Wash. Times: TSA Bombs the Holidays

TSA Troll 122_2015_b3-bova-troll-quest8201_s878x512

TSA Troll by Greg Groesch/Washington Times

Washington Times, December 3, 2015

TSA screens holiday travelers once again, with feeling

by James Bovard

Flyers must surrender their privacy with their boarding passes

If you use hand sanitizer when traveling, the Transportation Security Administration can badger you as if you were a terrorist suspect. TSA is one of the biggest hassles many Americans will encounter this holiday season. I learned that firsthand while flying home from Portland, Ore., on Thanksgiving morning.

I arrived at the airport two hours before my flight. As usual, I opted out of going through TSA’s Whole Body Scanners. The agency’s prize possessions are incompetent at detecting terrorist threats; the inspector general reported that they fail to detect 96 percent of weapons and mock explosives in smuggling tests. The machines take birthday suit snapshots of each traveler; TSA claims photos are not retained, but the agency has less credibility than Congress.

A TSA agent took me aside and gave me a vigorous patdown. This is the usual routine I experience at airports and a small price to pay for a silent protest for my constitutional right to be free of unreasonable, warrantless searches.

I was surprised when the agent claimed his glove showed a positive alert for explosives. “What type of explosive was it?” I asked. “I don’t know — it’s a code,” he replied. I asked how often the detection machine generated false positives. He said that was classified information. It was not like I had been hanging out at shooting ranges or missile launch sites in Oregon.

TSA’s explosive detection tests are routinely triggered by the glycerin in soaps and hand sanitizers (which I used that morning). TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein admitted in 2013 that “commonly used items can render a false positive alarm during screening.” TSA’s explosive test is akin to a police radar gun that exaggerates the number of speeders by a thousandfold. But regardless of the stratospheric error rate, the TSA claims absolute power over anyone who triggers the alert.

Two other agents came up and the three of them marched me off to a closed room with a sign, “Private Screening in Progress — Do Not Enter.” The TSA agents shuffled along lackadaisically, almost certainly knowing it was a false alarm.


TSA “Private Screening” Room, Portland Airport (Bovard photo)

The lead agent began firmly patting me down, tugging on my shirt as if he suspected a superman’s cape was hidden beneath it. I offered to take it off; he said no. He pawed a bulky shirt pocket and demanded to know: “What’s in there?”

I glanced down, dug deep into it, and retrieved half a peanut.

Then he groped the other pocket and repeated the question. I pulled it open and plucked out a small ball of lint.

While the search was proceeding, another TSA officer interrogated me to unmask my treachery: “How long were you in Portland? What were you doing? Where did you stay?” I curtly answered his queries and said I was accustomed to TSA Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) asking much better questions. (The inspector general and the Government Accountability Office both slammed the BDO program as an abysmal waste of tax dollars.)

Perhaps the TSA agents were perturbed that I was not kowtowing, or maybe it was my caustic comments about their security theater. The lead TSA agent ordered me to hold up my pants by the belt loops (my belt had vanished long ago when I sent my possessions through the X-ray). He then amused himself by repeatedly grinding his palm into my groin. Did he think my private parts were a nuclear weapon? I recoiled at what felt like the TSA equivalent of a kick in the balls. I knew that if I shoved him away, I could face federal assault charges. With no witnesses, TSA agents are free to abuse travelers to their heart’s content.

He eventually announced that the “examination” was finished. As soon as I was released from TSA custody, I retrieved my Nikon SLR from my carry-on bag and circled back to that room. Another TSA agent came up and announced that I was prohibited from photographing the security room. I told him that I had just been interrogated there and I had a right to capture the scene.

Perhaps I was targeted because I have repeatedly criticized TSA in articles and was denounced last year by TSA chief John Pistole for a Washington Times op-ed I wrote. Or perhaps such punishment is routinely dished out to people who opt out from Whole Body Scanners. I have filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking all TSA documentation on me and on the Portland incident, but TSA is renowned for scorning its legal obligation to respond.

On the Monday after the Thanksgiving encounter, I e-mailed the TSA, asking how often its explosive detectors generate false alerts and how often alerts identify bona fide threats to air travel safety. TSA “national spokesperson” Mike England replied: “I’m unable to answer these questions as the answers are security sensitive information.” This cloak of secrecy is convenient for a process plagued by failures and abuses for more than a decade. The TSA press office was unable to provide a single example of the explosive detection tests exposing someone who intended to detonate a device on an airplane.

A friend recently told me that she felt like she was in East Germany when a TSA agent kept barking at her to raise her arms higher while passing through the scanner. Actually, I crossed East German borders many times before the fall of the Iron Curtain and always received better treatment than I experienced in Portland. Even when I was detained and interrogated for three hours near the Czech border in 1987, East German border guards were models of courtesy compared to the TSA.

Americans should be able to go home for the holidays without getting molested by federal agents. How many more people will be unjustifiably grappled after bogus TSA explosive alerts? The TSA continues operating on the level of the troll in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who blocked a bridge while asking idiotic questions.

• James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” (Palgrave, 2006) and “Lost Rights” (St. Martin’s, 1994).

On Twitter @jimbovard

**The article mentions being detained in East German in 1987. Here’s one article that resulted from that incursion – a New York Times piece on the environmental collapse of the East Bloc (“Silent Spring in Eastern Europe“).

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13 Responses to Wash. Times: TSA Bombs the Holidays

  1. Tom Blanton December 2, 2015 at 11:26 pm #

    After watching this short video, I now have a better understanding of those brave TSA agents that prevent air travelers from hiding nuclear weapons in their pants.


    • Jim December 2, 2015 at 11:32 pm #

      That video is a hoot – thanks for posting the link.

      Ironically, the previous time I flew out of Portland, TSA confiscated my 16 oz. Dr. Pepper that I had tossed into my carry-on bag (one drawback of taking early morning flights before my IQ breaks into triple digits).

      Actually, I’d rather that they went for the DP than the family jewels.

  2. Carl "Bear" Bussjaeger December 4, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    “…how often its explosive detectors generate false alerts and how often alerts identify bona fide threats to air travel safety.”

    That would be ‘always’ and ‘never’.

    Considering how the FBI parades about bragging on capturing idiot ‘terrorists’ that they had to give cab fair to, and the DEA boasting of every stand of ditchweed they find, it’s worthy of note that the TSA has never claimed to have caught a threat.

  3. LarryArnold December 4, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

    God thing I didn’t fly that day. I don’t use hand sanitizer, but I did teach three shooting classes in the week leading up to Thanksgiving. I’d have been in Guantanamo by now.

  4. tired dog December 4, 2015 at 9:32 pm #

    Recently had an interesting conversation with 4 tsa grunts + 1 supervisor at Newark. Of course while they wasted time w/me Achmed was loading the cargo hold.
    How would a properly worded foia demand read?
    I imagine the nitrates in the pigeon piss I stepped in en route to the scareport would surely show as ‘explosive’.

  5. Bob Gibson December 5, 2015 at 8:49 am #

    I remember, back when I was a world traveler, passing through Hong Kong’s Kai-Tak airport while the PRC national airline was boarding a flight, watching the long line of passengers waiting to be patted down by a pair of uniformed goons, and thinking, “Man, I’m glad I live in a free society.” The eternal optimism of the young . . .

  6. Ron Johnson December 6, 2015 at 7:22 am #

    Glad to hear I’m not the last naked-body-scanner-protester. I, too, have always opted out. Each experience is different. Usually the pat-down is perfunctory, checking all the usual areas with a universal technique and pressure, but sometimes it is just short of an assault. My wife, who usually doesn’t travel with me, thinks I’m a bit wonky because I won’t go through the scanner, but she was positively incensed when she witnessed a particularly aggressive pat down that nearly threw me off balance, repeatedly. It changed her mind about my wonkiness.

    Recently, I was sitting and waiting for the TSA agent to come back from testing his gloves for explosive residue and another passenger saw me. He smiled and joked “I see you lost the lottery.” I replied, “Actually, I asked for the pat down, I opted out of the scanner.” He raised his eyebrows in surprise, then I continued, “it doesn’t catch anybody anyway, and it’s one step further away from freedom I’m not willing to take.” The man stopped, leaned over to me and said in a low voice, “You know how they attacked us on 911? Well, ….they won.”

    • Jim December 6, 2015 at 8:16 am #

      Ron, that’s a great vignette – thanks for posting it.

      I have met several TSA agents at airports (not at Portland) who were both relatively intelligent and had a streak of decency. But the system seems designed to maximize subjugation of travelers.

  7. Unclezip December 6, 2015 at 11:48 am #

    Well, seeing as this was Portland, I’m not at all surprised at the intensity of the male on male genital fondling.

    • Jim December 6, 2015 at 11:58 am #

      Portland lacks the notoriety of Denver’s TSA:

      TSA screeners accused of groping men during checks at Denver airport
      By Tom McGhee
      The Denver Post
      Posted: 04/14/2015

      Denver International Airport travelers on November 30, 2014.
      Denver International Airport travelers on November 30, 2014. (AAron Ontiveroz, Denver Post file)

      Jul 7:
      Denver prosecutors decline to file charges in airport TSA fondling allegations
      Apr 15:
      Several men allege they were groped at DIA screening, Denver DA says

      The Transportation Security Administration has fired two screeners for conspiring to fondle male passengers as they came through a security checkpoint at Denver International Airport.

      One of the screeners, a man, signaled to a female colleague when a man he found attractive was coming through the scanning machine.

      The woman then pressed a touchscreen button indicating that the man being screened was actually a woman, according to a Denver police report of the allegations.

      The scanner than alerted screeners that it had found an oddity in the area of the genitals, triggering a physical pat down of the passenger’s groin, the police report said.

      In a statement, the TSA said: “These alleged acts are egregious and intolerable. TSA has removed the two officers from the agency. All allegations of misconduct are thoroughly investigated by the agency. And when substantiated, employees are held accountable.”

      An anonymous employee contacted the TSA in November 2014, and told them a male screener had told her that “he ‘gropes’ males who come through the screening area,” according to the report.


  8. PJ December 7, 2015 at 6:24 pm #

    I went through Checkpoint Charlie, going to East Berlin, and got better treatment than that. However I did once get a patdown in Paris Orly airport, for a trip on El Al airlines. The agent was a member of the Israeli Army, but I didn’t mind so much since it was in a private booth, and she was a real babe.

    As to TSA, I no longer fly. Fuck ’em, and the airlines that put up with them.

  9. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit December 9, 2015 at 10:19 am #

    Smaller airports – TriCities here, Avoca up by Wilkes-Barre – just seem to be “better.” For a certain value of “better,” of course.


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