Congressman Mike Rogers (R-AL) should be commended for raising two issues near and dear to civil libertarians in the majority report on the Transportation Security Agency’s performance since 9/11, released Tuesday: the troublesome increase in intrusive security measures, i.e. “enhanced” pat-down searches, and the pervasive deployment of so-called full body scanners for the traveling public:
In many ways, TSA has become its own worst enemy by underestimating the privacy impact of its operations, and limiting lines of communication and the flow of information to the public. The American people could be more supportive of TSA if they understood why TSA was implementing a particular policy or procedure and what threat or vulnerability it was addressing. Instead, in the last eleven years the American people have become increasingly more critical of TSA.
That is an understatement. For the last 11 years the TSA has been besieged by a litany of scandals and bad news stories that it brought upon itself, all concerning passenger rights and its inability to treat fliers as customers and human beings and not criminals or worse, cattle being prodded to the slaughter:
- Last summer a 95-year-old woman suffering from late stage leukemia and in a wheelchair was told she had to remove her Depends diaper or not fly home after an enhanced screening at a Florida airport. TSA defended the screening. She certainly isn’t the only elderly or disabled person to have been humiliated by these inconsistent and let’s face it, unjustified, draconian searches. Links here, here and here.
- In March, a three-year-old boy in a leg cast and wheelchair was given a physical pat-down at O’Hare Internation Airport in Chicago on his way to Disney World with his parents and siblings. He is just one in a string of appalling reports and You Tube videos of small children — including babies! –being touched and prodded by screeners to the shock and disbelief of their parents. Links here, here and here.
- In 2010, an experienced flight attendant and breast cancer survivor was forced to show screeners her breast implant in an aggressive pat down. Supposedly, outfitting female suicide bombers with bombs in their boobs has been a problem. The result, a rash of complaints by horrified cancer victims who showed no other signs of being a flight risk other than carrying the prosthetic reminders of their painful illnesses.
- In 2008 a woman was forced to remove her nipple rings with pliers before she could fly.
- In 2002, a women was forced to drink her own breast milk before she could fly.
- A 31-year-old New York marketing executive was charged with “obstructing justice” but disorderly conduct charges were dropped after this disturbing incident, caught on tape, in 2010. Makes one wonder why four beefy security guards were necessary to constrain her, slam her into a chair and then onto the magnetometer, handcuff her and eventually throw her into the clink. Needless to say, she missed her flight.
- Sen. Rand Paul engaged in a brief “stand off” with TSA screeners in January after he refused a pat-down. He wasn’t the first lawmaker to feel the indignity of post-9/11 airport security. I remember talking to Rep. Bob Barr several years ago after he mixed it up with screeners at a Washington airport.
As chairman of the transportation subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rogers has had a front row seat for all of the agency’s bumps and scrapes since it was created in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist hijackings. While there has been no similar attack on U.S. soil since then, TSA has maintained a mixed to dismal record across a number of key metrics, which the report duly points out. The agency spends and wastes too much money (its budget at this point is $8 billion a year). Oversight of its most critical job — screening passengers and cargo for explosives, weapons and contraband — is constantly missing the mark. TSA invests too much in lame technology that doesn’t work ($29 million for “puffer” machines that ended up in the garbage) and not enough in the tactics that do work (canine units). Its attempt at behavior screening has been a joke, and it has not implemented promised programs that would expedite checkpoint security for frequent travelers.
Indeed, the report makes the case for privatizing the TSA screeners and inspectors, which has been the mission of Republican lawmakers since the agency was created (screeners were recently unionized). It was encouraging however to see at least a nod in the direction of passenger privacy:
The implementation of enhanced pat-downs in October 2010 marked a critical turning point in the relationship between TSA and travelers. In its public statement of this new procedure TSA stated that, “pat-downs are one important tool to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives.” While TSA did make a brief statement on this significant change, it’s immediate rollout and shoddy implementation left travelers confused and frustrated. Pat-downs were initiated in direct response to a serious, imminent, ongoing terrorist threat. That TSA continues to garner public resentment from this procedure is indicative of TSA missing the mark both on implementation (e.g. waiting a year to realize children should not be subject to full-body pat-downs by adults, particularly without parental consent) and communication. Pat-downs have hit a nerve with the general public, and TSA has failed to adequately explain why it continues to use this procedure two years after its initial rollout.
As for the Advanced Imaging Technology, or the “full body scanners” which force fliers to stand with their arms raised in a “hold ’em up” position while a near-naked image of their person is scrutinized and likely preserved with no guarantee that one’s cooperation and supplication will make the friendly skies any friendlier, the report recommended that the TSA implement new privacy software more broadly, and comply with an indepedent study of the machines’ health effects.
What’s disappointing, however, is the lack of outrage in the report. Rogers has access to a magazine of anecdotal ammunition showing how the TSA has gone too far with pat-downs and has failed to placate the public’s concerns about the safety and privacy of the full-body scanners. Furthermore, the report does not mention the TSA’s secret no-fly list, which has been the bane of countless fliers who have been placed on it by mistake with little or no recourse. According to reports, the list has doubled to about 21,000 (including 500 Americans), even though the threat of al Qaeda has been downgraded by federal officials in recent years.
The majority report merely scratches the surface of TSA’s massive problems — it has not been the panacea described by lawmakers a decade ago. But the agency causes more than just regret and heartburn for Washington, it has undermined if not fully violated the Fourth Amendment rights of American citizens, who by the way, are paying for the privilege. Rogers’ report, though it approaches the right direction, doesn’t fully grasp these implications, and just comes off as more political posturing.