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Has The TSA Crossed The Line?

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[By David Beers – CruiseReviews Editor] By now everyone has heard various accounts of the new ‘enhanced’ pat-downs and advanced imaging technology (AIT) being used by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.   This is obviously a polarizing topic with lots of passion on both sides of the story.

Let me begin with my opinion: I think the TSA has exceeded the bounds of reasonability,  continuing to march down a one dimensional corridor with their security doctrine.  But I also do not condone efforts to disrupt the TSA screeners,  such as the National Opt-Out Day or other individual forms on malicious compliance – most of which are sophomoric.   That only makes it worse for everyone.  I don’t like the new rules but I will comply with them.  That is where I stand.  Now let’s move on to what I think.

I do not attend the daily threat assessment briefing at the White House, but  I have held security clearances based on my need to know, and undergone countless background investigations during my military career and subsequent career in commercial nuclear power.  So far I’ve been deemed trustworthy and they haven’t put me away.  I am also regarded by my peers as a decent analytical thinker.

When I peruse the protocols and policy changes implemented by TSA it is apparent to me that they are fixated on responding to yesterday’s threat in a predictable fashion, at least when it comes to processing people at airports.   To the public, TSA is reactive and not pro-active.   But that is only part of the problem.

Despite their bureaucratic approach to screening travelers – treating everyone like a suspect instead of digging deeper to identify those more likely to need secondary screening – TSA is also a public relations disaster area.  Press announcements don’t seem to be vetted before release, requiring backtracking and Jackie Gleason excuseplanations, “Hamina hamina hamina…”  and the resultant loss of confidence in the reliability of the information.  One TSA person says one thing while another says something different.  I was reading the TSA blog and they had some “myth vs. truth” malarkey posted.  The blogger claims pat-downs are not intrusive while at the same time his boss, TSA director John Pistole,  is telling Congress and the TV news outlets that they are intrusive.

I know TSA has a thankless job and was given a hopeless charter by Congress: that being to eliminate all risk.  However TSA doesn’t help their public image when they allow unprofessional conduct by some of their 67,000 employees (yes, that is correct – 67,000).  While the vast majority of TSA screeners I’ve encountered have treated me with respect there have been a few who ought to be glad I am not their supervisor.  As we’ve always heard, it only takes one rotten apple to spoil the barrel.  The (albeit rare) thefts of personal property, playing mind games with travelers, planting faux-narcotics in carry-on luggage, well, we’ve all read the many regrettable reports.

We’ve all also heard ‘the barker’ at the entrance to the screening area who constantly yells out instructions.  Some are better at it than others.  I suggest TSA look at it as an interpersonal skill and get those who come across like East German border guards moved to another assignment.  This sets the stage for compliance and a better attitude among the passengers.  Feeling like I am crossing through Checkpoint Charlie isn’t going to make me want to help TSA do their job.

Another area in which TSA seems adrift in the sea of incompetence has to do with ‘change management’.  How often have you heard reports about TSA suddenly changing something, and yet a month later X airport was doing it the new way, Y airport was still doing it the old way, and Z airport was sort of doing it the new way but with their own interpretation of it?  It happens with disappointing regularity and is indicative of an organization with a pervasive communications failure from the top to the bottom.  If they are relying on an official blog to sooth the angry masses with their blogger’s explanation of the rules, they are being stunningly foolish.  They’d be better off hiring some people from McDonald’s corporate office and getting some insights on consistency.

With regard to those x-ray backscatter AIT machines; as someone who has worked in applied radiation protection for over 30 years I do know something about this topic.  Yes the dose rates are low.  However I can also tell you that any radiation exposure, no matter how low, does carry some risk.  There is a probability – however minuscule – that the general public could see increased health problems as a result of using these backscatter devices.  I am not afraid to use one, but I would prefer the millimeter wave imaging devices that are also in use.  Frankly TSA could eliminate a lot of their grief if the ditched the x-ray machines and went 100% with the millimeter wave units.

I believe the enhanced pat-downs violate the 4th Amendment protections of the U.S. Constitution.  No doubt I’ll hear from some who will trot out the ‘if it makes me feel safer’ argument as a reason for allowing a stranger to give me the Full Monty with their rubber-gloved hands.  All I can say is we all agree on the need for security.  It’s the line at which it becomes too much that we are really arguing about. The truth is you are never, ever going to be 100% safe.

According to TSA Director Pistole, “TSA is really the last line of defense for the US government in trying to keep the traveling public safe.” So when the terrorist with the bomb in his rectum gets through, and the true last line of defense – the passengers – subdues him or her as they’ve done in every instance since the creation of the TSA, will those who support the current policy then be okay with body cavity searches?  Given their past decisions that is where TSA would want to go. When do you say enough?  You can say my tolerance for the risk is too low.  But I think some people are too willing to accept any level of intrusiveness if it makes them feel safer.  And by the way, ‘feeling safe’ isn’t the same as ‘being safe’.

Meanwhile, reports indicate the terrorists are looking more at bombs inside cargo than they are bombs inside people.  And yet with 67,000 federal employees in the TSA, our Homeland Security Secretary says she doesn’t have the resources to increase cargo screening.

In the end, I will comply if I want to fly.  Although they apparently kept it a little known tidbit, after the “don’t touch my junk” spectacle we learned that TSA can fine a person $11,000 if they enter the checkpoint and don’t go through the whole experience – even if they decide not to fly.   There’s that brilliant public relations apparatus again.  ‘Oh, you mean you didn’t know about the fines?’

Given the choices I’ll use one of the new machines and hope they then don’t want to still check me for a hernia when I’m done.  The pat-down will always be my last choice.  But I’ll also tell you my cruise port driving radius just got a lot larger.

That is my opinion on the subject.  What do you think?

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Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time November 22, 2010 at 7:33 am

This is a highly personal question about the TSA crossing the line. I for one opt for the AIT machine at the airport. After undergoing 8 weeks of intensive radiation treatment for cancer, what the hey?

On the other hand, for some the pat downs may well be intrusive, and very uncomfortable. Then again, calling TSA agents perverts and thrill seekers is also not good. This is a win/no, no/win situation, and unfortuately, our government has set these rules, and by the way, they were set during the previous administration,not during the Obama administration.

When I travel from Europe back to the States, I never get patted down, nor are AIT machines used. Every prospective passenger is questioned by an agent prior to boarding a plane, often two, three times, with different agents as the boarding line progresses. It seems to work just fine.

There is a man, very impressive, an Israely, who worked for airport security in Israel, and now lives in New Jersety. He was interviewed in either CNN or MSNBC about airport security, and the bottom line is that what is being done in our country has not made a dent in security and is nearly worthless. His sentiment, not mine.

Why can’t the USA learn from other countries experiences?

Comment from Dave Beers
Time November 22, 2010 at 8:37 am

Thanks, Kenneth. One thing I didn’t mention is that more than once I’ve handed my ticket and ID over to the TSA and they don’t look at me. They are more concerned with looking at my ID under the microscope to see if it genuine than if I match the photo.

Comment from Anne
Time November 22, 2010 at 12:08 pm

This is what we’re stuck with because the US refuses to use one of the most effective anti-terrorism tools: profiling. Other countries actively use it and don’t need this dog and pony show.

Comment from jeff
Time November 22, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Get over it. YOU are not that important in the grand scheme.

Comment from eugene
Time November 22, 2010 at 8:09 pm

i wholeheartedly agree with this plus i have my own problem in i don’t really have a choice in flying if i want to meet my family this year because of money issue (ticket bought last year) … its like saying that the cashier had a choice not to give money to the robber. yes i know that’s an extreme comparison but its what i got to work with.

Comment from Paul Motter
Time November 23, 2010 at 5:45 am

To be honest with you – I think we are blowing this whole thing out of proportion. I fly all the time and I find the TSA people to be friendly, intelligent and sincere all the time as long as you are patient with them and do as they ask.

The biggest pat-down I have had in recent memory was in Dusseldorf,Germany. It is no different over there. So what if someone touches your thighs, waistband, etc in the name of security – would you rather have a bomb onboard?

I do not see that things have changed much at all since they started this enhances security back in 2001 – why the recent uproar?

Comment from Dave Beers
Time November 23, 2010 at 10:53 am

The thing is the 80 year old nun, the flight attendant, or Paul aren’t going to be smuggling bombs. TSA checks for things and not for terrorists. I personally know a TSA officer at Huntsville International Airport. He worked for years with me at TVA. So I once got picked for a random secondary screening and he was the one doing it. It’s the process and they zealously follow it. Al Gore had it happen to him. Why? It is ridiculous to think Al Gore was a threat. But he was next in the random lottery.

Comment from Dave Beers
Time November 23, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Am I now a domestic extremist?

Comment from AshleeBelle
Time November 23, 2010 at 10:17 pm


With all due respect if you’ve never been sexually assaulted, never had a medical device like a pacemaker, hip replacement, or colostomy bag, and have never had to fight off an unwanted sexual advance you really don’t have a basis for comparison.

Do women (or men for that matter) oggle your behind when you walk down the street? Do you constantly have people look at your chest instead of looking you in the eye? Do people sometimes treat you like a sex object instead of a human being? If the answer to those questions is no then how can you possibly know how uncomfortable it is to have to go through a scanner device that shows your anatomy well enough to sell to a porn web site?

If a person is uncomfortable enough to submit to that level of scrutiny, do you think it likely that they would prefer to have their breast and genitals groped instead? Do you have any concept what the feeling of helplessness is like during an assault where somebody is feeling you up and has you in a complete position of vulnerability? Do you think anybody would want that experience almost duplicated by a government sanctioned employee?

Finally have you lost a limb, have you had a loved one who has had to go through a mastectomy, do you know anybody who is transgendered and is living their life as a gender they weren’t born in to? Do you think any of these people want their issues paraded around a public setting like a crowded airport? If you had lost your testicles to cancer would you like everybody standing in line with you at the security checkpoint to know about it?

If all of that doesn’t explain what the big deal is I really don’t what else I can say. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many people fall in to one of the categories I just described for you but I can promise you that there are an awful lot of them, and I guarantee you that none of them want to go through either a vigorous grope or through a scanner that displays their privates to a complete stranger.

Comment from Tim Butler
Time November 26, 2010 at 2:16 am

Coming to a cruise port near you!

Comment from Dave Beers
Time November 26, 2010 at 9:19 am

That’ll show those booze smugglers.

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