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)

TSA conducts explosive demonstration at Myrtle Beach

Hey, ever wonder what happens when you blow stuff up? Fear not. The fulfillment of your special effects fantasy is just around the corner. Or on the beach, as the case may be.

The TSA has conducted an explosives demonstration at Myrtle Beach. Because what could be more fun than feeling the earth move under your feet and watching sand scatter at the same time?

Quoting from the article:

“To better understand the destruction explosives can cause, the TSA conducted a safety demonstration at Myrtle Beach International Airport Wednesday morning. It included the live detonation of explosives like C4 and dynamite, hidden inside common baggage, like a briefcase.”

There’s even a nifty video.

Who knew “the destruction explosives can cause”?

Someone named Nick Slater had this observation:

“If that’s on a plane, the plane is gone.”

Wow. Really? I wonder what would happen if “that” were at the security checkpoint itself, where hundreds of people are crammed together in one space?

Oh, I know — all those see-through plastic baggies would protect us.

No word on how much this little demonstration cost, but hey, folks, your tax dollars at work.

As TSA turns 10, agency critics call for reform — and more

On the eve of the TSA’s 10th birthday, and the official launch of TSA News Blog, critics of the beleaguered agency are lining up to call for the agency to be reformed — or eliminated.

The loudest cries are coming from Congress, where a new report (PDF) earlier this week concluded the agency was bloated, ineffective and in dire need of reform.

“Congress created TSA ten years ago to be a lean, risk-based, adaptive agency, responsible for analyzing intelligence, setting security standards, and overseeing the nation’s transportation security structure,” says Rep. John L. Mica (R-FL), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “Unfortunately, TSA has lost its way.”

Among the key findings:

• Since 2001, TSA staff has grown from 16,500 to over 65,000, a near-400% increase. In the same amount of time, total passenger enplanements in the U.S. have increased less than 12%

• Over the past ten years, TSA has spent nearly $57 billion to secure the U.S. transportation network, and TSA‘s classified performance results do not reflect a good return on this taxpayer investment.

• TSA‘s primary mission, transportation security, has been neglected due to the agency‘s constant focus on managing its enormous and unwieldy bureaucracy.

Some critics have gone further. Rep. Ron Paul in October called for the elimination of the TSA, as part of his budget-reduction plan.

And this week, he was joined by former U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, who demanded that not only the TSA, but the Department of Homeland Security be dismantled.

McGovern, who was a senator from South Dakota before he was the Democratic Party’s nominee in 1972, said in his new book What It Means to be a Democrat that current airport security procedures were “ridiculous.”

“Watching the horrific events of events of 9/11 was an unimaginable shock to the American psyche,” he wrote. “We live with too much fear and not enough common sense.”

He added,

TSA has strayed from its security mission and mushroomed into a top-heavy bureaucracy that includes 3,986 headquarters staff, making $103,852 per year on average, and 9,656 administrators in the field. Currently, TSA has 65,000 employees. Unfortunately, over the past ten years, the agency has spent $57 billion on numerous operational and technology failures.

As the United States heads into a presidential election year, the TSA’s apparent failures are likely to become a campaign issue — although it’s entirely unclear which political party can claim the moral high ground. After all, TSA was created under a Republican president but its biggest controversies — including the body-scanner/pat-down problem — have happened on the watch of a Democratic president.

George McGovern calls for eliminating TSA, DHS

George McGovern, former U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate, is doing what few in Congress (besides Ron Paul) are willing to do: calling for the elimination of the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.

As The Hill reports, McGovern terms airport security procedures “silliness” and “a needless hassle.”

He quotes a figure of $7 billion a year to fund the TSA. Earlier this year, Janet Napolitano, head of DHS, which oversees the agency, asked for $8.1 billion for Fiscal 2012, which would go towards hiring another 3,270 employees, for a grand total of close to 60,000 TSA employees, most of them screeners. The budget of DHS is even larger — $42 billion, according to McGovern, with 200,000 employees.

With the economy in the doldrums and ordinary Americans being told they must face “austerity,” one wonders how the government can justify this extraordinary expenditure, especially when the result is to bully and harass those same citizens.

McGovern points out that the creation of DHS was a reaction, if not overreaction, to 9/11 and that the time has come for the country to stop making policy based on fear.

New body scanner controversy erupts before the holidays

With only a few days before the American Thanksgiving holiday week — one of the busiest of the year for air travel — the TSA is facing two new body-scanner controversies.

TSA Administrator John Pistole appears to have backed off a public commitment to conduct a new independent study of X-ray body scanners used at airport security lanes around the country, according to ProPublica. The investigative news site had raised new questions about the safety of the scanners in a previous report.

At a Senate hearing after the story ran, Pistole reportedly agreed to a request by Sen. Susan Collins to conduct a new independent study of the health effects of the X-ray scanners.

But at another Senate hearing, he reversed course, saying he’d received a draft report on the machines by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

“My strong belief is those types of machines are still completely safe,” he said. “If the determination is that this IG study is not sufficient, then I will look at still yet another additional study.”

In a related development, the EU earlier this week banned X-ray scanners now in use by the TSA.

“In order not to risk jeopardising citizens’ health and safety, only security scanners which do not use X-ray technology are added to the list of authorised methods for passenger screening at EU airports,” the EU said in a statement.

The move ratchets up the pressure on the agency to eliminate the scanners at U.S. airports, according to a British press report.

The American government is aggressively adding new body scanners, despite the safety questions. Earlier this week it began installing the machines in Portland. It has plans to deploy 1,800 airport scanners by 2014.

The timing of the EU X-ray ban and Pistole’s public statements just before the busy holiday air travel period may only fuel this controversy, as it did last year.

(Photo: Xoe Craft/Flickr)

Carry-on baggage boom leads to headaches for travelers and TSA

A new survey by the U.S. Travel Association shows 7 out of 10 air travelers are annoyed by passengers who carry too many carry-on bags on the plane (see update, below). To that list, add the TSA, CBS reports.

Passengers carried on 59 million more bags last year than the year before. This year, the number of carry-ons will jump another 28 million, according to the TSA.

Air travelers have a good reason for carrying their bags. They are trying to avoid a $25 fee for checked baggage which has proven highly profitable for airlines.

TSA Administrator John Pistole told CBS News it “obviously take more time in two areas. One is the sheer volume of the bags, the carry-on bags. But then two, most are fairly densely packed because people are trying to get everything in.”

Without the $3.4 billion generated by checked bag fees, the airlines would be in the red, according to CBS. The U.S. Travel Association, a trade group for the travel industry, believes said airlines should be required to let passengers check one bag for free.

Update: (9:30 a.m.) The U.S. Travel report is out. A few top-line results:

Travelers Support TSA’s New Initiatives – Believe TSA is on the “Right Track”

The TNS survey found that a majority of air travelers are satisfied with TSA’s overall performance
as it relates to security, with:

• 66.2 percent somewhat/very satisfied;

• 21.2 percent neutral; and

• 12.5 percent somewhat/very dissatisfied.

However, frequent air travelers are less satisfied with TSA’s overall performance than non-frequent
air travelers, with:

• Only 54.6 percent of frequent air travelers somewhat/very satisfied (compared to 67.8 percent of non-frequent air travelers); and

• 28 percent of frequent air travelers somewhat/very dissatisfied (compared to 10.4 percent of non-frequent air travelers).

The survey also found that a strong majority of air travelers support TSA’s new initiatives to improve passenger screening. Specifically:

• 74.5 percent are somewhat/very satisfied with TSA’s announcement that it will eventually phase out the requirement for persons to remove their shoes;

• 73 percent are somewhat/very satisfied that TSA will no longer pat down children 12 years old or younger except in unusual cases;

• 69.9 percent are somewhat/very satisfied that TSA is implementing a trusted traveler program called PreCheck; and

• 68.2 percent are somewhat/very satisfied that TSA will now use new software for full body scanners that displays a generic stick figure when viewed by security officers.