by James Bovard
If you use hand sanitizer when traveling, the Transportation Security Administration can badger you as if you were a terrorist suspect. The TSA is the biggest hassle most Americans will encounter when they fly. I learned that first-hand while flying home from Portland, Oregon, last 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 smuggled past them. The machines take birthday-suit snapshots of each traveler; the 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 pat-down. 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.
After he finished, he tested his glove on an Explosive Trace Detector. 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 generates 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.” The 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.
I was told I would have to undergo a special pat-down to resolve the explosive 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.
The lead agent began firmly pawing and 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 command. 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 being asked much better questions by TSA Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs); besides, another TSA agent had already asked me the same questions while I was waiting in line before the screening checkpoint. (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? With no witnesses, TSA agents are free to abuse travelers to their hearts’ 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. I later posted photos of that room online.
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 oped I wrote. Or perhaps such punishment is routinely dished out to people who opt out from Whole Body Scanners.
The post-incident report
On the Monday after the Thanksgiving encounter, I emailed the TSA asking how often its ex-plosive 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 when the explosive-detection tests had exposed someone who intended to detonate a device on an airplane.
I filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking all TSA documentation on me and on the Portland incident as well as information on several other topics. Three months later, the TSA sent me eight airport surveillance videos involving me as well as copies of emails and statements from the agents who took me behind closed doors (two of which were written after I filed my information request). I was surprised that the TSA Office of the Chief Counsel was quickly involved in the response with email subject headings “Tort Claim.” The videos had exhaustive 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 minutes missing from the recording — like the 18-minute gap in one of Richard Nixon’s Watergate tapes — are where travelers’ rights vanish.
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 [Lead Transportation Security Officer] 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, the TSA’s groin-jamming response is also innocuous. 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.
The TSA is proud of its Behavior Detection Officers but the BDO’s statement on the incident made me burst out laughing. He wrote, “I asked the passenger what brought him to Portland and passenger informed me he was an activist/blogger and he attend [sic] a conference here talking about the government and its security.” Some of my best friends are bloggers, but I clearly stated that I was a journalist; I did not mention any affiliations or whom I wrote for. I said I was in Portland to speak at a conference about liberty (the annual Freedom Seminar) — not about “the government and its security.” Maybe he confused that response with my scoffing at their “security theater.” I’m not sure whether the BDO was actually that clueless or whether there may be some other motive for his seeking to attach the “activist/blogger” label. TSA agents searched my carry-on shoulder bag several times but never noticed the U.S. Senate Press Gallery pass and metal necklace — even though they were not hidden.
In my FOIA request, I asked for “any and all records that the TSA might have regarding false positive explosive alerts generated due to commonly used items such as hand sanitizer, soap, etc.” TSA provided nothing in response to that request.
Millions of airline passengers use hand sanitizer every week. Yet, the TSA entitles itself to treat anyone who triggers false alerts more harshly than the Pentagon was allowed in 2013 to treat accused enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A Justice Department lawyer told a federal judge that intrusive new search procedures 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 the Justice Department lawyer 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. The TSA’s pelvic pawing is especially traumatic to survivors of sexual assaults or those who have had surgery in that area.
Iron Curtain courtesy
Shortly before I received my FOIA response, the TSA finally obeyed a 2011 federal court order and issued a 157-page Federal Register notice justifying its Whole Body scanners and other checkpoint intrusions. The Federal Register notice is full of soothing pabulum 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 the TSA can invoke ludicrous pretexts to grapple innocent travelers as if they were Top 50 Terrorist Suspects.
According to the Federal Register notice, “TSA offers passengers who must undergo a pat-down the opportunity to have the pat-down conducted in a private screening location that is not visible to the traveling public.” I was not offered any opportunity; instead, I was marched off by three TSA agents to a closed room. The TSA also states that “a companion of his or her choosing may accompany the passenger”; I was never notified of that right.
A friend recently told me that she felt as if she were 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 with the TSA.
The TSA’s Federal Register self-vindication omitted any mention of treating American travelers like Gitmo detainees. Americans should be able to travel without getting molested by federal agents. The TSA continues operating on the level of the troll in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, who blocked a bridge while blabbering out idiotic questions.
After my experience in Portland, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking, among other things, TSA’s files on me stretching back to 2003, when I first began publishing attacks on the agency. TSA has thus far refused to disclose that information – even though federal law compels them to respond within 20 business days. Perhaps TSA presumes that anyone who does not sue them in federal court is not entitled to the agency’s files – we will see.