Even Congress can’t stop the TSA from assaulting passengers

A FOIA request by governmentattic.org, which the TSA only answered after more than a year’s delay, has shaken loose some 200 pages of complaints about patdown procedures that TSA received between November and December 2010. Among these letters were several from members of Congress and congressional committees. The following excerpts give us a feel for Congressional sentiment towards the TSA.

From Representative John Duncan of Tennessee:

Based on news reports and conversations I’ve had with my constituents, I feel strongly that the choice the TSA presents to a family traveling this holiday season is an impossible one: either subject their children to the new AIT machines, or those children will be subject to a police-style pat-down search normally reserved for criminals.

On the November 15 edition of NBC’s Today Show you said, ‘The policy is that children 12 and under will not receive that type of pat-down.’ While 12-year-olds might not get the enhanced pat-down, I cannot understand how anyone could defend a 13-year-old child getting a police-style search of their body.

From Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia:

I have received numerous complaints and have heard concerns from hundreds of constituents in Georgia regarding these new pat-down procedures. Specifically, constituents question the increasingly invasive nature of these procedures given the heavy burden the traveling public is already facing. What are the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and TSA doing to address these concerns? Has TSA undertaken any efforts to improve communication with the public on these more aggressive screening procedures? In addition, in light of recent news reports alleging inappropriate conduct by certain TSA employees when conducting pat-downs, what measures have TSA and DHS taken or plan to take to ensure the professionalism of its employees?

From Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine:

As you know, since the nationwide implementation of enhanced pat downs there has been a significant outcry about the use of the new screening procedures.

These new searches are a novel procedure both for the traveling public, and your front line TSA officers, and I am not convinced that Transportation Security officers have received adequate training in what is clearly an invasive procedure. I request that you provide me with detailed information about the training each TSA officer receives before administering an enhanced pat down. In order to provide the public with more information, I also request that you describe the requirements necessary to be certified as a TSA officer, and the training necessary to perform pat downs, on the TSA website.

I urge TSA to investigate other screening options that will reduce or obviate the need for pat downs.

From Representative Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey:

I am sure you are acutely aware of the widespread skepticism and public outrage these policies are generating . . . As a father and grandfather, I was particularly disturbed by the video of a three-year-old child being patted down by a TSA agent while the child screamed and cried in the arms of her mother. Surely, clarification and refinement of the guidelines must be undertaken, as well as enhanced or remedial training for TSA agents. I look forward to your prompt reply to my concerns.

From the House Committee on Homeland Security:

As you know, on September 22, 2010, the Committee on Homeland Security held a Member briefing on a pilot [program] that TSA was conducting at Boston Logan International Airport and Las Vegas McCarran International Airport to evaluate enhanced passenger screening protocols. At that time, Members viewed a demonstration of the protocols and expressed concern about their intrusiveness as well as about the risk of inconsistent nationwide implementation and urged TSA to work to educate the traveling public on the need for these reforms. Subsequently, TSA, over a two-month period, began implementing these new protocols at our nation’s airports.

Before implementing this new, more invasive patdown procedure, TSA, as a preliminary matter, should have had a conversation with the American public about the need for the changes. Even before that conversation, TSA should have endeavored to ensure that these changes did not run afoul of privacy and civil liberties. Coupled with its duty to provide aviation security to the traveling public, TSA also has a duty to ensure that its procedures have been reviewed by experts in privacy and civil rights for constitutionality. In the absence of an Executive branch level Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board that would evaluate decisions such as this, it was crucial that the Department of Homeland Security’s Privacy Officer and Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties thoroughly evaluate and publish written assessments on how this decision affects the privacy and civil rights of the traveling public. To date, the Department has not published either a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) nor a Civil Liberties Impact Assessment (CLIA) on the enhanced pat down procedures. Without a published PIA or CLIA, we cannot ascertain the extent to which TSA has considered how these procedures should be implemented with respect to certain populations such as children, people with disabilities, and the elderly. By not issuing these assessments, the traveling public has no assurance that these procedures have been thoroughly evaluated for constitutionality.

From the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure:

The new pat down procedures are overly intrusive, especially if a legitimate reason for the more probing search has not been established. The use of these procedures should be limited to secondary screening for alarm or anomaly resolution, or for those who have been identified by a Behavior Detection Officer (BDO). This very invasive process should not be used for primary or random screening of passengers and should not be used on children.

The level of public angst is a clear indication that TSA has missed the mark on properly balancing the rights of citizens with the need to screen travelers. Treating every passenger as a suspect or a criminal is an inefficient use of scarce resources.

My favorite letter is from Representative Michael Conaway of Texas:

To put it mildly, the contact that [my constitutuent] was forced to endure would have been criminal if the agent touching her did not have a badge. Unfortunately, given the recent deluge of news stories, it is clear that story is not an isolated incident or a lapse of judgment by a single individual. Rather, this new screening procedure is official policy, handed down from you and your employees at TSA.

We are facing a pernicious enemy who seeks to terrorize Americans, this is not in question. However, the policy that the Transportation Security Administration has implemented is hated by almost all who come into contact with it because it is degrading and offensive to those who are subject to it.

We cannot protect the public by humiliating them. I believe that there are other options available to keep the public safe and focus our limited resources on those who would do us harm.

The American public deserve better than this. They deserve an adult conversation on the dangers to the flying public, the efficacy of screening procedures, and the ability for the government to keep all people safe at all times. Our rights and liberties are not a product of some rule handed down by the TSA administrator, nor even are they granted to us by our Constitution; they are the embodiment of our humanity and an endowment from God. We ought to be a bit more forthright and cautious before we sacrifice them on the altar of homeland security.

I would appreciate if your office would extend an apology to [my constituent] for the treatment she endured because of the policies that your office approved. As well, I would like a full accounting of the rationale behind the enhanced pat down procedures and an explanation of how the new rules keep the flying public safer.

What’s most striking about these letters is how utterly impotent even Congress has been to stop the molesting – these letters were written 18 months ago, yet the TSA is still grabbing and groping and grinding the genitals of thousands of travelers every day.

A staffer told me recently that every single member of Congress continues to hear complaints about the TSA. I’ll admit it: seeing that even members of Congress, under a deluge of phone calls and letters from their constitutuents, can’t stop TSA Administrator John Pistole from ordering his underlings to sexually abuse innocent people makes me feel hopeless.

How exactly did one man declare himself above the Administrative Procedures Act, above the Americans with Disabilities Act, beyond the reach of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, invulnerable to Congressional oversight, and immune to prosecution for all the children molested at his orders? Can nothing stop this monster?

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Daniel Borman)

  • Fabio

    As a 30 year old of Italian origin and darker skin I am growing sick of being grabbed and fondled – EVEN AFTER I HAVE BEEN THROUGH SCANNERS – this is plain and simple racism, and I think it has only lasted this long because we, the American nation have failed our morals, values and constitution. I have promised myself that the next time a TSA agent starts shoving his hand between my buttocks I will punch him, and so should you.

  • POTENTIAL EFFECTIVE ACTION: When the TSA finally gets around to public hearings as ordered OVER 1 YEAR AGO, it will be up to all of us who do care to generate a substantial volume of comments.

    To do this, organizations (We Won’t Fly, Freedom To Travel USA, and the liberty organizations) will need to rally everyone. Ideally, we will create an automated website for submission to make it easy as possible to register the public feedback at high volumes.

    Stay tuned.

  • jefe

    I wrote a nasty-gram to my local (D) congressman, about having my suitcase searched outside my observation. I found a TSA calling card inside when I got it back, but there was no name or badge # included. All the congressman had to offer was a limp-wristed palliative reply. My complaint meant nothing to him. He also abstained from the vote to renew the Patriot Act. A lot of people have said the man’s been in office too long, and I agree.

    • personally I would have had more respect for him if he had voted no.

  • bob

    The DHS is a cabinet level position. The blame lies solely at the feet of the Presidents who created, escalated, and allow this to continue. It is not going to change because of the amount of money defense contractors bring to presidential candidates.

    The only people who can change the situation is the airlines themselves. We “the people” need to cut back on all non essential flights, and inform the airlines that it is because of TSA procedures.

    The only thing congress can do is reinstate the airlines liability by making security %100 operated and paid for by flyers. The flying public needs to bear the full cost of being molested. Only then will things start to change.

    TSA in its current form is a welfare program for the Airlines. It takes public tax dollars and funnels it to provide security for a private entity.

    Privatizing is a baby step in the right direction as it would allow the Airlines to act directly on a passenger complaint.

    • Exactly. Hence, no voting for the current President who has initiated and supported the Molocaust.

      More importantly – NEVER FORGET! As in…NEVER FORGET this President joked about the patdowns during his 2011 State of the Union Speech when suggesting high-speed rail would help one avoid pat-downs. Pat this, Mr. President.

      • he seems a bit out of the loop as TSA has been starting to operate on trains and even on highways. This agency and its parent agency needs to be disbanded and a through police investigation needs to be made of the leaders of each of them with regards to conspiracy to commit assault, theft, and fraud among other possible crimes.

    • Chasmosaur

      I’ve really been thinking of late that the only thing that can fight one cabinet level position is another.

      So saying “abolish the TSA” isn’t going to get action – it is, quite frankly, a boondoggle that many MoC’s are involved in, and they are not going to kill it while there are many people who are still around to say “TSA does a great job protecting ‘Merrica from the turrists!”

      However, I think asking “why is the TRANSPORTATION Security Agency not under the Department of Transportation?” might be a better tactic. Put the focus on Transportation and not on Security. Because I think DHS increasingly sees our open roads and travel infrastructure as a bad thing.

      So this does two things: 1) it puts transportation security in the hands of transportation experts and 2) it takes it out from under the purview of National Security. No hiding behind bogus security issues.

      So my take on this is that we should start a new campaign – one where we understand that transportation and infrastructure security are important, but not to the point that they infringe on our Fourth Amendment rights and the implicit freedom of movement that is part of what makes the USA such a desirable destination for immigrants and travelers across the globe.

      • bob

        Because pre 9-11 airport security was handled by the FAA. Which is part of the DOT. Looking for someone to blame, the security function was removed from the FAA and given to the newly created DHS.Which was supposed to be able to move faster and have access to information across all departments.

        Airline security should be handled by the Airlines. Do you think AA or United would spend billions looking for dime bags of pot or digging into grannies diapers? Of course not. Only the federal government can do that.

        When you have no skin in the game you have no reason to care.

        • Chasmosaur

          While FAA-controlled security did let the box-cutters through – which were illegal, but I don’t think anyone really cared much since I had a friend who routinely traveled with a knife and no one gave a shit – the real failure was in intelligence and prioritizing. Remember – the George W. Bush administration had intelligence that al-Qaeda would do something with planes and that bin Laden was determined to strike the US, and it was pushed to a back burner. Saying the FAA failed was a convenient reason to develop TSA under the newly constructed DHS. Besides, TSA has let through guns and other things more dangerous than box cutters time and time again, so they haven’t proved their superiority to the previous FAA-governed security.

          Remember – before this, no one had used a full passenger plane as a weapon. There were hijackings with ransoms, and FAA security had actually prevented those – there hadn’t been one on a flight originating from US soil in over 20 years at that point. The FAA wasn’t looking for the type of terrorists that took over the planes.

          I don’t think the airlines care as much about security as the airports or the feds, honestly. They’ve reinforced the cockpits, which will pretty much prevent another 9/11 type event, as will more observant passengers. They just want to keep their slots at their airports and run the planes on time – if someone who paid for a ticket doesn’t make the flight, well, that’s no skin off of their nose. The airport authorities care more than the airlines, as they don’t want passengers using a different airport when one is available. (I live in the Upper Midwest, so for me, it’s pretty much MSP, as the drive is too long to ORD.)

          That’s why I think TSA as a DOT off-shoot – not FAA itself – would have skin in the game, as you put it. They want to keep everything moving – planes, trains, automobiles, boats.

          • bob

            Box cutters were not illegal pre 911. That is something the pro – TSA people like to say. 911 cannot happen again because of the hardened doors and change in passenger psychology. That alone has rendered the same type of plot irreverent. The airlines do not care because the feds have removed all liability from their operations. Your tax dollars are supporting a private industry that the majority of Americans do not use on a regular basis. Proper security will only begin when the airlines have skin in the game and flying passengers pay the full cost of security. Until then it is nothing more then corporate welfare.

  • Sommer, in answer to your question, “Can nothing stop this monster?” — only we the people. And so far, very few of we the people have shown that they’re willing, or even interested in stopping him.

    There’s a reason I moved my argument from one based on logic, fact, empirical evidence, to one based on a simple, pithy, sadly accurate moniker: the United Sheeple of America.

    • anc1entmar1ner

      We can stop the monster, but as Lisa says, we have to be willing to do so. Wendy Thomson’s “Freedom to Travel” newsletter has a link to TSA complaints received in 2010, and I was appalled at how few there were. I realize that people are discouraged and feel that nobody is listening to them, but if we don’t complain, we are guaranteeing that nobody will listen.

      Please everyone, make your voices heard. It’s the only chance we have.

      • anc1entmar1ner, I’m not sure I’d characterize them as “few.” 200 pages. Pages. Not 200 complaints. There are thousands of complaints. Bill Fisher and I alone have collected thousands, and we’re not privy to the ones that the TSA or Congressional reps get. So pile on thousands more. Then pile on more none of us ever hear about, complaints that get tossed in the trash (oops — I mean fine upstanding bureaucratic process).

        People are complaining. But it takes more than complaining. It takes action. And without action, nothing is going to change.

        • TSAisTerrorism

          Well, that and that appears to be only 2 months’ worth of complaints. Remember: the reign of molestation began in late October 2010.

          I imagine the complaints get a lot higher in volume sometime around mid-2011 when they really started ramping it up.

          Of course, Chief Molester Pistole declared that they ignore any “poison pen” letters, so there are probably tons of those that don’t get recorded. After all, TSA gets to choose which of the complaint letters about TSA are complaints, and which ones aren’t.

          • anc1entmar1ner

            Fair enough, Lisa and TSAisTerrorism, I didn’t realize that I was only looking at a couple months of complaints. Truth be told, I don’t think I started complaining until 2011 when the porn-o-scans started proliferating.

            However, Lisa advocates action. That, to my ancient mind, conjures up a vision of mass protests, perhaps symbolically blocking the entrance to airports, and having dozens of activists willing to be hauled off to jail. We don’t have that kind of support.

            Perhaps small groups of like-minded people should attend congressional town halls and raise a ruckus. That tactic seemed to work pretty well for the Tea Party for a while, and later for pro-health reform advocates. My days of getting arrested for a cause are over, but I’d be willing to ask my congressman some tough questions. Any other ideas out there?

          • anc1entmar1ner, it may come to that — mass protests and mass arrests — but of course we’re nowhere near that point yet. In the meantime, I’ll repeat what I’ve been saying from the beginning: Starve the beast. Quit supporting the airlines. Stop flying. Only then will things change.

            (More tactics listed here:

          • Want Freedom

            Another effective way to shut down TSA is to have congress and the senate; DEFUND the TSA. Without an operating budget, they can not operate.

      • Update: A Government Accountability Office report has forced the TSA to acknowledge that it has received at least 17.000 written complaints just about patdowns in the last two years, and that the TSA may have received many more complaints than that but they failed to track the complaints received at airports. Apparently the only complaints the TSA can reliably count are those that were filed online through the TSA Contact Center.

  • 1amWendy

    The definition of “Driving While Black” is a stop made solely on the presentation of an individual with certain permanent physical characteristics. Gee – sounds a lot like “Flying While Disabled.” [fade in to music: If You Don’t Know Me By Now…]