Blogger Bob--TSA's Internet mouthpiece (Q&A)

The U.S. government's most prominent and controversial spokesblogger answers questions from CNET about defending the Transportation Security Administration on the Internet.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
6 min read
caption: TSA Internet spokesblogger Blogger Bob, whose real name is Curtis Robert Burns
TSA Internet spokesblogger Blogger Bob, whose real name is Curtis Robert Burns

The Transportation Security Administration appears to have pulled off an Internet first: hiring the U.S. government's most controversial spokesblogger.

All federal agencies have spokesmen. Some have blogs. But it's the pseudonymous Blogger Bob who, more than anyone else, has come to represent the online voice and personality of his employer--not always with entirely successful results.

Internet fact checkers have accused Blogger Bob of eliding relevant facts about disputes involving the TSA. A Forbes.com column noted that Blogger Bob had curbed critical comments (and then subsequently permitted them). Reason Magazine has dubbed Blogger Bob someone who's paid to "mock people harassed by TSA," and he appears to have been the inspiration for the TSAgov parody account on Twitter.

Blogger Bob came to national attention last fall when he spent innumerable hours downplaying a backlash over the TSA's new air traveler screening policies, which gave travelers a choice of full-body scans or what the TSA delicately calls "enhanced pat-downs." The changes resulted in software engineer John Tyner's memorable line ("If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested"), lawsuits, congressional hearings, and, eventually, some modest concessions from the agency. He's even offered suggestions on what kind of underwear not to wear.

CNET posed a series of questions to Blogger Bob in November 2010, and, after some prodding, he finally replied this week. Below are Blogger Bob's responses to our original questions, along with responses to the last six questions that we asked this week about topics currently in the news.

Q: In her USA Today op-ed, Secretary Napolitano said the TSA's security approach is "risk-based." Can you do a series of blog posts sharing the documents with the public, or even summaries of those documents, that TSA used in its risk calculations?
Good suggestion, I'm looking into this.

What's your full name? What else do you do at TSA?
Blogger Bob: My full name is Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben, but my friends just call me Bob. (Curtis Robert Burns) I'm a Social Media Analyst for TSA's Office of Public Affairs. In a nutshell, I manage the TSA Blog, Twitter Account, and the Talk to TSA program, as well as monitor social media trends daily for emerging stories.

The White House press secretary uses his real name--do you worry that someone representing TSA as "Blogger Bob" lacks the kind of credibility that an agency like the TSA should have?
Blogger Bob: No. I've never hidden the fact that I'm a real person in various interviews I've done, and I have a bio on the blog, I just don't advertise my full name on the blog. I've also been recorded on video several times for the blog and other venues. I'm not afforded the luxury of a security detail, though it would be cool to have a posse. And a theme song too... Anyway, I'm at the point where I've received enough attention on the blog that my efforts to remain somewhat anonymous may be futile.

Are your blog posts and replies vetted by anyone else at TSA or DHS before you write them?
Blogger Bob: My posts are always vetted to some degree, but my comments and most tweets are not. The posts are always vetted through the appropriate program office for a fact check and then through public affairs. Depending on how sensitive the subject is, a post may occasionally be vetted with TSA Leadership.

How has your blog.tsa.gov traffic changed since the new search procedures were announced in late October?
Blogger Bob: For the month of November, you couldn't turn on the news or read a paper without seeing a headline about TSA. We addressed many of those headlines during this time, so naturally, a lot of extra traffic was generated and we saw a sharp spike in the number of people who were visiting our blog.

Besides the @TSABlogTeam Twitter account, what other social networks do you use for public outreach?
Blogger Bob: At this time, TSA uses Blogger, Twitter, YouTube, and iTunes.

We know that Al Qaeda already has used explosives concealed in body cavities, which can't be detected by full-body scanners or enhanced pat downs. If a terrorist tries to blow up a U.S. plane with body-cavity-concealed explosives, how would TSA's security procedures be changed?
Blogger Bob: While you are correct about full body scanners and pat-downs not detecting items concealed in body cavities, we know advanced imaging technology and pat-downs are two of the best tools we have to detect non-metallic explosives. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet technology that does it all--we are well aware that one piece of technology is not going to prevent all potential threats. We're waiting on Ron Popeil to unveil that one...Until Ron or somebody else invents the silver bullet, we'll have to rely on our many layers of security that are in place. (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response, Travel Document Checker, Behavior Detection Officers, Secure Flight, Federal Air Marshals, Federal Flight Deck Officer, Employee Screening, and Checkpoint Screening Technology just to name a few)

One vital tool we have are Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) machines. Whenever you see us swabbing something with a white piece of paper, we're using ETD technology. What most don't know is if someone has been in contact with explosives, you have traces of explosives on everything you've touched and our ETDs can detect it.

Lots of CNET readers have e-mailed me asking about the technical capabilities of the full-body scanners. Can you do a blog post with a detailed technical overview, and perhaps post some original documents?
Blogger Bob: We have a section of our web page devoted to the body scanners and we've published nearly 50 blog posts on everything we can talk about. Feel free to share these links with your readers.

* 3/17/2011 TSA Scanner Levels 10x Higher Than Expected?
* 3/12/2011 TSA Releases Radiation Testing Reports
* 2/1/2011 Airport Testing of New Advanced Imaging Technology Software Begins Today!
* 1/14/2011 FOIA Request for 2,000 Images is for Lab Images, Not Checkpoint Images
* 1/7/2011 A Friendly Suggestion on Products Designed to Conceal Sensitive Areas [CNET Ed. Note: very long list of links dating back to 2008 abbreviated.]

How many U.S. airports are routinely using the full body scanners on all security checkpoints, with no metal detectors routinely in use? Which ones?
Blogger Bob: Unfortunately, I can't get into details for security reasons, but I can tell you that our Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) units are co-located with walkthrough metal detectors which can be used for overflow when the checkpoint gets busy. You can see a full list of the airports using AIT here. There are currently nearly 500 units at 78 airports.

I presume you've seen the YouTube video showing how former Miss USA Susie Castillo said she was "violated" and her vaginal area groped by a TSA screener. Does TSA still stand by its claim to ABC News that the TSA screener "followed proper procedures?"
Blogger Bob: Yes, the officer followed proper current procedures. When you opt out of AIT screening, you receive a pat-down. It's important from a security perspective to ensure that everyone is properly screened. If you opt out of AIT screening, we can't just say "Okay then...have a great day!" You still have to be screened.

I read with interest your blog post on the Texas House of Representatives bill -- my interpretation is that you're arguing any such law would be null and void because of the Supremacy Clause. Is there any constitutional limit, in your opinion, to the ability of federal regulations dealing with passenger screening to override state laws dealing with unwanted touching and battery?
Blogger Bob: This question is really one for our legal team. I'm happy to connect you with them.

Have any TSA screeners ever been arrested by state, local, or federal police for inappropriately, in the words of the Texas bill, touching "the anus, sexual organ, buttocks, or breast of another person, including touching through clothing," or touching "in a manner that would be offensive to a reasonable person?"
Blogger Bob: No officer has ever been arrested for doing their job at the checkpoint.

How many hours a week do you spend on the blog?
Blogger Bob: There really is no set number of hours. It depends on what's going on in the aviation security world and what I've got on my plate at the time. Sometimes there aren't enough hours in the week and I end up doing some work from home.

Why don't you publish your email address?
Blogger Bob: I rely on the tsablog@dhs.gov address that's listed on the blog sidebar for blog related correspondence. I often share that address in tweets and forums with others so I can get more information about questions readers might have. I would be hesitant to do that with my main email address.