At the airport, the Transportation Security Administration goes after potential terrorists. In cyberspace, it targets bloggers who may be spreading misinformation.
The blogosphere is constantly buzzing with TSA-related gripes and accusations.
Two years ago, the administration started pushing back. In early 2008, TSA officials launched a blog — www.tsa.gov/blog — that gives them a platform to address critics directly.
Nearly 2 million page-views later, it’s safe to say the site has spun off into something its creators never imagined.
New posts, which are vetted by subject-matter experts and administration lawyers, average 3,000 to 5,000 unique hits and often accumulate more than 100 comments. The site has more than 1,000 subscribers. Other federal agencies have sought TSA’s advice on how to start their own blogs.
Most importantly, said Bob Burns, also known as “Blogger Bob” of the TSA blog team, “We’re able to answer a lot of the ‘why’ questions that passengers have.”
On the blog, TSA officials explain new policies, discuss existing ones and address airport-security mishaps — such as the March 2009 incident in which a disabled 4-year-old was told to remove his leg braces before proceeding through metal detectors at Philadelphia International Airport. An account in The Philadelphia Inquirer said security officers wouldn’t let his mother assist him through the checkpoint, even though the boy could barely walk on his own.
Officials didn’t learn about the incident until February, according to a blog post Burns wrote Feb. 22. The airport’s federal security director called the father to apologize, Burns said.
The incident has drawn congressional attention. Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are seeking a formal investigation. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., recently sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in which he asked for pertinent TSA records.
Other incidents also have landed TSA in hot water.
In October, a blogger named Nicole White accused an unnamed transportation security officer of taking her toddler from her at an airport security checkpoint.
On the web, the story went viral. But there was one problem: TSA’s video evidence contradicts White’s version of events.
Burns responded to White’s claims immediately.
“As a father of two small children, I empathized with her about the alleged circumstances,” he wrote. “As a TSA employee and former [transportation security officer], I felt it could not be true — especially since our policy is that TSA will not ask parents to do anything that would distance them from their children during the screening process.”
At the bottom of the post, Burns embedded surveillance footage of White’s encounter with security officers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. In the video, her son is never out of her sight.
White declined to be interviewed, but she said in an email she stands by her original post. “This matter is one that is being handled between my family and the TSA,” she wrote on her website.
Because White’s accusations had been picked up by a number of blogs and were hitting mainstream media, Burns felt that his response was warranted. Every day, he searches Google, Facebook and other sources for the latest TSA criticisms.
“We’re well aware of the conversations going on all over the Internet,” Burns said. “We thought, why not have a blog where we can engage in the discussion?”
In some cases, people are surprised by the administration’s aggressive approach to public relations.
In January, Burns wrote a post stating that there are no children on the federal government’s no-fly or selectee watch lists. Two days earlier, The New York Times had profiled an 8-year-old named Mikey Hicks who, it appears, has the same name as someone on one of the lists. Security officials pull Hicks aside for a pat down nearly every time he boards a flight, the Times reported.
“It’s inevitable,” Burns wrote, “that every several months or so, some cute kid gets their mug posted on a major news publication with a headline reading something like: ‘Does this look like a terrorist to you?’ Anything involving kids or cats gets a ton of mileage.”
But names belonging to children do appear on the lists, as online commenters were quick to point out. They didn’t have kind words for the TSA blog team.
“This is a new low for TSA blog absurdity,” one said.
“It’s cute how you post things like this that directly contradict the actual experiences of so many members of the flying public,” said another.
In all, there were more than 250 comments. Even the boy’s mother, Najlah Feanny Hicks, joined the discussion. “If you think it’s far more helpful to belittle the process rather than just giving people the information they need, then I think the TSA has far more serious issues than any of us imagine.”
Those who are deeply suspicious of the administration often dominate the online conversations. Still, TSA prefers to engage them. Often, TSA incorporates feedback from blog comments into its decisions, Burns said.
“Other agencies are using the TSA blog as an example” of how to start their own, he said. In June, the Department of Homeland Security also launched a blog — www.dhs.gov/journal/theblog.
“The TSA blog has reduced the number of calls we get from the media with questions,” Burns added.
Michael Knowles, a communications consultant in Aptos, Calif., and former president of the Association of Professional Communication Consultants, said he’s glad to see other organizations emulating TSA’s approach.
“The content is engaging people,” Knowles said. “Security procedures in airports are perceived to be a pain in the neck, and this makes those procedures much more human.”
He acknowledged that when blogging, organizations run the risk of publishing hasty remarks that could spin off into controversies of their own. But the benefits of having a blog far outweigh the costs, he said. He recommended that Tiger Woods and Toyota, each battling public controversies, take a page out of TSA’s playbook.
“Businesses and the government are just coming up to speed and realizing that these social networking tools are great ways to communicate,” he said, praising the TSA blog’s casual, plainspoken voice. “The disingenuous stuff — people see right through that.”
The TSA blog also has a Twitter account, and it has amassed more than 6,000 followers. Burns, who signs his Tweets, “BB,” for Blogger Bob, regularly engages in Twitter discussions.
The December incident in which a Nigerian citizen tried to detonate explosives while on a flight to Detroit has sparked heated debates online about airport security procedures. Partly as a response to the incident, TSA is installing advanced imaging technology in airports across the country. The screening devices peer through passengers’ clothes to check for hidden weapons.
Bloggers immediately started asking questions: Just how detailed will these images be? Will TSA store them? (No.) What if I don’t want strangers seeing me in the buff? (You can elect to have a pat down instead.)
Then, a controversial picture went viral. A fully clothed woman stands next to images that were said to have been taken of her using TSA’s screening device. The image was posted on a number of blogs and received countless Twitter links. The images — purportedly what officers would see if she was at a security checkpoint — leave little to the imagination.
Burns took to the blog to defuse the situation.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” he wrote in a post dated Jan. 27, next to a copy of the image with the nudity blacked out. “Put quite simply, it’s a fake.”
Burns said in the post that TSA’s office of information technology analyzed the image and determined it was not, in fact, taken using the screening technology. The image was from a stock-photo website and had been altered using photo-editing software.
“It’s obvious that the woman shown on the left is not the woman in the doctored photos on the right,” he wrote. “Notice that the bracelet on the right wrist in the clothed image does not appear in the doctored images. Her arms and legs are also in different positions.”
He posted authentic advanced-imaging photos, which are less detailed.
More than 120 people have left comments. “I’m an eight-year veteran [transportation security officer],” one commenter said. “I promise you that no one really wants to see your ‘sensitive areas.’”
For Burns and the TSA blog team, it’s one more thread in a never-ending conversation.