History repeats itself with TSA’s strip-search tactics

“The more we do to you, the less you seem to believe we are doing it.”

That infamous statement, by an infamous monster, encapsulates perfectly the human capacity for denial. Indeed not just capacity, but eagerness.

People who don’t want to believe what’s right in front of their faces will pretend it doesn’t exist.

That’s what has been going on for the past two years with Americans and the TSA: denial.

Not everyone, of course, is in denial. Some of us have been ringing alarm bells about this agency for a long time. We’ve also been mocked and derided for doing so. But we continue, because we keep hoping that more people will wake up.

Genuine ignorance is one thing; willful ignorance another. At this point, after so much publicity about so many crimes and abuses, anyone who still claims that the agency is benign is being willfully ignorant.

Ruth Sherman is only the latest elderly woman – whom we know of – who has been abused by the TSA. Her assault occurred a day before that of another woman who’s in the news recently for having the courage to go public about her ordeal – Lenore Zimmerman.

Both women reported that they were strip-searched. Not “hindered,” not “inconvenienced,” not “bothered.” Strip-searched. Assaulted.

They aren’t alone – unless you’re one of those people still living in denial. Lena Reppert, the 95-year-old mother of Jean Weber Destin was also abused by the TSA, strip-searched in a back room.

So was Nina Gilkenson, a much younger woman – a very attractive much younger woman – as she posted publicly on her Facebook page on June 19, 2011.

So was ABC News producer Carolyn Durand. As she put it, “The woman who checked me reached her hands inside my underwear and felt her way around. It was basically worse than going to the gynecologist. It was embarrassing. It was demeaning. It was inappropriate.”

So were untold numbers of women at Reagan National Airport, by an organized ring of TSA assailants, as reported back in 2004.

Then again, sometimes the TSA punishes people just for the hell of it, as I discovered, as travel writer Charlie Leocha discovered, as Texas Public Utility Commission chairman Barry Smitherman discovered, as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic discovered, as this couple discovered.

A rape survivor, Claire Hirschkind, didn’t want to go through the scanner because she has a pacemaker (though even people who go through the scanners are still often groped; the two aren’t mutually exclusive). She also didn’t want to be pawed. Instead, she was handcuffed, arrested, and dragged across the airport floor. “I told them, ‘No, I’m not going to have my breasts felt,’ and she said, ‘Yes, you are,’” Hirschkind said she was told. The TSA called the police to punish Hirschkind for not acquiescing to their demands.

Because that, in the end, is what this is all about – acquiescence. Obedience. Bowing to authority. That is the point of the TSA’s behavior, especially since John Pistole came on board and initiated the gropes. It’s the exercise of power for the sake of exercising power.

Groping someone against his or her will is sexual assault. You can try to pretty it up or deny it with euphemism – “enhanced pat-downs” – but what the TSA is doing isn’t patting down. Or frisking. I’ve been frisked by the police. The TSA is groping, not frisking.

People who blithely use the term “enhanced pat-downs” are the same people who call torture “enhanced interrogation.” There’s a reason Orwell coined the term “doublethink” in his novel 1984. It’s a pity so many Americans don’t understand it.

There are thousands more first-person and eyewitness accounts of TSA abuse – not only sexual assault but other kinds of abuse as well – in this document, which I’ve been compiling since 2010. Though if you’re in denial, better not read it. It’ll just cause more cognitive dissonance; and as research has shown, facts don’t matter. If you’re more comfortable living in denial, you’ll continue to do so, no matter how many facts get in the way.

Facts such as:

  • No bombs were brought onto planes on 9/11. The planes themselves were commandeered, something that won’t happen again because the cockpit doors have been secured, and because passengers will no longer silently submit (which is more than I can say for TSA apologists).
  • The last time a bomb smuggled aboard an airplane in the USA detonated was December 11, 1967. The plane landed safely; no fatalities, no injuries.
  • The last time a bomb was smuggled aboard an aircraft in the US from which there were fatalities was May 22, 1962.

Almost 50 years. And for all that time, until just recently, the TSA reign of molestation and rank stupidity didn’t exist. Gee, how is it possible we all haven’t been blown out of the sky by now? After all, The Terrorists Are Everywhere!

Here are some more facts:

You’re more likely to be killed in a car accident than to be killed in a terrorist attack. Almost 40,000 traffic fatalities a year in this country. Have you stopped driving? Oops – there goes the argument that you’re concerned about safety. Especially if you talk on your cellphone while driving, something that’ll get you killed a lot faster than a bogeyman terrorist will.

More inconvenient facts: you’re more likely to drown in your bathtub, to get struck by lightning, to have a fatal allergic reaction to peanuts, than to be killed in a terrorist attack in this country.

Yet millions of Americans think it’s just fine that the TSA harasses, bullies, and assaults people, every day, all across the country. It’s hard to come to any other conclusion but that they’re content to live in denial. After all, if the sexual and other assaults never happen to you, who cares if they happen to your fellow passengers?

Anyway, you’re in good company: the TSA denies everything. (That’s another feature Orwell warned us about.) You can read all you want about the TSA’s denial on the agency’s blog, a darkly hilarious repository of propaganda, where Blogger Bob routinely issues bland blanket statements such as “proper procedures were followed,” no matter how much evidence to the contrary. (I long ago stopped trying to comment at the TSA Blog, as my comments were always censored — except for one, wherein I said, “I wonder if this comment will be censored.” Perhaps you’ll have better luck.)

We can look forward to continuing instances of assault and abuse — when we find out about them, that is; most people don’t have the benefit of a reporter. As the famous experiments of Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram demonstrated over 40 years ago, people put in positions of unlimited power will abuse that power. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when.”

Oh, and the quotation that opened this post? By Josef Mengele, the Nazi concentration camp physician known as the Angel of Death.

It bears repeating: “The more we do to you, the less you seem to believe we are doing it.”

(Cross-posted at ABombazine.)

TSA profiling? It’s been happening for a decade

The following commentary was written by Wendy Thomson of the advocacy group Freedom to Travel USA.

The TSA is reportedly being taken to task by Rep. Bennie Thompson for the possibility of profiling by the TSA within the TSA’s recently piloted SPOT program.

News flash: The TSA has been profiling since its inception.

What, you say? Oh, yes, the fashionably correct phrase “Driving While Black” has been replaced with the popular “Flying While Handicapped.”

Let’s look at the similarities: both rely on a physical characteristic upon which governmental employees rely to justify suspicion. Both engender searches that are above and beyond “normal.” However, in the case of the latter, there is positively no correlation between the physical limitation and an increased incidence of crime. I suspect that there might even be a negative correlation.

So, Rep. Thompson, if you are so against profiling please expand your outrage to those that are truly being profiled. Every time they fly – it’s like the first time. There is no amount of certification or pre-approval even available to allow those with medical assistive devices to get those devices pre-certified prior to flight.

I suggest the following to those who are uneasy with a medical “get out of jail free” card: if the glorious State cannot decide that a person with decades of tax returns to their credit (and for whom said Glorious State does not possess even fingerprints due to such a crime-free existence) does not pose a viable threat, then I don’t know what does.

The TSA cannot possibly succeed in its mission because it cannot possible guard everywhere that hundreds congregate, nor should we expect it to. The missing piece to every argument I’ve heard is the answer to the following question: should citizens expect the government to protect them from every eventuality? Citizens should not. We should not ask for the impossible. To expect virtual safety guarantees from anyone or anything is folly.

Here are some statistics for you:

From the GAO: there are many international airports that still are “seriously non-compliant” with safety standards.

From the TSA: in 2004-2005 screeners failed 70% of the tests run to measure successful interdiction of prohibited items getting through security.

From the BLS: in 2004-2005 there were 21.9 million departures of domestically owned airlines carrying over 1.5 billion passengers.

So let’s put that all together: during a period of significant detection failure, when international airports were at least as porous as they are now, when we didn’t have AIT machines or enhanced patdowns, when billions of people flew in millions of flights.

There were no incidents. None. And as you can see from the TSA failure rate, it has nothing to do with the efficacy of the TSA, nor with the efficacy of non-US security personnel.

Rep. Thompson, I encourage you to help deep-six the TSA in its current form. Maybe deep-six it entirely. If you want to use the race card to help sink that ship, well, go for it. However, I think that both you and I know that trying to make this into a race issue is so yesterday. If that’s the best ammunition you have, oh, well (sigh). But I’ll accept help from any quarter. Just know that trying to turn this issue into a racial one is quite a stretch.

(Photo: Unhindered by Talent/Flickr)

How to travel with your rights intact during the holidays

Air travel in America–at any time of year–carries with it a certain amount of stress and worry no matter how well-prepared we are.

During the holidays, however, airports are routinely more crowded and travelers more harried, with weather events causing flight delays and global events often leading to frequent changes in security procedures that are almost impossible to keep up with (and, to be sure, that are inconsistently applied, further adding to the confusion).

Those of us who do not wish to give up our civil liberties in order to get from Point A to Point B might face additional delays.

The ACLU offers excellent guidelines for navigating airport security, but even they warn travelers that “opting out” of the notorious scanners, for example, will probably mean you’ll have to wait for an appropriate agent to be located (or freed up) in order to perform the also-notorious “enhanced pat-down”.  And if you decline to answer a question during the so-called SPOT interview, you may well be selected for secondary screening.  Meaning, more delay.

From their website:

OPTION: Decline to answer 

You can decline to answer questions or reply to each question politely with the simple words, “personal business.” However, if the TSA officer does not feel that you are answering his or her questions, they may select you for secondary screening.

Clearly, the vast majority of travelers are interested in getting to their destination (and out of that crowded, hectic airport!) as quickly and smoothly as possible.  Thus, the TSA dangles the carrot of convenience over our heads:  “Just go through the scanner; it’s much quicker!” or else “If you refuse to answer more specifically, we’ll have to send you through secondary screening, which is currently backed up and could take…oh, another forty-five minutes to an hour, at least”.

Regardless of what your personal boundaries are when it comes to acceptable intrusions into your privacy, if you must travel by air, it makes sense to be as fully-informed about current security conditions as possible, and if you’re flying with medical devices, medicine, or breast milk, to print out the TSA’s own rules–you have the right to request that an office conduct a “visual inspection” — and carry them with you in case the agent you encounter doesn’t appear to be terribly well-versed in them.  (Although as observers will note, even doing just that–printing out the TSA’s rules for medicines and milk, etc., and carrying a copy with you–will not always prevent your being unfairly detained and seriously delayed, as this unfortunate working mother discovered.)

TSA Newsblogger Sommer Gentry has an excellent post that further details what the TSA can and cannot do.  She describes how she avoids the scanner machines in part by choosing her routes (and airports) carefully and provides a link to TSA Status, which is updated frequently (almost in real-time!) and lets travelers know which airports (and terminals) are using the scanners, and to what degree.

She further reminds us that:

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, a handful of 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 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.”

To my mind, the best (and perhaps most difficult-to-follow) security-related travel advice of all is this sentence: Protecting yourself from invasive searches requires only willingness to abandon your travel plans and make new ones.

Which means, research other flight options well beforehand, if possible, and plan your day accordingly.  If you wish to avoid the scanners for privacy or health reasons (or both), build in plenty of extra time for the agency to locate that elusive special person to do the enhanced pat-down.  If you’re 100% opposed to being physically searched on certain parts of your body–and plenty of us are, for a number of reasons–understand that you may have to walk from that particular flight and take another one, perhaps from a different terminal or city, even.

As for me, I was thrilled to recently learn that Tampa has a lovely renovated and historic train station which is itself a “tourist destination”–where have I been?!–although I am not so thrilled to learn that the TSA has been conducting passenger searches and pat-downs, as part of the VIPR program, at Amtrak and bus stations too.  And John Pistole is pressuring Congress to add 12 more VIPR units to the current 25 in 2012.

That’s another post for another day.

Also at Litbrit.

(Photo: greyhound dad/Flickr)

TSA expands beyond airport screening

You might think that the TSA operates only at airports. If so, you haven’t been keeping up.

The TSA has its hands all over the country’s transportation systems, from trains to buses to subways to ferries to trucks. Its VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) program has been in operation since 2005.

VIPR teams periodically descend on transportation hubs to conduct “random” searches, as they did in Tennessee; in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky; in Des Moines, Iowa; in Tampa, Florida; in Sacramento, California; and perhaps most notoriously, in Savannah, Georgia, where train passengers were separated from their luggage and body-searched after they got off the train.

Amtrak Police Chief John O’Connor hit the roof when he found out and forbade the agency from ever setting foot in an Amtrak station without permission again.

VIPR teams also operate in the New York City subway and in other cities, where, according to the TSA, they “surge into a transit agency.”

They can also show up at “special events,” such as football games. TSA head John Pistole recently testified before Congress that the TSA “conducted more than 8,000 VIPR operations in the past 12 months, including more than 3,700 operations in mass-transit and passenger-railroad venues.”

Then again, VIPR’s activities are legally questionable, as this memo from an anonymous Department of Homeland Security lawyer points out. And not everyone is so sanguine about VIPR’s reach.

But VIPR is only one of the TSA’s “vigilance” programs. First Observer is another. It’s a highway security program, and it engages truckers as watchdogs. Its mission is “to promote the security of our critical infrastructure within the United States by training people to observe, assess, and report risks and security breaches.”

A few days ago, the TSA announced a First Observer award. This is where things get a little confusing. The program is funded by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) and DHS, and run by the TSA, which recruits truckers from an organization called OOIDA, Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. OOIDA, in turn, partners with a security firm called HMS.

It’s hard to figure out exactly who does what, but it appears that HMS trains truckers to “observe, assess, report” for OOIDA, which then sends its observations, assessments, and reports to the TSA. In other words, it’s DHS chief Janet Napolitano’s “If You See Something, Say Something” program writ large.

Or at least writ more expensive, since Napolitano’s exhortation applies to the average Joe and doesn’t, presumably, require any special training.

Now that you see how many alphabet-soup organizations are involved in your security, I hope you feel safer — just in time for Thanksgiving! (sarcasm alert)

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 tsastatus.net 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)