USA Today: My Too Intimate Encounter with TSA

tsa photo from usa today 635935772402338535-bovard

[for videos of my TSA encounter in Portland, see this blog entry-

USA TODAY  March 21, 2006

My too intimate relations with the TSA: James Bovard

The Transportation Security Administration finally obeyed a 2011 federal court order March 3 and issued a 157 page Federal Register notice justifying its controversial full-body scanners and other checkpoint procedures. TSA’s notice ignored the fact that the “nudie” scanners are utterly unreliable; TSA failed to detect 95% of weapons and mock bombs that Inspector General testers smuggled past them last year while the agency continues to mislead the public about its heavy-handed treatment of travelers.

The Federal Register notice is full of soothing pablum about how travelers have no reason to fear the TSA, declaring that “passengers can obtain information before they leave for the airport on what items are prohibited.” But it neglects to mention that TSA can invoke ludicrous pretexts to treat innocent travelers as suspicious terrorist suspects.

Flying home from Portland, Ore., on Thanksgiving morning, I had a too-close encounter with TSA agents that spurred me to file a Freedom of Information Act request. On March 5, I finally received a bevy of TSA documents and video footage with a grope-by-grope timeline.

As a silent assertion of my rights, I opted out that morning from passing through the “nudie” full-body scanners. A TSA agent instead did a vigorous pat-down and then, after running his glove through an explosive trace detector (ETD), announced that I showed a positive alert for explosives. He did not know what type of explosive was detected and refused to disclose how often that machine spewed false alarms. Regardless, I was told I would have to undergo a an additional special pat-down to resolve the explosive alert. I was marched off by three TSA agents to a closed room. TSA states that “a companion of his or her choosing may accompany the passenger” but I was never notified of that right.

TSA disclosed exhaustive video coverage of my every movement in the Portland airport, even detailing which chair I chose after getting a Starbucks coffee. But there is a tell-tale gap. The video timeline notes “7:50:29 group arrives at Private Security room. 7:50:55. Door Closes. 7:57:28 Door Opens.” The seven-minute gap in the recording is where travelers’ rights vanish.

TSA’s power is effectively unlimited behind closed doors. The lead Transportation Security officer (LTSO) proceeded to carry out a far more aggressive patdown, tugging on my shirt as if he thought it was a tear-away football jersey. The procedure was only mildly aggravating until he jammed his palm into my groin three times. Perhaps that pointless procedure was retribution for opting-out or my scoffing at their security theater.

The post-incident report by one agent in that room noted that “the pax (passenger) was asking about the false-alarm-rate of our machines. The LTSO explained several times that ‘there are things that the average person comes in contact with every day’” that trigger alerts. The agents talked as if, because innocuous items set off the detectors, TSA’s groin-jamming is also innocuous.

I had used hand sanitizer that morning — something which is notorious for spawning TSA explosive alerts. Aarin McCarthy, TSA’s Customer Service Support Specialist at the Portland airport, noted in an internal email a week after I was searched that “I have received several other complaints lately about ETD testing and ‘false positives’” at the Portland airport.

Millions of airline passengers use hand sanitizer every week. Yet, TSA entitles itself to treat anyone who triggers false alerts more intrusively than the Pentagon was allowed in 2013 to treat accused enemy combatants held at Guantanamo Bay. A Justice Department lawyer, Edward Himmelfarb, told a federal judge that intrusive searches at Gitmo were no big deal: “It’s basically like a TSA … supplemental search … The genital area is touched through the clothing with a flat hand, the way the TSA does.” Federal judge Royce Lamberth ordered “the military to stop touching the groins of detainees,” the New York Times reported.

An appeals court overturned his decision but not before Himmelfarb sought to recant his TSA remarks because of “sensitive security information.” But his revelations were no secret to scores of thousands of people who have been victimized by TSA supplemental searches. TSA’s pelvic pawing is especially traumatic to survivors of sexual assaults or those who have had surgery in that area. A TSA agent vigorously patted down the entire body of a 10-year-old girl in the Raleigh-Durham airport in December after she triggered a false explosive alert; her father Kevin Payne’s video of the groping sparked a national uproar.

When TSA published a preliminary notice in 2013 of its new regulation on scanners, it received more than 5,000 comments overwhelmingly opposed to its screening policy. TSA’s response last week noted the profusion of complaints about its privacy and civil liberties violations but brushed off such concerns as if they were narrow-minded quibbles. But Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth told Congress in November that the results of the most recent testing of TSA checkpoints at eight airports “were disappointing and troubling” and “we found layers of security simply missing.” Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Ron Johnson, after seeing confidential reports on the dismal failure of full-body scanners, suggested last August that passengers should be required to go through old-fashioned metal detectors after passing through the new scanners.

TSA’s Federal Register self-vindication omitted any mention of treating American travelers like Gitmo detainees. But even 44,000 words of bureaucratic wind cannot blow away the fact that TSA continues to be far more effective at hassling travelers than at assuring airline safety.

James Bovard, author of Public Policy Hooligan, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.


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18 Responses to USA Today: My Too Intimate Encounter with TSA

  1. Barbara Cunningham March 22, 2016 at 11:50 am #

    It’s not about security. It’s about control and intimidation. It always has been. And until people realize that and start refusing to submit (slim chance), nothing will change.

  2. Scott Lazarowitz March 22, 2016 at 1:17 pm #

    I haven’t flown since 1984. And nowadays I have heard that TSA intrudes into Amtrak, Greyhound stations and all the rest. So I just don’t travel, although i never liked traveling in the first place (hence not flying since 1984). Anyway, when USSA collapses on its own weight like the Soviet Union did, TSA will go with it, you’ll see. Government thugs will have to find “work” in the private sector.

  3. Karl Mims March 22, 2016 at 6:28 pm #

    We always hear lots of criticism of the system, but let’s hear your solution to the security gaps that TSA attempts to cover, and discusses how much risk you are willing to accept to transportation security.

    • Jim March 22, 2016 at 7:06 pm #

      Dude, when the Whole Body Scanners have a failure rate of 95%, the burden of proof is not on the critics.

      • Karl Mims March 23, 2016 at 8:24 am #

        This has nothing to do with burden of proof. It is about employing methods and technologies to counter a perceived threat, doing it in the most cost effective and efficient manner to balance the amount of risk we (as a nation) are willing to accept . The technology is not perfectly effective (no security measure is perfect), the body scanners ( no longer nudie) ARE better than metal detectors for many threats if used properly. I the failure rate you quote is taken out of context, I don’t think there was a released statistic applied just to the body scanners, and even if it is, consider that the process DOES confiscate a myriad of weapons (guns, knives, etc) and other prohibited items on a daily basis. Several firearms per week just at each major airport are found and prevented from entering the boarding areas. The failure rate was for particular tests, not for the whole program.

        I support a good critique, that is fair, accurate and provides improvement.

  4. Jim March 23, 2016 at 9:03 am #

    So TSA wants people to believe that because it seizes prohibited items from non-terrorists, we should presume that it also protects us from terrorists?

    On that 95% failure rate disclosed by the Inspector General – numerous member of Congress have indicated that the confidential audit report was actually more damning.

    TSA has thrived by perpetually lying to Congress and the American public about its competence and perpetually covering up its abuses of American travelers.

    As long as TSA has the power & prerogative to continue lying, any hope of reforming airport security is nil.

    • Karl Mims March 23, 2016 at 10:09 am #

      I don’t know what TSA wants you to believe, but it is evidence of a degree of effectiveness. Who is to say that the items seized or surrendered were only from “non-terrorists”?

      Every branch and instrument of government has a certain power and prerogative to obfuscate the truth, even Congress. The important thing is why it may be done. I do hope any malicious intent is brought out in the open and corrected/punished.

      I still wonder what your ideas are to replace TSA effectively.
      Maybe some new technologies will come along that allows for effective screening and avoids having to make you squeamish.
      I for one, feel safer traveling knowing some of the nuts on my plane have gotten at least some scrutiny. ;0

      • The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit March 23, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

        Well, seeing as how this is a libertarian/individualist site, how about letting airlines and individuals make their own choices. People like you that enjoy living with the impression that the State’s minions can keep you safe get to go through the TSA lines, to TSA approved airplanes on the A Concourse. Those of us who are willing to live with our freedom-based choices get to go to the B Concourse where we walk onto the planes like the good old days. Which, as I recall, didn’t seem to have all that many attacks.

        My freedom should not be constrained by your feelings.

      • Jim March 23, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

        On “obfuscating the truth” – ” I do hope any malicious intent is brought out in the open and corrected/punished”

        What a hoot! It is not “obfuscating” – it is lying.

        Look at TSA claims on Whole Body Scanners compared to IG findings.

        Ditto for Behavior Detection Officers.

        • Karl Mims March 23, 2016 at 3:10 pm #

          Jim, can you quote the lie? I’d like to see specifically what you are referring to.

        • The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit March 23, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

          I’m still stuck on the assertion that public servants – representatives – have a prerogative (noun: 1. a right or privilege exclusive to a particular individual or class) to obfuscate (verb: render obscure, unclear, or unintelligible) to the people they serve/represent. But, again, that’s the difference in viewpoint between people who see the State as servant, versus those who are comfortable seeing the State as master.

          • Karl Mims March 23, 2016 at 4:15 pm #

            TIOL, I made that comment only because Jim seemed to take the word of Congressmen as something holier than that of a representative of the executive branch. We have seen them all twist the truth (and some out right lie) for political purposes, often as a grandstand for certain constituents.

            If the information in question is sensitive or classified it is often in no ones interest to be perfectly forthcoming. Example: “Hey Joe, how good is your home security system?” …”it’s great, I got alarms and cameras, but I often forget to lock the back door”. Burglars are now lining up.

  5. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit March 23, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

    So let’s follow the dots. 1. “Politicians lie.” 2. “Politicians – elected or otherwise – tell us that we ‘need’ TSA to keep us safe from ‘Them,'” whoever “Them” might be. Care to connect the third dot there?

    Shorter version – can you offer a verifiable metric that the TSA has met any of its mission requirements other than providing another ineradicable federal bureaucracy that seems more interested in perpetuating and increasing its power than in demonstrating actual measurable performance? Safety tip – “we’ve had successes but can’t tell you about them” will be treated with derisive scorn because of the mutually agreed #1 above.

  6. Karl Mims March 23, 2016 at 9:29 pm #

    Already did ^.

  7. Dusty Hissom August 1, 2016 at 12:47 pm #

    Enjoyed looking through this, very good stuff, appreciate it. “To be positive To be mistaken at the top of one’s voice.” by Ambrose Bierce.


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