The latest bizarre story of TSA scans, submitted by multiple readers here, is the story of blogger Matt Kernan, who recently flew from Paris to Cincinnati, and upon landing, but before being able to claim his bags, was told he had to go through a naked scanner or be groped. He has a detailed account of what happened on his blog, where he actually was able to eventually convince the TSA to let him through without a scan or a grope. Some of the coverage of his story highlights the fact that he was actually able to talk his way out without having to through the backscatter naked scan or the groping. And that is, indeed, an interesting point. He highlights his Constitutional rights, which state that as a US citizen with a valid passport, he should be free to enter the country. After a long while of going back and forth with multiple parties, he is escorted by over a dozen folks out of the security area and to the baggage claim without having to through the scanner or a groping.
But what's a bigger point to me is why did he have to go through such a search after he'd already flown. At first I thought it was to get on a connecting flight, but that's not the case. He just wanted to leave the airport and go home, and eventually he was allowed to do just that. He flew into the Cincinnati airport and lives in Cincinnati -- and was initially told that his only options were to be scanned or groped... or to go back through customs. Kernan recorded (audio) many of the interactions. You can hear them below:
The details are interesting, and all of the interactions he has are quite fascinating. But what is still not explained is why he needs to go through the scanner/groping process after the flight. I just flew back into the US from Europe last week myself (after the "new procedures" were put into practice), and I did not have to go through scanners or a groping to get back into the country. I haven't heard of it elsewhere, either. I'm curious if anyone supporting the TSA position can explain how this makes any sense. This is beyond security theater. This is security farce.
For example, given all the talk about just how important these new naked scanners are, you would think that the TSA agents operating them would be properly trained to use them to see the stuff those machines are supposed to spot. Not so, apparently. According to the report, due to a "software problem," TSA agents were trained on images from an older generation of machines which did not adequately prepare them to use the new machines:
TSOs must complete both new hire and recurrent training on screening technologies; however, airport training equipment is sometimes different from the devices used at screening checkpoints. According to an OTT official, when TSA deployed a new generation of x-ray machines to 81 airports, the updated recurrent training for TSOs with these machines had not been implemented because of software problems. TSOs were still training with x-ray images from older generation equipment, which limits their ability to identify prohibited items using the current checkpoint equipment.
So, we're using these naked scanners even though the people operating them haven't been properly trained on them, and they're not really able to spot the prohibited items that we're told can only be spotted using these machines or a grope. Once again, I'm trying to figure out how this makes us any safer. You can see the full Homeland Security report, which is pretty damning, after the jump. It highlights how the agents are often rushed through all aspects of training, and how ill prepared airports are to handle such training. It does not suggest an organization on top of any security threat. It suggests security theater in the extreme. I would think that making sure security is properly trained is somewhat more important than insisting that we must see everyone naked.
We already covered the guy who was arrested after stripping down for the TSA, highlighting how one of the charges was his failure to complete the security procedure (after stripping down, he pointed out there was no need for a pat down...). However, there was a second charge that was even more troubling that actually deserves a separate post, which is that he was also charged with "illegally recording the San Diego Airport Authority." I was trying to figure out the exact rule (listed as 7.14a), and some of the folks over at Flyertalk have posted the full 7.14 rule (or you can see the full San Diego Airport Authority rules (pdf) if you'd like):
(a) No person shall take still, motion or sound motion pictures or voice recordings on the facilities and airports under the jurisdiction of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority (the "Authority") without written permission from the Authority's Executive Director or his or her designee.
(b) Filming of X-ray equipment located on the facilities and airports under the jurisdiction of the Authority is strictly prohibited. Any person(s) caught filming such X-ray equipment may have their film confiscated.
I'm having trouble seeing how this rule can possibly be legal -- especially with all the stories today of TSA agents abusing (or simply not understanding) the new rules. Recording the interactions with the TSA seems like an essential step in making sure that personal liberties are respected. Making that illegal raises all sorts of questions. And while this is specific to San Diego Airport, it makes me wonder if there are similar restrictions elsewhere.
Just a few months ago, we pointed out how law enforcement and the courts were abusing wiretap laws to find people guilty of wiretapping for recording law enforcement in public places. Thankfully, some courts have pushed back on such cases, and it seems like this is a situation where declaring an outright ban on videotaping within the airport is a restriction that doesn't make any sense at all.
It certainly appears that the TSA might need a bit more training with these new intrusive groping pat downs. MSNBC has the story of a survivor of bladder cancer, who now has to wear a urostomy bag, which collects his urine for him alongside his body, trying to travel via the airport in Detroit. He tried to explain all of this to the TSA folks, and asked for a private room (as has always been promised) for a pat down, after the TSA decided that something was amiss after he went through the scanner. However, at first the TSA claimed there was no private room, then refused to listen to him explain his medical condition and did not heed warnings about how they were going to break the bag. And, yes, you guessed it, the TSA broke the bag, covering the guy and his clothes in urine, which he was unable to clean up until after boarding his plane. TSA boss John Pistole has since called the guy to apologize, but it's getting more and more difficult to take Pistole at his word when he spews his "trust me, I know what I'm doing" speech:
"After coming to TSA with 26 years of intelligence and law enforcement experience at the FBI, I understand the serious threats our nation faces and the security measures we must implement to thwart potential attacks"
The TSA stories are coming fast and furious these days. The latest takes place (yet again) at the San Diego airport, where a guy first refused to go through the naked image scanner, and when he was told he had to be patted down stripped down to his bicycle underwear, which (as he noted) "left nothing to the imagination." His argument was that at that point, he shouldn't need a pat down, but the TSA ordered him to put his clothes back on so he could be patted down. He argued that they could just go through his clothes. End result? Guy in underwear gets arrested, handcuffed, and escorted through the airport in his underwear -- and is being charged with the same thing that the "don't touch my junk" guy was threatened with: "failing to complete the security process." Feeling safer?
Think the complaints about the TSA are beginning to reach a tipping point? There's a whole bunch of new news on this front, starting with a California district attorney saying that he's ready to charge TSA agents with sexual assault if evidence is presented that the new pat downs go too far (apparently multiple DAs are now saying this).
Hopefully, some other DAs are willing to do the same, because some are ready and willing to file sexual assault charges. Richard Kulawiec points us to the news of how a nursing mother in Dayton feels she was sexually assaulted by the TSA. Contrary to claims from the TSA, she was not informed that her private parts would be touched (repeatedly, from the sound of it). She was not given the option of having it happen in a private area. And, she notes, this was not about her refusal to go through a full body backscatter scanner, since those aren't even in operation at that airport. The account is pretty chilling as the woman is clearly quite troubled by the experience (as she should be).
Along those lines, at the federal level, Ron Paul has introduced new legislation that would make it clear that TSA agents are subject to sexual harassment laws. You can see him speaking about it here:
TSA doesn't require much at all, it turns out. This government agency-gone-wild performs a background check to weed out applicants who are convicted felons, but TSA does not test at all for applicants’ psychological soundness.
These are low-wage government employees granted full authority to touch passengers however they like. There is no indication that TSA agents have selectively abused their authority, but as with all government programs: If there are no checks in place to limit power, authority will be abused. Forget racial profiling; if there no limits to officials’ power, what would stop them from claiming the most attractive powers need a more thorough patdown?
In fact, it's so silly that the parody video below, of a "porn-addict applying for a job at the TSA" really doesn't seem all that far-fetched these days:
Meanwhile, a Congressman from Florida is telling airports they should ditch the TSA and find alternative options for security -- and it appears that Orlando Airport has decided to do exactly that. Of course, I'm not convinced that private security agents will be any better, and they still have to follow TSA guidelines, so I'm not sure it'll really make that much of a difference. But it does show the level to which lots of folks are fed up.
As for the TSA? Well, it's still trying to defend its position. Its latest is to claim that 130 prohibited, illegal or dangerous items have been kept off airplanes in the past year. What, like nail clippers and bottles of water? Where are the actual details? What has been caught? Who has been arrested? What happened to them?
There certainly are a lot of TSA search stories these days but it's an important topic, so we'll keep covering it as long as there are interesting stories. The latest, found via Slashdot, is of a three year old girl who got a full pat down while screaming at the TSA agents not to touch her. Update: Pointed out in the comments is that this actually happened "pre-enhanced pat down." This original story was from 2009, but the press seems to have picked up on it again... Apparently, she was initially upset at having to send her teddy bear through the machine and she then refused to go through the scanning device herself. Her actions somehow set off the scanner's alarm, leading to a TSA agent trying to do a forced pat down. The girl's father is a reporter and caught 17-seconds of the pat down on his mobile phone.
Oddly, it appears that the Tribune Company is pulling down this video every time it appears on YouTube. It's not clear why the Tribune Company won't allow it to stay up but others keep re-uploading it. This version is working as I type this, but it might not be for long.
"What he's done, he’s violated federal law and federal regulations which states once you enter and start the process you have to complete it."
On its own blog, the TSA's pseudonymous blogger "Bob" has also defended both the procedure and the potential for a fine for backing out of the search:
AIT is optional for everybody. However, if you decide to opt-out of AIT screening, you must undergo alternative screening, which will include a pat-down. As I've said before, there is nothing punitive about it- it just makes good security sense. Obviously a passenger can't completely opt out of all screening if they opt out of AIT. That would not make good security sense. AIT is deployed to help us find non-metallic threats, so if you'e selected for AIT and choose to opt-out, we still need to check you for non-metallic threats. That's why a pat-down is required. If you refuse both, you can't fly. It is important that all screening procedures are completed. This ensures that terrorists do not have an opportunity to probe TSA's procedures by electing not to fly just as TSA's screening procedures are on the verge of detecting that the passenger is a terrorist.
This sounds logical for about half a second until you actually think about it (apparently the TSA is figuring you won't). That's because it's still letting most people in airports just go through the metal scanner. So, claiming that "all screening procedures" must be completed for all passengers is simply false. For the vast majority of passengers, they just go through the metal detector and are never screened for non-metallic items, contrary to the TSA's claims here.
As for that final claim, it's almost as if the TSA doesn't even think through the logical next steps. Let's say you're a terrorist with explosive underwear (the threat we're told this is designed to stop). You get selected for the backscatter naked scan, and refuse. Then you know you're about to be searched and you can't back out. What do you do? Your options are to get caught and arrested... or to blow the airport sky high right there with all the people around you. Which do you think is more likely?
What I am concerned about, and I know many share this concern, is if we have an individuals who opts out of the advanced imaging technology--let's say Abdulmutallab had done that, if that had been the case in (inaudible). If he had opted out, thinking that, well, I'm not going to receive a thorough pat-down, so I can get on that flight, and if that had been successful on Christmas Day, I think we might be having a different dialogue here this afternoon and in the public.
Ok, let's just be clear here. Abdulmutallab -- last year's underwear bomber -- was successful in getting on the plane. What stopped him was not TSA security, but passengers on the plane seeing what he was up to. That brings up a separate question. Has the TSA ever caught anyone with a bomb with these procedures, ever? Security theater doesn't make people safer.
Following our story on the guy, who was detained by the TSA for refusing to go through a backscatter scan or to have his groin fondled by TSA agents, some folks pointed to a similar experience by Meg McClain, which she detailed on a radio program. You can hear her story here:
In response, the TSA has put out a public blog posting, which more or less calls McClain a liar. They took the somewhat extraordinary step of publishing the surveillance videos of what happened during McClain's detention, suggesting that it proves she lied about the incident. The videos have no sound and for much of it you can't really see what's going on. It does suggest that McClain may have exaggerated some aspects of the detention. Rather than an hour, it looks as if it lasted more like 25 minutes. There may not have been a "dozen" police and TSA agents, but (especially towards the end) there are an awful lot (and some appear to be out of the camera's frame at times). Also, she claims that no one else had to go through the backscatter scans while she was detained -- and suggests she was "singled out" -- but that's not the case. Though, it does appear that no one else is brought over to the roped off area for a full on search while she was held in that area.
The big controversial claims involve whether or not she was handcuffed. While her version of the events stated she was handcuffed to the original chair she was placed in, that is not true. Some viewers of the second video suggest that as she's escorted from the area, it appears her hands are bound together in some way. Honestly, it's a little tough to tell one way or the other from the video. Her hands are definitely held together during the time she's escorted away. Why that's the case is not clear. You can see both videos below, though, they're relatively long and not much happens:
What I find a lot more troubling about the entire thing, however, is this idea that if you speak out against the way you were treated the government might come out and try to publicly shame you by claiming you were lying. These types of incidents can be quite nerve-wracking, and it's unlikely that anyone going through them will get every single detail correct, even if the larger description of what happened is accurate. The same thing was true of the other story in San Diego, where the guy even admitted he was so shaken he didn't remember the exact order that things happened.
For the government's response to be to attack someone's credibility based on getting some small things wrong, rather than acknowledging the larger concerns raised by these types of searches and detentions, is really quite troubling.