When I heard someone was suggesting that the TSA — a favorite subject here at Popehat — was hip-deep in junk science, I was not exactly surprised. After all, the TSA has a history of flirtation with junk science, which perhaps should not surprise us, given that the agency may or may not be recruiting its technological experts via pizza box advertisements.
The junk science in question relates to the TSA's much-discussed full-body-scanners, which are supposed to help detect hidden weapons, with the side benefit of providing a relatively safe form of release for incipient sex offenders and short bursts of self-esteem to the pathologically socially handicapped. Blogger Jonathan Corbett, who is engaged in litigation with the TSA, claims that the expensive and intrusive scanners can be defeated by the complicated method of attaching metal objects to your side rather than your back or front. The TSA says that it can't really discuss it, but don't worry and trust them.
This post is not about whether Corbett is right about the scanners. My point is about the TSA's reaction. Today, Corbett reported that in the course of being interviewed by reporters about his claims, he learned that a TSA spokesperson “strongly cautioned” a reporter not to cover the story. He didn't identify the reporter. In the comments to his post, someone claiming to be a reporter from Smarter Travel asserted that they, too, were "strongly cautioned not to cover the story." The post asserted the TSA spokesperson in question was one Sari Koshetz.
Now, I don't find it even a little hard to believe that someone from the TSA would threaten the media, either subtly or unsubtly. This is, after all, the agency that launches criminal investigations of critics, calls reciting the Fourth Amendment "disorderly conduct," and wants to criminalize use of its logo.
But I recognized that this was merely a claim on a blog, a blog of someone in litigation with the TSA, with anonymous or semi-anonymous claims attributed to other folks. So, even though I am reliably informed that I am not a journalist, I decided it behooved me to do something journalisty. I asked myself the question emblazoned upon the entrance to the Columbia School of Journalism, the question drilled daily into the minds of journalists from the rawest local-paper-recruit to the loftiest anchor: how can I make this story more about ME?
So. I Googled Sari Koshetz, the name dropped in the blog post, and determined that she is indeed a TSA spokesperson. I guessed at her government email, Googled it to confirm it, and then drafted an email to her to seek confirmation and comment on the story.
Here's what I sent her. As you can see, my aim was to determine whether she really did "strongly caution" people against writing the story, and to determine if that was meant to be a threat, and if so what the legal basis for it was.
Dear Ms. Koshetz:
I write for a modestly-trafficked blog that frequently discusses TSA issues.
I write to request a comment on a report regarding your conduct. Specifically, two reporters have now asserted that you "strongly cautioned" them against reporting on the allegations of litigant and blogger Jonathan Corbett regarding TSA scanners.
1. Did you (or other TSA spokespersons) in fact "caution" journalists against reporting on the story?
2. Was your caution meant to convey that journalists who report on the issue could face some sort of governmental action?
3. What was the legal or factual basis of your caution?
4. Is there any other comment you would like to make?
I got a rather prompt response, if a brief one:
Any guidance provided is to caution reporters not to generalize that our technology doesn't work or print something without all the facts, based on an inconclusive YouTube video.
I must confess, this shocked me. I expected the TSA might ignore me. I expected the TSA might say "no, you idiot, we didn't strongly caution anyone against reporting a story, and we didn't imply a threat to anyone."
I did not expect a weak semi/non-denial that seems to corroborate that reporters were, in fact, "cautioned." In fact, an uncharitable reader might note that Ms. Koshetz didn't specifically deny making implicit threats, didn't specifically deny strongly cautioning journalists against reporting a story, and in fact only made an ambiguous statement that could be read several different ways, some of them ominous.
You know, if I were the spokesperson for a controversial and unpopular government agency frequently accused of infringing upon the civil rights of Americans, I think that I would go out of my way, when asked, to emphasize that I hadn't meant any threats against journalists and that I didn't intend anything I said to be threatening.
Unless, of course, I meant to be threatening.
As I've said recently, ambiguity in threats is the hallmark of bullshit thuggery. Until I see a clarification from the TSA, that's how I interpret this incident: as a deliberate attempt by the TSA to chill journalists from writing about whether its intrusive full-body scanners are worthless.
So. Allow me to offer my response to the TSA and its spokespersons: snort my taint, thugs.
There. Now I'll probably get on the no-fly list. Though more typical TSA behavior would be to grope my junk and then threaten to sue me if I complain.
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