How the TSA lied to us in 2011: a retrospective

by Bill Fisher on January 1, 2012

The TSA produced a wearying stream of misinformation and outright lies in 2011.

The agency, led by Chief Propagandist Blogger Bob and Terror Minister John Pistole, have proven consistent in avoiding the truth at every opportunity. Even Department of Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano occasionally joined the fun by offering her own version of TSA misinformation.

As the first full year of TSA assault and abuse comes to a close, it seems appropriate to recount some of its more notable untruths.

In a prelude of the coming transformation in airport security, Pistole led with an ominous statement in November 17, 2010, saying: ”We’ve adjusted our pat-down policy that is informed by the latest intelligence,” acknowledging that the procedures “may challenge our social norms.”

Ironically he used the same words on July 6, 2011 to describe TSA policies and terrorist objectives, while fear-mongering about the possibility of surgically implanted bombs:

We see this as the latest iteration or the evolution of what terrorist groups are trying to do to circumvent our security layers and to perhaps defeat our societal norms.

“Challenge” turned to “defeat” at one go. Apparently the comparison of TSA to Al-Qaeda went unnoticed by the administrator.

Early in the 2010 fear campaign the TSA was roundly criticized for their assaults on innocent children. In an attempt to assuage public ire, they issued a statement in November 2010, saying that these procedures would be adjusted for children.

Unfortunately, other children were groped in Salt Lake City that same month, and in Minneapolis in March 2011. These incidents prompted yet another official statement in April saying, again, that the TSA was adjusting screening procedures for children.

Alas, no sooner was the keyboard cold than another rash of child-groping videos made it to the internet, garnering even more attention. The most notable was that of a 6-year-old girl in New Orleans, which was soon joined by another report of a 3-year-old girl in Philadelphia.

As the media furor over the 6-year old began to quell, TSA again found itself targeted by Congress and the media over another pat-down, this time involving a baby in Kansas City. This inevitably led to TSA reiterating yet the same statement in May, which by now had become as trite and meaningless as their tiresome statements about treating passengers “with respect and dignity.”

When summer vacation season arrived, TSA again was featured groping other children, resulting in the arrest of one woman, Andrea Fornella Abbott, in July for refusing to allow the screener to grope her 14-year-old daughter, which they did anyway.

In August, some poor child whose parent was foolish enough to allow him to wear a Spiderman costume while going through security received a TSA frisking which resulted in yet another repeat of the we’re-changing-procedures-for-children tale in September, this time from Frau Napolitano.

In a telling statement by Justice Department, attorney Beth Brinkmann stated that the TSA “has authority to literally strip search people,” which she suggested would likely result in a huge public outcry. Sadly it didn’t. Remarkably, other strip searches remained largely unreported, including that of an autistic man publicly humiliated in March at Boston Logan, and a 97-year-old woman in July at in Los Angeles.

These assaults continued and included the handcuffing and removal of a Toledo woman, Shoshana Hebshi, from a flight mid-route on 9/11/11, followed by six hours of interrogation and a strip search. This incident at least made headlines, with the TSA avoiding public statement except for blaming local police for the search. TSA nonetheless felt obliged to distract attention from the 9/11 overreactions by again announcing they would stop groping “most kids” in November 2011.

In their most recent truth-fail TSA denied strip-searching a 84-year-old Dolores Zimmerman, along with two other women, then revised the statement to say that they thought her back brace — which TSA’s own policy says is not to be removed — was a money belt and “mistakenly” forced her out of it, along with her underwear and dignity.

The TSA continues to contend that a search, if a passenger is still wearing a sock, isn’t technically a strip search.

While the TSA has been arrogantly dismissive of public and Congressional criticism, Blogger Bob was at least taken to task for publicly lying by Amtrak Police Chief John O’Connor after denying that departing passengers, including a 9-year-old boy, were searched in the Amtrak station after they got off their train in Savannah.

O’Connor publicly said that the “facts” as posted on the TSA blog were incorrect, adding that the TSA blog stated that Amtrak had approved of the operation, while it had not. He called the TSA’s posting “inaccurate and insensitive.” He said the TSA had apologized repeatedly to him, but that they must agree to firm restrictions before he will consider allowing them back on Amtrak property.  CBS News, however, reports that the TSA is already invading Union Station in Los Angeles.

While in the midst of an eventful March, TSA found itself accused by none other than the Government Accountability Office for misrepresenting the cost of TSA screeners compared to the private screeners whom Pistole had effectively banned in January, saying he does “not see any advantage” to offering a private sector option.

On May 7, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano responded when asked whether airline security will ever “get past the grab-and-grope phase,” that:

Well, actually, very, very, very few people get a pat-down. It’s only under very limited circumstances.

As it turns out over 60,000 people a day are harassed and molested TSA’s direction. Of that, 20,000 are subjected to this groping at random, without any rational security basis for this harassment.

TSA claims to inspect 100% of baggage while ignoring that 60% of the cargo in airliner holds is uninspected, some of this originating from foreign shippers. When it became apparent that the agency would not meet its self-imposed deadline for 100% freight screening deadline, the TSA scrapped the idea, three weeks after insisting it would stand. The agency rationalized that they would now focus on a “risk-based” approach rather than the full screening it previously claimed was essential.

The agency publicly stated in June that taking photos and videos is permitted at checkpoints, subject to local regulations. This policy is also articulated on the TSA website. Meanwhile dozens of reports and videos on You Tube show screeners routinely interfering with recordings.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, complaints about TSA screening jumped this year. TSA logged 1,975 screening complaints in June alone, more than double the 814 received in June 2010. TSA then followed up with a propaganda piece in Bloomberg, stating:

The BGOV Barometer shows that consumer complaints about the TSA last month were down 59 percent from a May 2004 peak. In September, they dipped to 1,418, the lowest since record-keeping began seven years ago, according to data provided by the TSA and the Department of Transportation, and compiled by Bloomberg.

This claim was subsequently refuted by reports from US News and US Travel Association, both of which indicated that nearly half of travelers avoid air travel because of security procedures.

In a recent display of the alternative reality TSA occupies, the agency says no security violations existed at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, despite video evidence of lax security exposed by an Atlanta television station.

2011 also saw the expansion of the use of the scanners as a primary device. TSA termed these devices “Whole Body Imaging” scanners since their introduction in 2006, but in 2011 euphemistically renamed them “Advanced Imaging Technology” scanners to make them appear less invasive.

The scanners were approved for use as a secondary screening device by Congress in 2008. But the TSA convinced the Obama Administration in 2010 that it was imperative that these and the new “enhanced pat downs” be used as primary screening protocols.

In a preview of the misinformation to follow, a Forbes article reported that documents show that as early as 2006 the Department of Homeland Security has been planning pilot programs to deploy mobile scanning units that can be set up at public events and in train stations, along with mobile x-ray vans capable of scanning pedestrians on city streets. A TSA official responded in a statement that the “TSA has not tested the advanced imaging technology that is currently used at airports in mass transit environments and does not have plans to do so.”

After further questioning, though, the TSA issued a contradictory response that admits to cases of testing the scans on train passengers.

In response to the growing public outcry over the airport scanners that had been fomenting as early as 2007, TSA went on a mission of obfuscation and deception, repeatedly portraying the images as chalk images that TSA claimed could be shown to schoolchildren.

TSA’s Blogger Bob insisted:

We wanted to clear up another bit of misinformation. This is a raw backscatter image with NO privacy algorithm. This is NOT what security officers see – this image was used to show what the capabilities of the technology are.

He neglected to mention that the image was that of Susan Hallowell, Director of TSA Research Labs, posing for the first backscatter images in 2009. At the time it was said that the agency was trying to “find a way to modify the machines with an electronic fig leaf — programming that fuzzes out sensitive body parts.”  As we all later learned, the backscatter scanners have lacked any privacy algorithm since their deployment, and none will be available until 2012, if then.

Of course, the earlier technical images that had permeated the internet refuted the TSA’s original claim, but it wasn’t until August, when Denver TSA Director Pat Ahlstrom admitted that the images were indeed “very graphic,” that TSA abandoned its statement. Instead, the agency promoting its ATR software on the millimeter wave scanners, while conveniently failing to mention that the Rapiscan units — the backscatter, or x-ray scanners — still produce a naked image.

The TSA may have misled the public into believing that the privacy software exists at all checkpoints, while they continue to have male workers view the nude images of men, women, and children. The mainstream media has apparently decided to play along with the TSA, welcoming the deployment of these ATR scanners as if it were free pizza while ignoring the privacy and safety issues of the 250 x-ray scanners in 40 U.S. airports, including LAX, JFK, O’Hare, Orlando, Boston, and Phoenix.

The TSA has not said when ATR will be installed on the backscatter machines.

Although TSA has repeatedly stated that the scanners were “incapable of storing or transmitting” scanner images, despite specification data to the contrary provided by the respective manufacturers. In August 2010 EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) discovered that the TSA had stored over 2,000 images, which the agency quickly claimed were of “volunteers” without specifying who compose this group or whether any were passengers who had “voluntarily” used the scanners in the testing phase.

They concealed information about safety testing of the scanners as early as February, refusing to provide safety data to Congress despite having promised the information two months earlier. The EPIC lawsuit revealed in March that scanner radiation levels were 10 times higher than TSA indicated due to miscalculations in the report. TSA then attempted to deflect the issue by promulgating another statement that month saying that “there is no significant threat of radiation from the scans.”  Then in May they decided to check their own work again and announced, to no one’s surprise, that the scanners were still “safe”.

John Pistole told Congress as recently as November that the scanners would be independently tested, yet he again reneged, saying that he deems the scanners safe, despite evidence that the tests had been rigged to make the backscatter scanners appear safe and did not test the same scanners currently deployed, only a prototype. The sloppy nature of the test was further demonstrated when test data obtained in a FOIA disclosure revealed significant calculation errors.

Meanwhile, millions of passengers continue to be digitally strip-searched and irradiated by these devices despite radiologic evidence that these could cause over 100 cancer deaths a year.

Contrary to TSA expectations that the scanner controversy would die down, this month the Broward (Fla.) County Commission asked the TSA to consider removing backscatter scanners from the Fort Lauderdale airport unless the agency can prove the machines are safe.

The agency seems to have developed an institutional culture of deceit and evasion. In the absence of action by Congress or an agency-wide dose of Sodium Pentothal, travelers can expect more of the same from TSA in 2012.

(Photo: jessie fish/Flickr)

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