My Wash. Times Op-ed: Why Everyone Scorns the TSA

Washington Times, November 6, 2013

BOVARD: Why everyone scorns the TSA

by James Bovard

In the wake of last Friday’s shootings at Los Angeles International Airport, some politicians and media commentators are feigning shock at the widespread hostility toward the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). There was no justification for the shooting suspect, Paul Ciancia, to gun down three TSA agents on the job, killing one. Ciancia’s brutal rampage, though, should not obscure the fact that the TSA has perennially pushed many Americans to the breaking point.

In 2010, TSA speeded up deployment of its whole-body scanners in the wake of pervasive U.S. government security failures that permitted a young Nigerian to board a Detroit-bound plane in Amsterdam with 80 grams of powdered explosive in his underwear. The agency claimed that the new scanners were necessary to protect against powdered explosives, but the Government Accountability Office warned that it “remains unclear” if the new scanners could detect such threats.

As the TSA began touting its new “see-all” scanners, many Americans objected to having a “birthday suit” photo placed in their federal dossier. Many travelers also feared the perils of getting regularly radiated by Uncle Sam, and such fears were fed by the TSA’s refusal to disclose key safety data on how the scanners worked. An investigation by the Public Broadcast Service’s “Newshour” and ProPublica revealed that the scanners could cause up to 100 cancer cases per year among travelers. Citing health and privacy concerns, theEuropean Union banned all body scanners that rely on radiating travelers.

Objecting to the whole-body scanners, many passengers preferred going through the magnetometers that the TSA had used since 2001. The agency created a new system of “enhanced pat-downs” for anyone who sought to “opt out” of the whole-body scanners.

As USA Today noted in October 2010, “The new searches … require screeners to touch passengers’ breasts and genitals.” An elementary-school teacher complained to The New York Times that she was roughly handled after the body scanner “detected a tissue and a hair band in her pocket.” People who had been victims of sexual assault were especially traumatized by the new procedures.

While President Obama and top other federal officials publicly defended the TSA’s intrusive new searches, the program never made a lick of sense. When “enhanced pat-downs” began, whole-body scanners were deployed in only 69 of the nation’s 400-plus commercial airports. Would-be terrorists could simply go to airports that continued relying on magnetometers and nonpunitive pat-downs. The agency presumes that someone who is determined to commit suicide and wreak maximum havoc will be unwilling to drive 100 miles to some other airport that does not have whole-body scanners.

The TSA greatly exaggerated the effectiveness of the new scanners. After Rep. John L. Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, received a confidential briefing in 2012 on the scanners’ performance in tests, he condemned them as “badly flawed” and declared, “If we could reveal the failure rate [of the scanners], the American public would be outraged.” The agency had no excuse for groping millions of Americans.

Other TSA programs have also pointlessly harassed or subjugated Americans. Gerardo Hernandez, the TSA agent slain on Friday, was part of the agency’s “behavior-detection” program involving thousands of TSA agents who “chat down” passengers at airports and watch for “micro-expressions” that signal potential trouble. Though Mr. Hernandez may have been a model employee — competent, courteous and fair-minded — that program has failed to detect a single terrorist and has spurred the arrests of thousands of travelers.

More than 30 TSA agents complained in 2012 that the behavior-detection program at Boston’s Logan International Airport had become a “a magnet for racial profiling, targeting not only Middle Easterners, but also blacks, Hispanics and other minorities,” The New York Times reported. The agents relied on “terrorist profiles” such as black guys wearing baseball caps backward or Hispanics traveling to Miami. In Honolulu, some behavior-detection agents were nicknamed “Mexicutioners” for their proclivity for harassing Mexican travelers.

The behavior-detection squad at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey engaged in such blatant stereotyping that it was derided as “Mexican hunters” by other TSA agents. Some behavior-detection officers complained that their supervisors pressured them to fabricate false charges against illegal aliens to justify reporting them to law enforcement. Last June, an inspector general slammed the behavior-detection program as a perennial flop, deriding the TSA for failing to develop “performance measures” or to “accurately assess” its effectiveness.

Exasperation with the TSA spurred many Americans to give up on relying on air travel, but the agency is now seeking to seize control over other forms of transit. The TSA spends $100 million a year on 37 teams that conduct almost 10,000 sweep searches a year at Amtrak stations, bus depots and even local transit. Anyone who refuses to submit to a warrantless search can be banned from traveling. The swaggering name of its roving squads — VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) — personifies the TSA’s attitude toward the American people. Newspapers often tout VIPR’s “show of force,” but it is a show seemingly intended to intimidate average Americans, not the terrorist suspects who do not exist in places such as Jackson, Miss.

People who are enraged at the TSA should recognize that some agents also oppose the needlessly oppressive practices that shred travelers’ privacy and dignity. We can condemn the shooting of TSA agents without exonerating agency policies that trample Americans’ constitutional rights. The Department of Homeland Security admitted in 2011 congressional testimony that “the large majority of travelers pose no security risks.” By treating most Americans like suicide-bombers-in-waiting, the TSA often makes traveling hellish without making it safer.

Tagline: James Bovard is the author most recently of a new e-book memoir, “Public Policy Hooligan” (Sixth Street Books, 2012).     On Twitter @jimbovard

JPB artwork from Wash Times TSA 115_2013_b1-bovard-tsa-scan-8201_s640x688


Illustration by Greg Groesch


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7 Responses to My Wash. Times Op-ed: Why Everyone Scorns the TSA

  1. Michael November 7, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    The whole TSA dog-and-pony show was never more than a rain dance for the tourists in the first place. Government officials perceived that they had to “do something” in response to the 9/11 attacks, even if they couldn’t think of anything really useful to do. Voila! TSA and “Homeland Security” were born…. and once created, government agencies are almost immortal. The next terrorist attack, like those that went before, will take into account whatever security measures are in force, and will go around them.

  2. Steve James November 7, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    My question is a simple one, who benefits or profits from the sale of these scanners the TSA purchases?
    There is an old cliche follow the $$

    • Jim November 7, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

      Michael Chertoff did some lobbying for one of the largest scanner firms. I expect that may have helped keep him off of food stamps in recent years.

  3. Susan November 10, 2013 at 5:56 am #

    The last sentence can drop the qualifier “often” and still be accurate. TSA does not make us safer. There was a briefing presented in Washington D.C. May 2012 by FTTUSA called “TSA: Failure by the Numbers” outlining the case why this is true. The analysis was done by a Naval academy mathematician.

    Pre-check is not a solution. Even if it guaranteed that TSA would not scan us and grope us, it amounts to being an extortion racket with us paying to buy back our freedoms. As it stands now it is a form of discrimination between those who pay up and those who don’t.

    It is not possible to “keep us safe” all of the time. To 100% guarantee that there will never be another terrorist attack on an airplane all planes would have to be forever grounded.

    I deeply suspect that TSA has become a “make work” agency. In a report published November 2011 Congress indeed characterized TSA as a “bloated” “human resources” organization that was “failing” in its mission, using “one size fits all” screening protocols that were “theatrics.” The words of Congress, not mine.

  4. Doug November 10, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

    I doubt the man shot by LAPD, Paul Ciancia; was the shooter. The shooter was described by various witnesses as (a) dressed like a TSA agent, (b) dressed in cammo, (c) dressed in navy blue, and (d) dressed in black. The man shot and called the suspect was wearing a tan shirt and light colored pants. The most dangerous thing in his possession was a bag of food from the Burger King where he was shot. Reminds me of LAPD’s shootings during the Dorner manhunt.(They just agreed to pay 4 million to two women they shot by mistake then)
    My guess is this person was simply an unlucky bystander who had nothing to do with the shooting.

    However, there is a real danger that congress will agree to arming TSA agents “for their protection.” This would be a mistake. TSA abuses the power they have; and there is no oversight or accountability for their misconduct. TSA agents know this; they also know that TSA management will “cover for them”, with their see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil policy. If TSA agents are armed, we can expect more TSA crime at the airport, and maybe a killing or two of people who fit the profile even if they were completely innocent. That could be anyone, including you or me. TSA – the real terrorists among us.

  5. Etta B. Oneill November 22, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    In 2005, the Transportation Security Administration (“TSA), a component of the US Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), began testing passenger imaging technology – called “whole body imaging,” “body scanners,” “full body scanners,” and “advanced imaging technology” – to screen air travelers. Body scanners produce detailed, three-dimensional images of individuals. Security experts have described whole body scanners as the equivalent of “a physically invasive strip-search.” The agency operates the body scanner devices at airports throughout the United States.

  6. Laird January 2, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    “People who are enraged at the TSA should recognize that some agents also oppose the needlessly oppressive practices”

    Then those agents should resign. No one who works for the TSA is unaware of the abuses it perpetrates. By remaining in its employ they merely serve as enablers, aiding and abetting its crimes. If they really object to those “oppressive practices” they should simply quit and get an honest job at McDonalds or wherever.

    Anyone working for the TSA should be shunned (in the old sense) by society. They should be ignored, not served at local businesses, pointedly un-invited to social events. Such people are not fit for polite society and should be excluded from it.