John Pistole’s Thanksgiving song and dance

TSA Administrator John Pistole has been busy giving interviews this week to trumpet his agency’s supposedly improved procedures and to tell us heartwarming stories about how he views his mission.

The first interview appeared on CNN the day before Thanksgiving and has since been reprinted in other newspapers. The second was published yesterday in the Washington Post.

In both, Pistole repeats unfounded claims about the safety and efficacy of airport scanners, downplays passengers’ concerns, and gives us a glimpse into what he thinks of his fellow citizens.

Once again we hear that children under 12 will no longer have to take off their shoes, not that taking off shoes at the checkpoint has ever made sense for anyone of any age. Yet perhaps in compensation for this minor concession to common sense, new TSA regs seek to punish said children in another way. Pistole:

“. . . they’ll be given multiple opportunities to go through the screening to resolve something before we would ask the parents or guardians to be involved to try to resolve that anomaly.”

So children can be put through the scanners over and over again, despite the fact that the safety of the backscatter (X-ray) machines is still in doubt, so much so that the European Union has voted to ban them from EU airports. The TSA was supposed to conduct an independent study of the scanners’ safety, but to date it still hasn’t done so, with Pistole recently backpedaling on the promise.

Yet even if children go through the scanners, they can still be groped:

“There’s still a possibility — much reduced — that they would still have a pat-down, but it’s something that we are trying to work with the parents or guardians to help resolve what that issue may be so we don’t need to do that.”

Notice the deferential language – “ask the parents or guardians to be involved,” “work with the parents or guardians to help resolve.” Yet as countless people have testified, TSA agents rarely “work with” parents to resolve anything. Rather, they often bully and harass* parents and separate them from their children, no matter the age, even if a child is crying, even if a child is disabled.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of abusive behavior, one must ask why, if the scanners are such a technological advance, people must still divest themselves of shoes and empty their pockets in the first place? Isn’t the scanner supposed to see through clothing? Isn’t that the point? Why does anything left in a pocket – a coin, a key, a ponytail holder – constitute an “anomaly” that gets one sent off to the glassed-in gulag for a grope?

Aye, there’s the rub.

It turns out the scanners have a disturbingly high – and notorious – rate of false alarms. In the studies Germany conducted, it was found that all sorts of innocuous things caused the scanners to alarm – even pleats, even sweat. (English translation here.) The scanners had a 54% false-positive rate. Perhaps that’s why Germany isn’t using them. Neither is Italy. Neither is Israel.

But even as early as January of 2010, long before the scanners were rolled out all across the U.S., security experts warned that they were not a panacea, that they, in fact, probably wouldn’t have detected the explosive substance sported by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the mentally disturbed young man who tried to light his underwear on fire on a Detroit-bound plane in December 2009 (and who never had a chance in hell of actually blowing anything up).

Coincidentally, that event provided the perfect opportunity for scanner manufacturers to urge that their machines be installed everywhere. One of the people touting the benefits of the scanners was former DHS chief Michael Chertoff, who was working as a public relations man for one of those manufacturers, Rapiscan, which went on to get a lucrative contract from the government to supply the machines. Quel coincidence.

No word on whether Chertoff or Pistole has ever seen the irony in the company’s name.

Pistole says he solicits and receives frequent feedback from the TSA workforce on how things are going. Yet he never mentions the rest of us – the people he’s supposed to be protecting and supposedly serves. We are paying the $8.1 billion a year for his agency and its almost 60,000 employees. Has he ever asked you, dear reader, for your feedback?

There are some telling tidbits about motivation as well:

“I want to be sure there’s a sense of urgency, because terrorists try to come up with new and creative ways to harm us and we focus on preventing that.”

One person’s sense of urgency is another’s promotion of a constant state of fear. Such a state makes it easier to control a populace, whether one is barking orders to “put your hands above your head,” “don’t touch that!” or encouraging people to believe The Terrorists (apparently a monolithic group) are hiding around every corner. It also ensures a steady stream of profits to corporations that are getting rich off the scanner boondoggle and terrorism business – extraordinarily rich, as the number of lobbyists swarming Capitol Hill attests.

If Pistole is so concerned about preventing “new and creative ways to harm us,” why is it that his agency is entirely reactive? Does he think The Terrorists are still cooking up shoe and panty bombs? Does he think they’re incapable of, say, blowing up a checkpoint, where hundreds of people are massed together like sitting ducks? Does he think they’re oblivious to trains, buses, boats, stadiums, malls? (Answer to that last question: no, since the TSA has also invaded every other type of transportation, as you can read here.)

Wouldn’t a “new and creative” attempt be to smuggle different bomb parts in body cavities and then assemble them on board? Never mind the absurdity of this scenario, as it’s being hyped to within an inch of its life. But given the “sense of urgency,” why isn’t the TSA conducting body cavity searches of all passengers all the time? After all, we want to say ahead of those “new and creative ways,” don’t we?

Pistole doesn’t say. He also doesn’t address the number of TSA employees who’ve been arrested for stealing, impersonating an officer, child pornography, and sexual assault – 62 so far this year alone.

These are the people looking at your naked image and “patting down” you and your children. These are the people pawing through your belongings and determining which ones to confiscate. These are the people, along with John Pistole, keeping you “safe.”

(Photo: TalkMediaNews/Flickr)

*Link broken; verbatim content:

Posted by waterthink at 1/21/2011 9:17 p.m.  #913523
Just this week, on returning from a family vacation in CA over MLK weekend, myself, my wife, and our two children were detained by the TSA because we refused to have our children go through the back-scatter machines.

 When my wife told them we were opting out the TSA woman at the metal detector said “Do not touch your children.” I then went through the metal detector and waited with my son as my wife and daughter were escorted away. When another TSA agent came to take me and my elementary school age son to be searched, I put my arm around him and the woman yelled “DO NOT TOUCH HIM!”

 All four of us were then subjected to approximately 5 minute searches each.

 It is a truly surreal experience to watch your child being searched by uniformed agents. Really just unbelievable. I watched the people going through the line watching this and I think most were aghast.

 Never thought I would live to see this happen in this country. Never.

How to stand up to the TSA and say “no”

I was ejected from a Dulles (Washington, DC) airport checkpoint this week for refusing all of the following: an X-ray radiation dose, a short stint as a TSA porn star, and unwelcome sexual contact with a stranger.

Since November 2010, I’ve been rearranging all of my travel to avoid the TSA’s body scanners and “enhanced patdowns.” I always check the website to be sure that I only use airports and checkpoints that do not have the dreaded blue boxes. Otherwise, I take Amtrak or drive, or else I cancel my trip.

Somehow my wires got crossed and I wound up facing two completely unacceptable options at the TSA checkpoint.

There are two important messages for travelers in what happened next: I walked away, and then I flew to my destination from another airport.

Every traveler has a right to refuse TSA searches

If the TSA tries to do something to you that you find offensive, you should say no. Although the TSA has threatened travelers with fines and tried to argue that walking away isn’t permitted, in practice the TSA has no power other than the power to deny you access to the boarding gates. The police do have the power to detain you, but that requires individualized suspicion, something that you do not exhibit merely by purchasing an airline ticket.

Since the TSA has steadfastly refused to describe exactly what anyone might be subjected to at a checkpoint, many travelers will find themselves pressured to bow to unpredictable and unreasonable demands. For instance, flyers report being physically strip-searched in private rooms, and some women were coerced to bare their breasts to male screeners in a stairwell — would you comply?

Protecting yourself from invasive searches requires only willingness to abandon your travel plans and make new ones. United Airlines was wonderful and rebooked me for a later flight the same day from Reagan National Airport, where there are no scanners in Terminal A. The United employee who helped me even agreed with my stance, telling me that he thought the scanners were “not decent. They shouldn’t do that to people, it’s just not decent.”

The TSA’s body scanners have never deterred or prevented an act of terrorism

They are transparently avoidable. A Congressional report released the day before my Dulles ordeal noted the same thing, saying, “TSA deployed the AIT devices in a haphazard and easily thwarted manner . . . passengers are easily able to bypass this technology by choosing a screening lane without these AIT machines in use.”

Millions of people fly every day without passing through a body scanner. Airplanes flying from National’s scanner-free checkpoint are just as secure as those flying from Dulles’ blue box gauntlet — actually, the National Airport passengers are safer because they avoid unnecessary doses of ionizing radiation.

Depending on the circumstances, body scanners might well prevent a conservative grandmother from ever being able to meet her grandchildren, they might cause a TSA screener to be harassed and tormented by his co-workers’ comments about his genitalia, they might cause an Alaska state senator and childhood abuse survivor to have to take a four-day ferry trip home; but the one thing they absolutely cannot do is present an obstacle to someone who wants to attack an airplane.

TSA’s imagined “evildoers” would exploit the weakest links in aviation security; and passenger searches, even without offensive body scans and sexually humiliating patdowns, are far from the weakest links in this chain. Only some overseas cargo is screened, background checks for hundreds of thousands of airport workers are shoddy, there is no screening of supplies for post-security businesses, airport perimeters are not secured, no defenses are planned for shoulder-fired missiles, and the list goes on and on.

Possibly the weakest links are the screeners themselves, hundreds of whom have been dismissed or prosecuted for stealing from passengers. A dishonest screener who can take valuables out of your bags is a dishonest screener who can be bribed to put dangerous items into your bags. The changes you’ve noticed at airport checkpoints over the last year are security theatrics: massively expensive and dramatically intrusive, yet entirely worthless as defenses against terrorism.

The TSA has been ordering innocent Americans to do a lot of degrading things lately, and not a single one of these affronts has ever made anyone safer.

When you decide you’ve had enough, stand up to the TSA and say “no.”

(Photo: K Ideas/Flickr)