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)