What’s the problem with the TSA’s pat-downs?

Michelle Dunaj, the terminally ill passenger who claims TSA agents in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport botched her pat-down, drew a visceral reaction from travelers with the humiliating details of her screening.

Readers were outraged that agents at Sea-Tac, an airport where TSA employees have a reputation for being difficult, would subject a dying passenger to such indignities. (And if you don’t believe me, read these comments from the wire story that ran on the Huffington Post.)

But largely missing from the discussion is this question: Do these pat-downs accomplish anything?

Absolutely not, says Robert Yamin. And he ought to know. He’s a retired Baltimore cop, an expert witness, and he knows how to frisk a suspect.

The pat-downs done by TSA agents, says Yamin, are fake.

“To really search you must basically but gently grab the testicles and feel if there is something hidden there,” he said after reading last week’s column about the passenger who says an agent whacked him in the groin after he asked to opt out of a screening. “I have been through TSA security about 40 times since 9/11. I have only been properly searched once.”

Yamin says the bad guys — at least the smart ones — would exploit this vulnerability if they wanted to commit an act of airborne terrorism. Specifically, they would carry a gun or knife strapped to their upper thigh or under their testicles. Then they would opt out of the full body scanner and allow the poorly-trained TSA agents to give them a pass.

“An agent would never notice or feel [the hidden weapons],” he says.

The TSA says its pat-downs are an effective part of its vaunted 20 layers of security, and when asked to prove it, the agency points to its week in review page on its blog, in which it shows off all of the contraband it confiscated from passengers.

But critics say the same results could be achieved by setting up random checkpoints anywhere in America with the rent-a-cops the TSA agents replaced after 9/11. They say a more effective measure would be the number of terrorists caught after being frisked.

That number is still zero.

I’m a skeptic. I’ve experienced several “enhanced” pat-downs, most recently yesterday in Washington. It was thorough but I probably could have hidden a six-shooter in my shorts and the agent wouldn’t have found it. He didn’t want to make contact with my testicles — euphemistically referred to as “resistance” in TSA lingo — any more than I did.

Maybe the Dunaj story provoked the right discussion at the wrong time. Yes, we should be talking about how we treat a terminally ill passenger who poses no threat to anyone, particularly at a time when the TSA’s own leadership is distancing itself from a one-size-fits all-screening.

But this is no time to be falling down a rabbit hole, even one this important. Rather, since we are just days from a presidential election, we should be discussing the bigger issue: Why are American citizens who have done nothing wrong being frisked like prisoners in the first place?

I asked Yamin.

He said it’s all for show. “It’s like a circus,” he told me.

And the criminals and terrorists know it, they know how to exploit it, and the only thing the ineffective pat-downs do is make some people feel safer.

The Dunaj episode points us to a greater truth about pat-downs, say experts like Yamin. Most of the layers of security are little more than illusions reinforced by a government agency that feeds off the paranoia and fear of the masses. Doing away with them would make America’s transportation systems no less safe.

The TSA claims Dunaj was screened correctly and implied she’s just a complainer. My colleague Steven Frischling even made a brave effort to contact the TSA supervisor in Seattle who oversaw her screening. Here’s his post, in which he says he debunks her account (warning — the comments contain some salty language).

It’s a real he said/she said, isn’t it?

So who do you believe — the claims of a career bureaucrat demanding anonymity or the assertions of a terminally ill passenger with nothing to lose?

I don’t know. That’s a tough one.

We shouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place. Dunaj should have been allowed to fly without being hassled, or without feeling as if she was hassled.

So should the rest of us.

  • Bob

    Surprise Surprise. Backscatter units installed at Phoenix Sky Harbor. Wonder if these are the old BOS units?


    • TSAisTerrorism

      The article references Mesa Gateway, a much, much smaller community airport on the outskirts of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. Phoenix Sky Harbor has had backscatter units from the beginning. Indeed PHX was a test market having these infernal strip search machines since at least 2008.

      They were initially touted as a quick way to resolve alarms for people with metal implants for secondary search. Trip the WTMD? We can hand wand and grope you, or you can go through our whizbang strip search machine!

      Sadly, they’re only increasing the presence of cancer boxes in the Phoenix area, not introducing them.

  • KFred

    I always opt-out and BOS TSA assaulter Samuels missed the new accelerometer I had in my bra (I forgot I had it in there). Worthless clowns.
    Make no mistake, this is most definitely a violation to our 4th Amendment and sexual assault (the way the FBI defines it).
    It all needs to stop!

  • anc1entmar1ner

    If Ms. Dunaj was screened “correctly” it is only because TSA’s
    definition of correctly doesn’t square with our most fundamental
    protections which are built into the Constitution. The TSA violates the Fourth Amendment daily as a matter of policy. Please make it your policy to complain to them, as well as your elected representatives, every time you are subjected to their illegal searches.

    • In fact, the TSA does not violate the 4th Amendment as many people believe. The 4th Amendment is in regard to criminal searches where searches in airports are administrative searches.

      The TSA does cross a fine line into criminal searches, which needs to be addresses, especially with some future technologies they are exploring, but you cannot argue against the TSA claimig a 4th Amendment violation. This has been upheld by the 9th Circ Court more than once.

      – Steven Frischling

      • anc1entmar1ner


        The Fourth Amendment never mentions the word “criminal,” however that doesn’t seem to stop the TSA from treating us like criminals every time we fly. The so-called “Administrative search” is a concept invented by courts to justify the violation of our basic rights for the convenience of the government.

        These searches are done with no warrant, no probable cause, no specificity and without support by oath or affirmation, all of which are required by the Fourth Amendment. The 9th Circuit has no credibility here, and the Supreme Court should overrule them.

      • No court case has ever defined the exact limits of what is
        acceptable in an administrative search. Some established legal precedent
        could be interpreted to mean that strip searches without particularized
        suspicion are unlawful, but the TSA asserted in court that it could
        change tomorrow to a full strip search protocol if it chose to. Some
        established legal precedent says these searches must be the least
        intrusive means necessary, and that they must be done in public, and not
        have a tendency to reveal too much “innocent but potentially
        embarrassing” information. All three of these
        caveats have clearly been violated by TSA’s current screening processes, which include forcing people into private rooms even when they insist that they want to be searched in public.

        TSA has successfully fended off nearly every court challenge on purely
        procedural grounds: for instance, see: https://www.rutherford.org/iss

        ” However, the cases were dismissed on the grounds that the court has
        no jurisdiction in TSA matters. In justifying the dismissal, U.S.
        District Court Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. cited a “secret” order issued
        by the TSA as the basis for ruling that the D.C. Court of Appeals must
        hear any challenge to TSA procedures. Insisting that the order contains
        “sensitive security information,” the government has yet to make public
        the document outlining the TSA enhanced screening procedures.”

        The TSA admits its search procedures are only codified in a “secret
        rule”. How can we consent when TSA won’t tell us what the search
        entails? It is just not true that any
        court or any legislation has ever decided that the TSA’s current patdown
        methods are acceptable. There’s a conflicted and arguable set of
        precedents that could go either way, and TSA has so far used legal
        tricks to keep the true issues from ever being raised in court.

      • NewsMom

        While the 4th amendment is generally applied to criminal searches, it does not—anywhere—state that it is limited to criminal searches. Individuals have the right to be free from intrusive searches even if they’re NOT charged with a crime. Some people who comment on this have actually gone to law school.

      • Susan Richart

        How can one consent to a TSA search when one does not know what it entails? The TSA refuses to tell its victims that their genitals will be touched during the search, using instead the term “resistance” and apparently they get quite upset if the victim insists on asking if “resistance” also means genitals.

        Your tone seems to have changed since your wrote about this almost 2 years ago.


        “Presently the TSA has what appears to be a “blank check” in writing out what is “no more intrusive or intensive than necessary” and what is “confined in good faith to that purpose.” With the latitude the agency has been granted … not only does a legal precedent need to be set that challenges U.S. vs Davis, but further oversight of the TSA needs to be created by the House & Senate committees responsible for overseeing and funding the agency.”

        The 9th Circuit Court never envisioned strip search machines or pat downs where individuals genitals are involved.

        At some point in time, these “administrative” searches will be found to be unconstitutional. Sadly, I probably won’t live to see that day.