TSA Security Theater Makes Unwilling Co-Star Out Of 3-Year-Old With Rare Medical Condition

from the learning-from-your-mistakes-not-permitted-by-governing-TSA-bylaws dept

It seems the TSA is unable to learn from its mistakes. When your entire operation is continually scrutinized and criticized by the public and policy makers, you’d think there would be a concerted effort to minimize these sorts of embarrassing incidents.

The TSA hasn’t met a medical condition it can’t treat as threat. Anything physically unusual is subjected to additional patdowns, harassment and detainment. Err on the side of caution, I suppose, but it’s doing itself no favors by refusing to up its level of understanding past “aggressively mystified.”

A disabled child was harassed by government agents and his family was caused to miss their flight, all because inept security screeners thought that his medical equipment may have been a bomb. Even children with debilitating medical conditions set off paranoiac ideations and inhumane treatment from the Transportation Security Administration.

3-year-old Apollo, who was born with a cardiovascular abnormality that affects his ability to eat, was suspected of harboring an explosive device after TSA employees believed they had detected residue on the medical supplies that help keep him alive.

Yes, Apollo’s condition is unusual and yes, for whatever reason, his very essential formula set off the explosive residue testing equipment, but the entire system leading up to this point is incredibly fallible. The TSA’s boilerplate response ignores a great many facts in its hurry to offload the blame on Apollo’s parents.

The TSA looked into Bergeron’s complaint for Yahoo Shine on Friday before issuing the following statement: “We regret that the family did not have a positive screening experience. We strongly encourage passengers with medical conditions to arrive at the checkpoint with ample time for screening. We are committed to maintaining the security of the traveling public and strive to treat all passengers with dignity and respect.”

Thanks for the “arrive early” tip, but Apollo’s mother (Renee Bergeron) did everything she could do to expedite this process and it still went wrong.

“I walked right up to the first agent and told her, ‘My son is tube-fed and this cooler has formula and medical supplies in it,’” Bergeron said, explaining that she had hoped that being direct would be a helpful approach and that it would have prompted a TSA agent to do a thorough search and swab of the items before sending them through to their gate.

No such luck. The responding (ha!) TSA agent told her to put it on the belt with the rest of luggage and made no attempt to inform the screeners up ahead that something unusual might be on the way. The formula cooler triggered the “bomb residue” alarm and Bergeron’s (and Apollo’s) day went from merely difficult to something much worse.

They were escorted to a restroom then, as Apollo had to go, but Bergeron was not allowed to take him alone. Then the two were ushered to a private room where agents gave Bergeron a thorough pat-down and where a nervous Apollo began to cry and beg his mom to hold him. Bergeron was told she couldn’t touch her son because she could “contaminate” him. “It was horribly traumatic for him,” she said.

“To make a long story short, the flight left without us,” she wrote in her blog. “As it turns out, they don’t hold flights for people suspected of carrying explosives onto the plane.”

Somewhat ironically, Bergeron and her son were on their way to an “Everybody Plays” event, which celebrates and encourages active lives for children with different health issues and disabilities. To be subjected to additional hassle and attention because of his condition isn’t going to help Apollo learn to live a fuller life.

Now, it may seem a bit churlish to criticize the agency for following its own policies regarding explosive residue, but it’s not as if Bergeron didn’t try to let agents know something unusual was headed their way, in terms of both luggage and human beings. But this was ignored and the usual panic ensued when the machine decided the formula was actually explosives. And it’s not as if the agency doesn’t have any previous experience with this exact flier.

Bergeron said she is considering filing a complaint with the TSA. It’s not the first time they have experienced harassment at the hands of the agency.

Last year they were mistreated on their way to Texas for Apollo’s medical treatment. In that instance, a TSA employee attempted to pour out all four of Apollo’s bottles of formula before he found it in himself to spare all but one. “It was so blown out of proportion and ridiculous” Bergeron said.

The policies constantly override any innate logic TSA agents might possess and continue unimpeded even when the agency itself admits it doesn’t think airplanes are terrorist targets. The underlying problem with these policies and the security theater they anchor is that they’re unable to be overridden by agents’ intuition or better judgement. Because of this, no one learns anything from these experiences. The TSA just copy-pastes another boilerplate “just policy” non-apology and moves on to the next debacle.

Even worse, the TSA itself provides absolutely no assistance for travelers in terms of prepping for unusual situations, other than tell them to “arrive early.” Arriving early is completely useless when agents are free to detain fliers for nearly any reason and for indefinite periods of time. A spokesperson spoke to Yahoo and pointed to this post on the TSA’s blog as “answering” questions about how bomb residue tests work. But what’s contained in that post doesn’t address Bergeron’s situation at all. Furthermore, it doesn’t really explain the system. It spends most of the post telling people TSA agents will be using swabs to detect bomb residue. No information is given as to what common (or uncommon) items/chemicals/household products might cause a false positive. There’s no info on failure rates or anything detailing the technology involved. It’s just “we’ll be using these so don’t be worried.” In terms of dealing with Bergeron’s multiple experiences with the TSA, it’s about as useless as a 404 page.

I understand that too much information might give someone an idea of how to bypass these tests, but when you’re dealing with the possibility of throwing out the only food a child with a rare medical condition can eat simply because of policies and faulty machinery, you need to be willing to disseminate more info than a canned response and a worthless “we’re the good guys” blog post.

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Comments on “TSA Security Theater Makes Unwilling Co-Star Out Of 3-Year-Old With Rare Medical Condition”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Another possible reason for a lack of a ‘false-positives materials list’:

By their own documents they don’t even consider terrorists a serious threat, so they just tag whatever they think they can get away with as ‘dangerous chemicals/residue’ just so they can have ‘hits’ to show how ‘effective’ they are at stopping the mythical terrorists/boogiemen.

While disgusting, stories like this are hardly surprising, as when you set up a group that has the complete ability to decide whether or not someone is able to travel via plane, with no other options to avoid them and still fly, and make it so they have no effective accountability for their actions(because terrorists!), you’re going to attract the worst kinds of people, those that enjoy having and exercising power over others, and gradually drive out or corrupt those few that sign on that weren’t already bad.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re:

There is a semi-rational reason for posting a false positives materials list. A real terrorist group could do dry runs where they check the consistency from airport to airport, or between different agents, of TSA’s ability to sniff out bomb materials. This is only semi-rational because one can get that information elsewhere. As part of the concept of using layers of security, TSA still feels they need to not make it easy for the terrorists by posting such a list even though that makes the process more difficult for everyone else. What is really important though is that the TSA agents are well versed in what items can cause a false positive. Either they are not well versed or the established procedure is to treat a false positive exactly the same as a true positive. This is where they fail in my view.

What should happen is that upon first indication of potential bomb materials the agent should ask a couple of questions to determine the likelihood of a false positive. The agent should then use observations about the travelers, including behavior, to determine whether or not secondary screening is warranted. I would say, in this context, secondary screening should not have been necessary. I don’t think there has ever been an incident where a terrorist has been willing to sacrifice their own young child for the cause. The agents should just make sure the parent(s) traveling with the child had full control over all luggage so that nothing could have been slipped in unknown to them.

One of the worst aspects of blind devotion to a security process is that TSA can’t even have a public discussion about the wisdom of their procedures as that would, again, tip off potential terrorists. So, in response to complaints they whip out their boilerplate, just policy, form and wait till the controversy blows over.

Vincent Clement (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The TSA chooses to stick to the process because that way it can hire anyone who passes a background check and who can read English while providing minimal training. The ability to think and use judgement are not job requirements. Take a look at the people who work for the TSA. They are one step – barely at that – above a mall cop.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I would argue that the mall cop is above the TSA. The mall cop serves various useful functions in some garden variety problems that need someone with authority, but don’t really call for cops.You can’t smoke here, you can’t solicit here, you’re causing a disturbance, so I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Those sorts of things. They also usually know they’re sorter on official protection than real cops.

The TSA on the otherhand has demonstrated essentially no useful purpose, and has lots of official protection and knows it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Debt issues?

Maybe the US Gov could reduce their spending by abolishing the TSA. No more revolving-door influenced decisions to buy security crap that does not work like said and not as safe as said. No more hiring people who either a) hate what they do but need a job and are nice or b) like the power and treat others like trash. No more wasted tax dollars on the probability of winning the lottery that you’ll actually get attacked.

Stick to what works, check for metal, check for weapons, no bomb-sniffing dogs, no uneducated people conducting searches, blindly following procedures by people who have NO concept of what it is to be on the front lines. And let their be risk, albeit that of winning the lottery, of an attack.

Want to really prevent an attack? STOP INTERFERING WITH FOREIGN COUNTRIES POLITICS AND BUSINESSES! Yes, odd concept huh? Corrupting local and federal governments, against the will of the people who inhabit that country, like say Contra support – nah, they were not killing innocent women and children. Nah the armies were not destroying innocent people.

In short, STOP EXPLOITING and you won’t need tough security – which means the asshole-TSA-agents who enjoy the power can go back to being bouncers, watching Roadhouse on the weekend for “training.”

The Real Michael says:

Re: Debt issues?

You’re suggesting that this out of control government stop exploiting other countries? Never gonna happen. The idea from the onset has been to instill fear in Americans so that we’ll consent to any and all intrusions upon our personal lives, for the sake of phony security measures. Hence FDR’s famous quote, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” The TSA, NSA and DHS are symptoms of the very problem he was trying to warn about.

No matter who you are or where you’re going, even if you were always surrounded by armed security detail 24/7, you will never, ever truly be safe in this world.

JMT says:

Re: Debt issues?


This cannot be repeated loudly enough or often enough. As despicable and unjustifiable as acts of terrorism are, they’re generally not done just for fun. They’re almost always carried out in retaliation for perceived grievances, and the US foreign policy history is basically one grievance after another.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re: Debt issues?

This cannot be repeated loudly enough or often enough. As despicable and unjustifiable as acts of terrorism are, they’re generally not done just for fun. They’re almost always carried out in retaliation for perceived grievances, and the US foreign policy history is basically one grievance after another.

True, but look at the countries that the US meddles with the most. It’s always countries that are unstable and/or run by nutjobs in the first place. It’s not like the US is trying to help anyone overthrow the governments of France or Italy. These counties are messed up to begin with and would still be fighting wars and killing each other even if the US stopped all involvement in their affairs. They’re mostly pissed off because we’d like to see them not slaughter each other over things like giving girls an education or teenagers listing to pop music.

Trails (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Debt issues?

No, no and no. Khomeini in Iran? That’s a direct result of the US assassinating a democratically elected president. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammad_Mossadegh

Pinochet in Chile? Same deal.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_Chilean_coup_d%27%C3%A9tat

The US also backed at one point both Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Debt issues?

Not true at all. The US HAS meddled in the affairs of their allies, including UK (though not as direct as say Guatemala).

Also Iran, twice, was interfered with and the nutjob who was in power was a result of their interference.

I’m sorry Rekrul, but a history of the CIA and intelligence in general, shows us that the US does interfere, even with people who try to help their country.

The list is huge man and scary.

Anonymous Coward says:

these TSA people seem as if they are even further up their own asses, even more egotistical than any other security agency. as in most cases, these things happen because they can, because the agents can be total fucking ass holes, and no one is gonna get anything over one of them!
some time ago i was in a que of people at a scanner. one female, fat agent told her colleague that she had told all us passengers to get shoes off feet and belts out of trousers. she hadn’t said a word and when i pointed this out to the male agent, i thought i was gonna be strung up from the nearest hanging tree right away! these agents, like all government agents, are arrogant, big headed and ignorant. is it any wonder why they are despised so, especially when they treat kids like this? they wouldn’t expect their own kids to have to go through this type of treatment, nor would they put up with it!

marcus (profile) says:

Re: Re:

What’s amazing is how they are now hated more than the IRS when everyone has to deal with the IRS but not every American has to deal with the TSA since for the most part they are in airports and sometimes they set up a VIPR checkpoint (surprise checkpoint set up in public places and roadblocks). This means that a lot of people who cannot afford to travel (especially by air) have never dealt with the TSA and have no idea how the TSA acts. There are plenty of first time flyers or people who haven’t flown after the TSA took over airport security who still experience the TSA for the first time. Despite not everyone dealing with the TSA, more Americans dislike the TSA more than the IRS.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m having a hard time seeing where the justification is to even have a TSA inspecting passengers.

Tech has advanced in today’s world over the flying public of yesteryear. Planes are faster, communications are better. So much so that our parents got to their destinations quicker than the flying public does today with faster planes.

I’m still looking for that real terrorist the TSA has caught, for all the taxpayer money they’ve spent. Counting how many cigarette lighters and how many pocket knives have been confiscated does not equal a terrorist. It instead shows just how little the TSA is needed as both items flew in planes with the passengers for years and years without issue.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Such actions are never justified and are actually used to justify further actions by TSA and police to be more militant towards the populous. That guy in LA took the wrong approach.

Dramatic change does not work. Think about it, very few knee-jerk reactions work well and sustain themselves.

It has taken a long time for civil liberties to be eroded and thus more difficult to return.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re:

I won’t defend the shooter, but the possibility of targeted violence motivated by frustration with ridiculously strict governmental policy should have been part of the security equation taken into account by TSA. This could be interpreted as blaming the victim, but here, you have one of the worst incidents ever (post 9/11) affecting an airport and it was, specifically, the security policy of the TSA which can be pointed to as the proximate cause.

Anonymous Coward says:

Of course the TSA is security theather, even the TSA knows that

Of course the TSA is security theather, even the TSA knows that. One of Snowden’s leaked documents shows that not even the TSA thinks terrorists are trying to hijack planes anymore. And the reasons for that success?

Well, even the TSA doesn’t think it’s because the TSA is doing a good job, it’s two things mainly that discourage the terrorists.

1) Reinforced cockpit doors make it much more difficult to hijack a plane.


2) Passengers are too willing post-9/11 to subdue any trouble makers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Of course the TSA is security theather, even the TSA knows that

Of course that document was classified because if it had been made public when it was written, then given the budget crisis, justifying the expenditures on the TSA might have been a little tough and once we have money allocated to a government program we can’t have that program ended and lose the chance to use that part of the budget now can we?

Rekrul says:

Re: Of course the TSA is security theather, even the TSA knows that

Well, even the TSA doesn’t think it’s because the TSA is doing a good job, it’s two things mainly that discourage the terrorists.

1) Reinforced cockpit doors make it much more difficult to hijack a plane.


2) Passengers are too willing post-9/11 to subdue any trouble makers.

How to stop any passenger from ever hijacking a plane again;

1. Design all new planes so that the passenger cabin is 100% isolated from the flight deck. Include a small galley for the pilots and maybe one attendant to help them. If the crew needs access to some of the plane’s systems, provide at least a crawlspace so that they can go the length of the plane, but make it impossible to go between the cockpit and the passenger area. This will eliminate any possibility of a terrorist boarding the plane as a passenger and gaining access to the cockpit.

2. All communication with the attendants in the passenger compartment will be by video link, which will be permanently turned off at the first sign of an attempted hijacking. No exceptions! You can’t very well threaten the pilots if they can’t see or hear you.

Sure, someone could still bring a bomb on board a plane, but there’s no way they could hijack it.

Anonymous Coward says:

“We regret that the family did not have a positive screening experience…”

Is it even possible to have a possible screening experience?

Hum…maybe there’s a security checkpoint somewhere they give you candy after you go through the cancer mach…er…scanner that I am not aware of. That would be “A+, would give up my constitutional rights again” material right there.

marcus (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m sure Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups would be glad to tell you what most likely is on this list. They may even have a website but you probably don’t want to visit since you will be profiled as a terrorist and end up on the no-fly list. Most of what ends up on the TSA list is derived from previous attempts by terrorist groups worldwide against US and other interests. It really doesn’t do much not to publish this list when terrorist organizations most likely already know from experience what will alert the TSA and other organizations in charge of airport security worldwide.

Quiet Lurcker says:


@aldestrawk —

I can see an argument for treating false positive as positive. I can NOT see even that as an excuse in this case. Reading the article, the mother indicated to a TSA agent what was going on; she was proactive. It was then incumbent on the agent to provide some customer service, which – again, reading the article – did not happen. That is epic fail; means TSA is grossly incompetent and or grossly lazy.

And that incompetence or laziness will do quite nicely for anything approximating to common sense or rational thought, thank you very much.

Using children as weapons. I don’t know what happens in the middle east these days, but Western so-called civilization is not immune to this phenomenon. Reference the children’s crusades.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re:

I am guessing here because it has been a few years since I’ve traveled by plane, but I think there is a separation of function for the TSA agents. The agent who the mother talked to was not the one who is assigned to deal with an, initial, positive test. I don’t think these agents are allowed to talk to each other much as that would distract from the primary function of each and possibly distort the mother’s explanations in the retelling. (correct me if I’m wrong here).
I do think the more important issue here is that the agent who is testing is very well informed about the potential for false-positives and has the knowledge needed to ferret out false from negative without undue delays for a passenger. TSA agents should not have to depend on passengers to explain potential problems. In fact, they should treat such volunteered explanations only as behavioral information about the passenger. If the passenger is presenting new facts to the TSA agent, then that shows a failure in training the agents received.

Terrorist might well be willing to kill or maim other people’s young children but I think they would balk at doing so to their own.
History has shown a multitude of child abuse but I do believe the children’s crusades are a myth.

kenichi tanaka (profile) says:

This comment may sound callous and hateful, but the TSA is bringing this all on itself with citizens in this country target and kill one of their own agents. I’m appalled at the taking of ANY life, but we’re definitely going to see more TSA agents getting killed because of the way they treat Americans in this country.

This latest incident regarding this 3 year old, who happens to also be a disabled child, defies logic. If you ask me, TSA agents lack empathy, lack common decency and think they can get away with mistreating American citizens.

I hope that the TSA ends this mistreatment of passengers but this is exactly what congress intended when they created these Rent-A-Cop, err, Rent-A-Nazis.

I’m wanting to know when the Justice Department is going to investigate the TSA for its violations of the “Americans With Disabilities Act”. After all, this is a prime example of a violation of this three year old’s civil rights.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Error 404 Page

It’s just “we’ll be using these so don’t be worried.” In terms of dealing with Bergeron’s multiple experiences with the TSA, it’s about as useless as a 404 page.

I’d argue that an error 404 page is far more useful. Error 404 tells you that the page you are looking for doesn’t exist on the server. It is straight to the point, and while you are still angry that you can’t find the page that was there long enough for Google to find, you know that either the web admin/company deleted the information, moved it to another location, or Google inventoried it wrong.

This would be more like a blank page appearing whenever you looked for information on a web server… You don’t know whether the page is gone, the server borked, or the NSA swapped out the information while you weren’t looking.

Anonymous Coward says:

Knee Jerk

Some suggest (ahem… gun manufacturers likely) that TSA agents should be weaponized.

Given how their judgement is so poor now, I’m certain more screwups will occur and it will be deemed National Security and thus the details won’t be released. Nor will the agents be subject to criminal charges.


marcus (profile) says:

Re: Knee Jerk

A much better solution is to abolish the TSA and return airport security to what it was prior to 9/11. The TSA is out of control and when airport security was privatized, the security companies could think outside of the box. The reason the pre-9/11 security didn’t detect the terrorists with boxcutters was because boxcutters were legal at the time. In addition, the US intelligence community had tips from various sources that Al Qaeda may be planning to attack the USA on US soil prior to 9/11. Instructors from flights schools indicated they were concerned some middle eastern students were asking questions that a person flying a small plane would rarely ask and they seemed more interested in flying airliners than small aircraft. They also asked questions about airline security that normal students wouldn’t ask. It isn’t like Al Qaeda hasn’t tried to attack the US before. Months earlier the USS Cole was attacked off the coast of Yemen and in the late 1990’s, it was believed Al Qaeda was behind an attempted truck bombing of the World Trade Towers. With the information they had, they could have alerted our nation’s airlines and airports to look out for Al Qaeda who appears to be planning an attack of some kind involving hijacked airliners. It isn’t like the 9/11 terrorists didn’t raise any eyebrows prior to their attack. Many were suspicious of their intentions but couldn’t do much other than contact the FBI or other law enforcement agency about their concerns. Plenty expressed concerns but the FBI and other agencies didn’t think these tips indicated any activity worthy of their attention.

Frablo Doitsnoonan says:

When The Keystone Cops...

… displayed their fictionally outrageous incompetence in the movies, it was knee-slapping hilarious, because it was utterly ridiculous.

This same level of real-world outrageous incompetence as demonstrated by TSA, is a face-slapping insult to most rational-thinking Americans who are forced to endure this daily, undignified insanity.

anonymouse says:


I tell you all what we need to do to resolve an issue the TSA seems absolutely unable to resolve, and which is causing severe issues for children and the sick and elderly ,mainly, that might have some particles of some medication that will flash up as bomb residue.

Everyone must find a list of natural medications that set off the alarm and make sure their baggage is covered in it as is everyone else’s bags they come in contact with. Make sure that alarm is going off so much that they need to have 1 agent for every single passenger and where planes will not be able to depart as the majority of their passengers are being detained. I suspect that if this is done and the agents are pressured into really working they will quit very quickly….remember most of those TSA agents on duty are very uneducated people with a lack of intelligence and a severe lack of training.It will also force the government to do something to allow planes to fly with their passengers again. Damn it might even encourage governemetn to disband the TSA altogether and allow the airports to take control of security again.

The ability to pull kids and the elderly and woman with babies to one side and harass them until they start crying is all about the power they have and nothing about stopping any terrorist attacks, remember in a multitude of investigations it has been shown that when you give people with little intelligence the power to detain and harass people they will pounce at the opportunity…damn they probably have a game between themselves as to how many people they can get to cry in a shift.

I know security is important and i dont think the TSA should just go away as a system , but the Government should be looking at the lack of management of the TSA staff,Whoever is managing these people is seriously under-trained themselves and should never be in a position they can barely control themselves never mind manage the staff under them.

Rekrul says:

It seems the TSA is unable to learn from its mistakes. When your entire operation is continually scrutinized and criticized by the public and policy makers, you’d think there would be a concerted effort to minimize these sorts of embarrassing incidents.

Why should they when they’re legally untouchable? This is what happens when you put government agencies above the law.

People need to start filing criminal charges against these idiots.

John85851 (profile) says:

The terrorist's next plan

Well of course the TSA is correct. After all, this is a great approach for a terrorist: first, plant a bomb on a 3 year-old and claim it’s a medical condition. Next, tell the TSA agent about the condition and that you’re bringing “formula” (which is actually explosive) onto the plane.
Then comes the masterful part of the plan: after you’ve been caught, you talk your way out of it. Remember, you get bonus points if the TSA supervisor and police have to be called in because of the “medical condition”.
No one would suspect a terrorist of doing all these things, which is why it’s so stupid it could work.
[end sarcasm]
Oh, wait, there’s never been anything close to a documented case of a terrorist using a child to bomb an airplane? And every child that claims to have a medical condition actually has that condition? So, what? The TSA has a country to protect. They can’t let facts get in the way.

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