Sunday, November 21, 2010

TSA Travel Terror

Holiday travelers be on alert: An organized and determined group has launched a coordinated effort to disrupt airline travel and terrorize American citizens.  The "good" news is that the group is our own federal government.

No doubt you've already heard horror stories of the Transportation Security Administration's new "enhanced pat-down" techniques and body scanners.  The new security measures are supposedly in response to the Christmas bomber Farouk Abdulmutallab who snuck explosives onto a plane in his underwear.

David Rittgers of the Cato Institute explains that the expensive new body scanners, "that look beneath clothing to perform virtual strip searches," aren't the panacea they're made out to be.  "Despite what their proponents would have us believe, body scanners are not some magical tool to find all weapons and explosives that can be hidden on the human body," writes Rittgers.  "Yes, the scanners work against high-density objects such as guns and knives — but so do traditional magnetometers."

He continues: "And the scanners fare poorly against low-density materials such as thin plastics, gels and liquids. Care to guess what Abdulmutallab's bomb was made of? The Government Accountability Office reported in March that it's not clear that a scanner would've detected that device."

Rittgers also explains how Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has already figured out a low-tech way of defeating the machines by inserting the explosives in their rectums.  Drug smugglers have been doing this for years with their product and AQAP has already tried this in an assassination attempt against a Saudi official.  A would-be terrorist could smuggle the explosive device on board a plane, then remove it from its "hiding place" during the flight in the plane's lavatory.

What the scanners lack in effectiveness they make up for in expense.  According to Rittgers, "executives for scanner-producing corporations — mostly former high-ranking Homeland Security officials — successfully lobbied Congress into spending $300 million in stimulus money to buy the scanners. But running them will cost another $340 million each year. Operating them means 5,000 added TSA personnel, growing the screener workforce by 10 percent. This, when the federal debt commission is saying that we must cut federal employment rolls, including some FBI agents, just to keep spending sustainable."

For airports that don't yet have the expensive scanners, or for people who decline to be scanned by them (perhaps out of fear of the unknown long-term health effects), or for people on whom the scanners see something suspicious, an "enhanced pat-down" becomes necessary.  During this procedure TSA agents manually check passengers intimate areas for weapons or explosives.

This experience is traumatic enough for most travelers but especially for a rape survivor like "Celeste" in Minnesota who, despite public assurances that pat-downs will be performed only by same-sex agents, had hers performed by a male agent.  She recounts her encounter with the TSA here:  "He started at one leg and then ran his hand up to my crotch. He cupped and patted my crotch with his palm. Other flyers were watching this happen to me. At that point I closed my eyes and started praying[.]  He also cupped and then squeezed my breasts. That wasn’t the worst part. He touched my face, he touched my hair, stroking me. That’s when I started crying. It was so intimate, so horrible. I feel like I was being raped. There’s no way I can fly again. I can’t do it.”

Or there's the story of 61 year old Thomas D. Sawyer of Lansing Michigan.  According to an article, "Sawyer is a bladder cancer survivor who now wears a urostomy bag, which collects his urine from a stoma, or opening in his stomach. 'I have to wear special clothes and in order to mount the bag I have to seal a wafer to my stomach and then attach the bag. If the seal is broken, urine can leak all over my body and clothes.'"

When the scanners picked up Sawyer's urostomy bag he was pulled aside for a pat-down procedure.  When Sawyer tried to explain his condition to the TSA agents they said they didn't need to know about it.  Once Sawyer removed his sweatshirt and they spotted the bag they finally asked him about his medical condition.
“One agent watched as the other used his flat hand to go slowly down my chest. I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants.”

The security officer finished the pat-down, tested the gloves for any trace of explosives and then, Sawyer said, “He told me I could go. They never apologized. They never offered to help. They acted like they hadn’t seen what happened. But I know they saw it because I had a wet mark.”

Humiliated, upset and wet, Sawyer said he had to walk through the airport soaked in urine, board his plane and wait until after takeoff before he could clean up.
These are just two examples, but a quick search of the internet will show more stories like this than you'd care to read.  These are all real Americans being treated like cattle by their government.  Thankfully the people appear to be fighting back.  Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the TSA and there has been a vocal public outcry against the new procedures.  Some local district attorneys have threatened to prosecute TSA agents who engage in inappropriate behavior.  Despite all this, TSA head John Pistole has said that they're not going to change the policies.

Pistole and the rest of the federal security bureaucracy, as well as many fellow citizens, probably think that all of this is a perfectly acceptable trade-off to keep the American people "safe."  However, as the government is diligently fondling Grandma's labia in a vain attempt to prevent the previous terrorist attack, they will meanwhile be failing to "connect the dots" to prevent the next one.  When it hits, Homeland Security will treat the present level of intrusiveness as a floor, not a ceiling, and the current infringements upon our liberty and dignity will have all been for naught.  They will just demand more of our liberty the next time.

Perhaps the best summation of the situation comes from Thomas D. Sawyer, the traveler who had his urostomy bag ruptured by the probing fingers of an overreaching government.  “I am a good American and I want safety for all passengers as much as the next person.  But if this country is going to sacrifice treating people like human beings in the name of safety, then we have already lost the war.”  Wise words from someone whose dignity was a collateral casualty in the federal government's "war on terror."


  1. tyranny of the majorityNovember 22, 2010 at 6:53 PM

    I agree; we are buying expensive machinery and paying to treat every member of the flying public as a criminal (and, except for the Northeast, which is well-served by railroads, most of us have no choice beyond flying or driving.) In the meantime, I would venture to guess that a crucial intelligence lead is being ignored because we don't have enough agents who speak Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, etc. to follow up on it. The company that makes the scanners probably has a much better lobby than the FBI or NSA.

  2. tyranny of the majorityNovember 25, 2010 at 9:08 AM

    I saw this article on the TSA controversy--5 airline security experts and/or critics are asked for their opinion of how things could be improved:


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