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TSA defends actions on ‘odd watch’ in Oakland

McGann's watch

The TSA has provided pictures of the wristwatch at the heart of a spreading Internet controversy over its screening procedures.

TSA’s agents watching a scanner at a security checkpoint in Oakland International Airport on Nov. 15 notified law enforcement when a Rancho Palos Verdes artist named Geoffrey McGann put his unusual wristwatch through the machine. The agents thought the timepiece looked like it could be an intricate improvised explosive device, while the artist maintained it was a piece of handmade art. McGann was subsequently arrested by Alameda County Sheriff's Department at the airport and held for possessing materials to make an explosive device. The law enforcement authorities also said in addition to the watch, McGann was wearing a shirt with built-in tourniquets and oversize boots that had hollow compartments in the soles to make him look taller.

Ultimately, however, McGann’s lawyer told the San Francisco Chronicle on Nov. 20 that the Alameda sheriff’s office declined to press formal charges against his client.

The arrest drew the ire of TSA critics across the Internet on blogs and news sites as an example of what they said was the agency’s overzealous approach.

TSA, possibly feeling the heat, produced a picture of the watch on its Web blog page on Nov.  21. TSA’s “Blogger Bob” Burns said the discovery at the Oakland airport “has been creating quite a bit of chatter on the web.”

A picture of the watch accompanied Burns’ post. “As you can see from the picture, this is not your everyday watch. If I could show you what our employees saw, you would see that it looked even more nefarious to our officers viewing it on the X-ray monitor,” he said.

“From comments I’ve read on the web, some think we overreacted to a piece of steampunk art, while others understand why we would be concerned,” he added. The Steampunk art movement juxtaposes 19th century industrial-era steam powered technology onto modern devices, often creating anachronistic technologies or fantastical retro-futuristic inventions.

Burns said the watch wasn’t dangerous, but at the time of the screening, TSA agents couldn’t tell until an explosive detection team arrived and cleared it. “You see, when something is considered to be a potential deadly threat, it is protocol not to open the bag,” he said.

Since terrorists can use manipulate everyday items to make improvised explosive devices, Burns said TSA officers are trained to look for anomalies like the watch.

After clearing the watch, law enforcement officers (not TSA) made the decision to arrest the passenger, Burns explained.