I get intimate with the TSA

Posted on September 24, 2010


In August 2010, TSA officers at Boston’s Logan airport and Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport implemented a palms-first, slide-down body search technique, which has been referred to by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as the “enhanced pat-down”.

The Boston Herald reports that the TSA’s new policy is fueling the debate of privacy over safety with its security measure.

ACLU Massachusetts spokesman Christopher Ott spoke on these matters: “We’re all for good effective security measures, but, in general, we’re concerned about this seemingly constant erosion of privacy, and we wonder whether or not it’s really going to be effective.”

Looking back on TSA’s controversial history shows that the back-of-the-hand pat-down method might not always have been their mode of operation. 50-year old Las Vegas passenger Rob Webster stated that he was subjected to the “…probing and pushing of his genital area.”

In a 2004 New York Times article, Rhonda Gayneir, a New York real estate lawyer describes having “never been so humiliated” after being touched up and down her body, between her breasts, and then having the edge of her bra cups inspected by a TSA employee.
During the examination, Gayneir complained about being treated like a criminal, and without probable cause. Even though Gayneir specialized in real estate and landlord-tenant litigation, and not criminal law, she began using legal terms to defend herself which resulted in the intensification of her body search. She was eventually escorted out of the search area by four armed officers and had to subsequently undergo another search by a different airline.

The TSA’s blog published a post titled “Enhanced Pat-downs” by “Blogger Bob,” who according to the “Meet Our Bloggers” section of the website started working with the TSA in 2002 as a transportation security officer and has since been promoted to a management analyst with the Office of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs. The brief entry describes three certain events in which a same-gender TSA officer would perform the body search: if an alarm is triggered at a walk-through metal detector; if an anomaly is detected using any advanced imaging technology; or during a random search. It also mentions that passengers can request private hands-on screenings—which I did.

Having recently (21-3 Sept. 2010) visited Tampa, Florida for the Biometrics Consortium Conference, I had the opportunity to formally reject a screening by an L-3 millimeter-wave scanner—not necessarily because I view the process as invasive, but because I knew I had the option to do so.
Although I was never offered the “choice” of a pat-down and there were no signs that suggested the option, I immediately felt burdensome at the request. The TSA employees looked at each other and started using their walkie-talkies, referring to me as a “refusal”.

“We have a refusal requesting a pat-down,” was what they said.

Even though there was virtually nobody behind me on the line, my security screening had all of a sudden become a spectacle, with various TSA employees asking each other from across the room which one wanted to perform the search. Clearly, such requests were seldom made.
As the TSA employee approached me, I requested a private screening and then he asked “Are you sure?” and when I told him I was he walked me over to a stall located next to, what appeared to be a TSA command hub, with five or so employees working behind one large desk and a man in a suit standing over them, talking to them.

Another TSA employee brought over my belongings in their respective bins and he laid them out on the table inside the stall enclosed by tall opaque windows.  While nearing my buttocks, the one doing the patting repeatedly told me he was to use the back of his hands. After a few intimate goes, I was seated and the soles of my feet were checked through my socks. I couldn’t help but consider how my chest was groped and how the process would have been for a female. My crotch was never touched.

I asked the two men, very straight-forwardly what they thought about the “enhanced-pat downs” and they didn’t know what I was talking about. After I explained it to them, I added, pompously enough, that they should “do their homework.”

One of them asked if I was with TSA, even though my Homeland Security NewsWire business cards were on the table next to my wallet and phone. “No, I’m a writer testing his options,” was what I told him.

Nearly 300 people have commented on the TSA’s blog post, expressing their frustrations over the apparent infringement of their rights.

Commentator Frank Gomez poses the following questions:

How can a passenger tell when an airport screener is committing sexual assault?

What are the limits to the enhanced pat-down?

I cannot help but ask: Why aren’t all transportation security officers on the same page?

Blogger Bob adds that the TSA has used pat downs since 2002, when the agency started federalizing checkpoints following 9/11.

An anonymous commentator described the new security measure as “…a punitive measure designed to ensure that only a minimum of people opt out of the electronic strip search,” and I’ll have to agree, since it certainly felt that way.

Posted in: Excursions