what caught the Officer’s attention, but the TSA source indicates Mr. Mukerjee was already on someone’s radar before he chose to opt-out.

I’ve read that three times, and I’m pretty sure that what it says is, “A TSA employee thought that Mr. Mukerjee looked awfully brown-skinned and Muslim before he was even swabbed down, but elected not to put his observation in the report.”

Mr. Mukerjee contends he asked to leave the screening area and return to the pre-security section of the terminal, with the intention of simply stepping back in line and going through screening again, but was not allowed.  This is absolutely correct, at this time he was in limbo, he was not being detained, but he could not leave.

Can someone walk me carefully through the difference between “being detained” and “not being allowed to leave”?

JetBlue’s Corporate Security, who had been aware of the situation and interviewed Mr. Mukerjee, also described him as aggressive in the official incident report.   The determination of the airline, on which JetBlue’s corporate communications cannot comment, is that Mr. Mukerjee could pose a problem in flight due to his highly agitated demeanor.   He was not viewed as a terrorist threat, but a potential risk similar to that of an intoxicated person on a flight … which typically results in a 24-hour “cooling-off period before a passenger is allowed back on an aircraft.

What does this actually mean?  I think it means that after “hours of intense questioning,” dude was pretty upset (which he certainly notes in his own account).

And stepping back from micro-processing the he-said, she-said of the various self-interested parties here, what actually went on?  A guy — who looked all Muslim and suspicious — set off an explosives alert.  Clearly, he needed to be additionally screened here.

So what took them hours?  He set off an explosives alert.  They presumably searched his bags carefully for explosives, and his person.  And then…  what?  He wasn’t carrying explosives.  Why was the guy held for hours and intensively questioned?

Probably for a combination of the following reasons:

  1. He looked like what they vaguely imagine a terrorist might look like.
  2. Everyone involved wanted to show that they were aggressively Doing Something.
  3. Perhaps some petty exercise of authority

I doubt that there was anything horribly, horribly sinister going on here.  No TSA official probably sat and cackled in another room, exercising his vendetta against brown people.  But that’s exactly the problem:  you get these authoritarian exercises without having any closet-Nazis in the agencies.  We don’t get saved from harassment because we’re basically a nation of more-or-less well-meaning people.


5 thoughts on “Bad At Spin Control

  1. Oh … and do you know what the deadliest terrorist in the United States looked like pre-9/11?

    He was white, 20-something with blonde hair, blue eyes with a Bronze Star from the United States Army, Timothy McVeigh.

    Prior to McVeigh, the deadliest terrorist act was carried out in the U.S. was by a 55 year old white farmer with blonde hair in Bath Michigan.

    So since you bring up what you think a terrorist looks like … let’s discuss what terrorists look like in the United States.


  2. Sandor,

    I assure you that when I read your post it was immediately obvious you have no idea what my background is, what my point of view is, or how often I cover both sides of the issues with the TSA. I take no joy in going after private citizens rather than an agency or company. I spent an extra day double checking all my info and tracking down what i could before I published and then ended up publishing my post late in the evening after having a fresh set of eyes go over my story. I do this because going after someone , rather than an agency or company, has different ramifications.

    I avoid the vast majority of “I was wronged” stories, however I was actively brought into this one, then was put in contact with the author of the blog post and had the opportunity to ask him some questions via Direct Message and Twitter. I was able to use that , match it to his post then match it to what other information I could gather.

    So if your take is that I think the TSA Is Pretty Awesome … you may want to take a look at the link above (this one and get past the one post you read.

    You may not change your point of view on this, but you’ll likely change your point of view on how “awesome” I find the TSA.

    Happy Flying!


  3. Hi Steven,

    You got me — I didn’t read your entire blog before linking your post. Did you read my entire blog before posting your comment? If so, you’re almost certainly my most devoted reader, so thanks.

    In response to your concern that I have mischaracterized your feelings towards the TSA, I have edited my post.

    That said, besides the I thought rather transparently flippant comment about thinking the TSA is “pretty awesome,” it also seems to me that you:

    1. Rather credulously passed along the kind of banal justifications that are always made in these kinds of cases (oh, really? The minority suspect behaved “aggressively” and “evasively”? Well, good to know).

    2. Were hilariously ingenuous when you suggested that Mukerjee had been flagged as a suspect prior to his screening.

    3. Appear to be unaware of the definition of the term “detain.”


    4. Most importantly, lose the forest for the trees on the whole case. Mukerjee screened positive for explosives residue, and certainly that warrants some kind of additional attention. But the key realization here is that, having determined that he is not in fact carrying any explosives, he should have been cleared to fly. Instead, the TSA pivoted into a multi-hour interrogation, probably based on his ethnicity. But if it was not based on ethnicity, and was based on, whatever, petty authoritarian impulses, that’s actually not better.

    Flying is rarely happy these days, I’m afraid.

    -Sandor at the Zoo

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