Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 15, 2009

“Do I have the right to refuse this search?”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on October 15, 2009

Today’s guest author is Deirdre Walker.  She retired recently as the Assistant Chief of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Department of Police.  She spent 24 years as a police officer.

“Do I have the right to refuse this search?”

This is a question I heard many times during my law enforcement career.  Often my answer was no.  But occasionally it would be “yes,” followed by an admonition to have a good day.

For the last half of my career, I would have documented each interaction, whether or not it involved an arrest.  I would have written down the nature and length of the interaction, the gender, race, and age of the person, and the outcome of the contact (arrest, citation, etc.).

I carry the baggage of this history with me as I’ve traveled over the last eight years, mindlessly placing my luggage on the conveyer belt and removing my shoes for TSA inspection.

Recently, something changed.

Within the last few months, I have been singled out for “additional screening” roughly half the time I step into an airport security line.  On Friday, October 9, as I stepped out of the full-body scanning device at BWI, I decided I needed more information to identify why it is that I have become such an appealing candidate for secondary screening.

Little did I know this would be only the first of many questions I now have regarding my airport experiences.

Over these last few months, I have grown increasingly frustrated with what I view as an unjustifiable intrusion on my privacy.   It was not so much the search (then) as it was the embarrassment of being singled out, effectively being told “You are different,” but getting no explanation as to why.

That frustration has been tempered by a combination of my desire to be a good citizen, and my empathy for the TSA screeners.  These folks, after all, are merely doing what we, the American traveling public, have permitted and now expect them to do.

I am left to wonder whether my own passive acceptance of these evolving search procedures has contributed to a potentially fatal dichotomy:  what we allow TSA screeners to do in order to maximize efficiency and enhance our perception of safety, or what we really need them to do in order to preserve our rights and dignity and enhance our actual safety.

We have asked TSA to find the tools terrorists use and prevent both from boarding a passenger plane.  We have unintentionally created an agency that now seeks efficiency and compliance more than any weapon or explosive.

While returning my computer and shoes to their proper places, I watched the screening line at BWI.  I thought about the haphazard events surrounding the security screening process.  As I watched the screening officers, I wondered what information drives their decisions.  Left only to my observations, I concluded that their decisions were entirely random, and likely based upon three criteria:  passenger load, staffing, and whim.

I was left to conclude that I am not screened because I look like a terrorist. I am routinely screened because I look like someone who will readily comply.  I decided then that my next invitation to enjoy additional screening would be met with more inquiry.

I did not have wait very long.  On my return through Albany to BWI — Surprise! —  I got “randomly selected” for additional screening.

This time, I was “invited” to step into one of the explosive detection machines, commonly referred to as a “puffer machine.”  The traveller is exposed to short, intense bursts of air, which are then, supposedly, analyzed for trace residue.

I read an article awhile ago that suggested these machines are entirely ineffective.   I have subsequently observed that they now sit idle at many airports where they were originally installed (Tampa International, for example).  In recently renovated airports (San Jose) they have not been installed.  At some other airports (like BWI), they have been replaced by the body-scanning technology.

When notified by the cheerful screener that I had been selected for additional screening (the screener’s tone reminded my of the announcer who tells the contestant that she has just won a TV on the Price is Right), I stepped reluctantly toward the machine and asked her quietly whether I had the right to refuse the search.  I did not want to become a spectacle, or have to rent a car and drive back to Maryland.

The screeners face dropped and she appeared stunned, as if my question had been received like a body-blow.   She asked me to repeat what I said, and I repeated my inquiry regarding whether or not I had the right to refuse this search, especially since it was my understanding that the equipment did not work.  She responded defensively, “It sounds an alarm!”

What followed is what I can only describe as a process that left me with more questions and a hunger for something we need and something that has apparently been missing from TSA procedures since September 12, 2001: Data.

It is, again, important to note my general respect for the front line TSA screeners — with the exception of those screeners who feel that it is necessary to yell at people.  In my experience as a cop, as a supervisor and as a manager, I know that yelling at people is the one method guaranteed to ensure sub-par performance and a collapse of any semblance of cooperation.

My motivation to write this piece is first, to vent, but then to take a stab at the windmill that has grown from flawed processes to become a barrier to achieving the real mission and ultimate goal:  Passenger safety.

I believe, fundamentally, that our collective compliance with the current screening procedures has served only to undermine TSA, and has denied our screeners the tools they need to correct their course.

After realizing I was serious about refusing to step into the puffer machine, I was told that I would be subjected to a “full-body pat-down” and that all of my “stuff would be fully searched.”

I shrugged and waited while the screeners figured out what to do next.  One of the screeners said “Who is the supervisor?  Notify a supervisor.”  I waited two to three minutes with two female screeners.  I was then approached by a uniformed screener and the following exchange took place.

“She refused the puffer.  We are supposed to notify a supervisor.  You’re a supervisor, right?”

Apparently reminded of his role, the subordinate screener then said “We’re notifying you.”  She said nothing further.   The supervisor then informed me that if I did not step into the “puffer” I would be subjected to a full body-pat-down, that I would be “wanded” and that all of my belongings would be fully searched by hand.

By this time, my belongings had already passed through the x-ray and sat oddly unattended on the belt.  They had aroused no suspicion, either as they passed through the x-ray or as they sat completely unattended.  I thought it odd that my initial refusal to be subjected to the ‘puffer’ now rendered the x-ray examination effectively flawed.  I was being cajoled and was then offered the opportunity to change my mind, which, again, I thought rather odd.  If I posed such a risk by refusing the secondary screening, why would that risk be now mitigated, if only I were to change my mind?

I did not change my mind.  So, I stepped between two glass walls and was subjected to what my police training would allow me to conclude was a procedural vacuum.

I had been told repeatedly I would be subjected to a “pat-down.”  I correctly suspected otherwise.  During the course of my police career, I have conducted many pat-downs on the street.  The Supreme Court has described pat downs as a cursory check of the outer clothing of a person by a police officer, upon articulable suspicion that the officer’s safety is at risk of being compromised.  My department’s procedure indicated that this pat-down was to be conducted with an open hand, gently patting the outer clothing of an individual, for purposes of officer safety only, with the goal of detecting weapons.  In other words, it is not a search.

What happened to me in Albany was not the promised “pat-down.”  It was a full search conducted in full public view.  It was also one of the most flawed searches I have ever witnessed.

From the outset, it was very clear that the screener would have preferred to be anywhere else.  She acted as if she was afraid of me, though given that I had set myself apart as apparently crazy, perhaps I cannot blame her.  With rubber-gloved hands she checked my head, my arms, my legs, my buttocks (and discovered a pen that had fallen into one of my pockets) and even the bottom of my feet.  Perhaps in a nod to decorum, she did not check my crotch, my armpits or either breast area.

Here was a big problem:  an effective search cannot nod to decorum.

These three areas on a woman, and the crotch area of men, offer the greatest opportunity to seclude weapons and contraband.   Bad guys and girls rely on the type of reluctance displayed by this screener to get weapons and drugs past the authorities.  We train cops to realize that their life depends upon the ability to compartmentalize any apprehension about the need to lift and separate.  Fatal consequences can and do result when officers fail to detect a secreted weapon which is later used against them.

At the Albany airport,  I was left to wonder what kind of training the screener received. I was forced to conclude the answer might be “none.”  At a minimum, she needs re-training, assuming there is any policy or training that governs searches.  Further, after being repeatedly informed that I would be “wanded” by the metal detector in addition to the ‘pat-down,’ I was not.

Had I actually intended to move contraband past the screening point, my best strategy would have been to refuse secondary screening.

I am also forced to conclude that the purpose of the “pat-down” was not to actually interdict contraband.    In my case, I believe I was subjected to a haphazard response in order to effectively punish me for refusing secondary screening and to encourage a different decision in the future.

All of this is admittedly subjective, based on my perceptions at the time.  What is also entirely subjective is identifying which travelers are selected for secondary screening.

This is where I find myself now obsessing over TSA policy, or its apparent lack.  Every one of us goes to work each day harboring prejudice.  This is simply human nature.  What I have witnessed in law enforcement over the course of the last two decades serves to remind me how active and passive prejudice can undermine public trust in important institutions, like police agencies.  And TSA.

Over the last fifteen years or so, many police agencies started capturing data on police interactions.  The primary purpose was to document what had historically been undocumented: informal street contacts.  By capturing specific data, we were able to ask ourselves tough questions about potentially biased-policing.  Many agencies are still struggling with the answers to those questions.

Regardless, the data permitted us to detect problematic patterns, commonly referred to as passive discrimination.  This is a type of discrimination that occurs when we are not aware of how our own biases affect our decisions.  This kind of bias must be called to our attention, and there must be accountability to correct it.

One of the most troubling observations I made, at both Albany and BWI, was that — aside from the likely notation in a log (that no one will ever look at) — there was no information captured and I was asked no questions, aside from whether or not I wanted to change my mind.

Given that TSA interacts with tens if not hundreds of millions of travelers each year, it is incredible to me that we, the stewards of homeland security,  have failed to insist that data capturing and analysis should occur in a manner similar to what local police agencies have been doing for many years.

Some might argue that the potential for intrusion is not the same between police and TSA.  I believe my experience this past weekend demonstrates otherwise.   Currently, there is no way to know whether a certain male screener routinely identifies predominantly women for additional screening.  There is no way to identify whether a Latino screener routinely isolates African-Americans, or vice versa.  To assert that the screeners are highly trained and do not engaged in this type of discrimination, whether passive or active, is unsupportable because there is no data.  You simply cannot solve problems that you do not want to identify.

Finally, I am most concerned about the “random” nature of my repeated selection for secondary screening.  If there is no discrimination at work, and my selection is entirely random, then we have yet another, and probably more significant problem.

For years in policing, we relied on random patrols to curb crime.  We relied upon this “strategy” until someone went out and captured some data, and did a study that demonstrated conclusively that random patrols do not work (Kansas City Study).

As police have employed other types of “random” interventions, as in DWI checkpoints, they have had to develop policies, procedures and training to ensure that the “random” nature of these intrusions is truly random.  Whether every car gets checked, or every tenth car, police must demonstrate that they have attempted to eliminate the effects of active and passive discrimination when using “random” strategies.  No such accountability currently exists at TSA.

As I left the screening check point in Albany,  I looked over a few feet and observed an elderly Asian couple talking to “my” supervisor.  I unashamedly eavesdropped.

I heard the man say that his wife had not been told that the machine would blow air and that she had been quite startled.  The woman said she should have been informed and the supervisor agreed. He said he would speak to the screener (but again, who knows whether he actually did).

Then the  man said “And she should have been told she can refuse.”  The bells in my head were deafening.

I believe what we have here is the beginning of the end of complacency.  It is now apparent to me that in the haste to ensure compliance with procedures that are inconsistent if not inarticulable, TSA has hastened the likelihood of failure.  If we do not insist that TSA work to create articulable policies that make sense, procedures that are explicit and consistent and training that supports both, then we are complicit in what will inevitably be an ultimate compromise of TSA.

That compromise may come in the form of terrorist attack, or it may come in the form of a collapse of public support.  Either or both are inevitable. Either or both are preventable.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 15, 2009 @ 2:41 am

A brilliant post and thanks Deirdre for taking the time and effort to right it. What do I conclude from my past experience, and note never in a policing function nor investigation of criminal activity, nor civilian security functions or activities. But hey I did run and inspect a nuclear surety program for several years.

Okay here goes. TSA has an authoritarian personnel management system and practices that have nothing to do with the goals and objectives for which they were created.

The overall objective of TSA is to provide a “Presence” at the airport and not a security system that is effective. Because neither TSA, nor the federal government, contols the totality of airport security the passenger screening effort is just to indicate to the uninformed and unexpert some evidence that there will be screening and thereby terrorists will be deterred.

Finally it indicates that TSA middle and higher management are just collecting salaries and really have no clue as to what the system is, not what they think it is. This is the type of unit activity I used to routinely flunk when an inspector, but only after documenting that the heirarchy not just the front line employees did not have a clue as to wheat they were doing, should be doing, or what to report or act upon.

These are harsh judgements. If I am right, and I think I am, then Deirdre has done a real service if someone empowered to do so does so. I have long advocated the return of TSA to DOT. I believe the fundamental reason for TSA inclusion in DHS was not anti-terrorism or counter-terrorism but to enlarge the body count (FTE)at DHS and to my knowledge the complete documentation of why TSA was included in DSH has never been released, studied if it exists by competent oversight or inspection, and probably reveals that I have accurately concluded the real reason for TSA inclusion in DHS. Another example where perhaps the unbalanced transportation security system we (the US) now has is because there is a fundamental disconnect from knowledge of transportation systems at the top of TSA. Hey, creation of TSA did take the burden of the security “Presence” off the airlines, which are heavily subsidized directly and indirectly, in so many ways including the tax code, that the fact that they are considered private enterprises is the biggest joke in our current system of corporate socialism. Airplanes are potential terrorist weapons as the world knows and almost all knowledgeable about their use or potential use knew long before 9/11. The fact that Condi Rice never thought they could be weapons is just another example of why a Sovietogolist missed the significance of the briefings she received when she became NSC adviser.
And I forget but does TSA have a confirmed appointee and deputy leading it now? Hey its only October of the first year of the Administration.

Comment by Poly

October 15, 2009 @ 10:41 am

I liked both the post..

Comment by S. Richards

October 15, 2009 @ 11:04 am

Ms. Walker has scored big time with this article. It’s sad that probably no one at DHS/TSA will take the time to read, digest and LEARN from her experiences and suggestions.

I, too, believe that the time is fast approaching when the public is going to rebel against the growing invasiveness of screening, i.e., WBI or a humiliating pat down. Further, the unwillingness or inability of the TSA to articulate how their procedures keep air travelers save (all shoes off or requirement to show ID)leads the thinking public to believe that TSA really doesn’t know if these requirements work at all.

Comment by El Walker

October 15, 2009 @ 11:46 am

Up with data! Up with thoughtful commentary!
One wonders if the writer will seek redress for the infringement of her rights, with the requested relief being adequate training of screeners and data collection….
Sometimes it’s clear that money is the only way to compensate a person for a wrong. That’s not the case here; You might instead choose to use this event to create actual leverage to help TSA evolve into a more effective organization, which is in everyone’s interest. (Easy for me to say….)

Comment by John Smith

October 15, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

Part of the difficulty lies with the nature of terrorism. Terrorism is an incredibly rare event. TSA has not found or stopped a single terrorist not because of anything it’s doing wrong (though there are many, many, many things TSA does wrong!) but because terrorism happens very infrequently. This is why there’s such a lack of data — it is literally impossible to measure TSA’s effectiveness at stopping terrorists. This is very different from crime; even in low-crime areas, crime does in fact occur, and data about that crime can inform police departments in setting and changing policy. TSA’s critical error is to take the lack of terrorist attacks on or against aviation as signs of its success, rather than a normal state of affairs, which its policies had nothing to do with.

Comment by Brendan

October 15, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

That is a great post. I can say that from my subjective experiences that the “random selection” is anything but random.

I have not been “randomly selected” in a few years, but I used to be selected almost every time I flew somewhere.

I used to have long hair for a guy. I have since cut about 10 inches off of my hair, and I am no longer “selected”. I have not been through any extra screening or bag searching since then. I must assume from my experience that it was my appearance that had me selected. Perhaps you will figure out why you get selected so often.

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

October 15, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

More comments on this post at http://bit.ly/LS8Wl

Comment by RAH

October 19, 2009 @ 12:13 am

The TSA are not COPS they do not have the authority to touch certain areas like the Police do otherwise there would be alot of people complaining that they were fondled. When you refuse to do something that you are asked to do that raises the alarm and it shows you maybe hiding something that is why there is additional screening. If you listen to the news you would know why the TSA is doing the procedures they are doing. Random screening is happing more and more so the people trying to get something by are being stopped. The shoes, look up REED. The liquid how are exploves created. When you go to board a plane do you know the person sitting next to you? or on the plane with you? They went through the same process as you so no one is different and there is nothing getting on the plane that is dangerous. If you don’t want to be screened then don’t wear baggy clothing or sweatshirts that are bulky. Instead of getting mad at the TSA’s for doing their job, try to understand what happened in the world for them to use the procedures. I like my Job and I feel like I am making a difference. Most of the TSA Personnel are prior Military not just someone from a fast food place.

Comment by mike

October 29, 2009 @ 8:19 am

RAH says, “Instead of getting mad at the TSA’s for doing their job, try to understand what happened in the world for them to use the procedures. I like my Job and I feel like I am making a difference. Most of the TSA Personnel are prior Military not just someone from a fast food place.

It seems like most of the complaints aimed at the TSA boil down to a perceived lack of consistency in how TSA rules are enforced and an apparent lack of accountability on the part of the TSA. In these regards, I would agree with RAH that people shouldn’t blame the TSA screeners, they should instead blame whoever’s running the show.

Ms. Walker points out that the TSA doesn’t seem to be reviewing its own procedures and personnel in the same way that law enforcement does. I don’t think that saying that “The TSA are not COPS…” excuses them in from adhering to good law enforcement procedures.

Note that prior military experience does not equate to law enforcement or security experience or skills.. Someone could have spent four years as a filing clerk in the Reserve and rightfully claim that they have military experience.

Comment by Jon

October 29, 2009 @ 8:41 am


You missed the point of the entire article, which only serves to undermine your assertion that TSA procedures are effective and necessary.

First, you state that TSA doesn’t have the authority to do a full body pat down. If that’s the case, they it’s just “security theatre”, as security guru Bruce Schneier says. It doesn’t increase security, it just use as a tool of embarrassment and harassment to ensure compliance with the procedure at the next visit.

Second, you ramble on about the necessity for random screening. Again, you missed the point. The writer argued quite thoroughly for the need of data to ensure the randomness of the selection process, so as not to allow bias to creep into the process.

Third, you state that everyone on the plane has gone through the same process. Not only is that argument unsupportable (see the previous paragraph), but it supports that author’s argument that public complacency has pushed us into this farce in the first place.

You allude to the fact that you’re a TSA agent and you tell us that “If you don’t want to be screened then don’t wear baggy clothing or sweatshirts that are bulky”. Thanks for the tip, I won’t. And now that you’ve spilled the beans on the TSA’s selection criteria, neither will the terrorists.

Comment by neil

October 29, 2009 @ 8:46 am

Very nice article – well written and thoughtful. Hopefully the right people will read this and start thinking… although I won’t hold my breath.

Can I suggest linking to this on the TSA blog ;)


The point of this article is not “get mad at the TSA” but to try and identify the faults in the current system with an eye to improving the procedure, which benefits the TSA staff as well as their customers/victims/whatever.

Yes, the TSA aren’t cops – cops seem to have a lot more procedures and accountability to go along with their powers – I don’t believe cops can just drag someone away or confiscate their property without ensuring they are fully aware of their rights first. Not that police are perfect, we are talking about people here, but they do seem to have more of a system in place to try and catch those that abuse their powers.

It brings to mind a recent case where a man recorded the conversations he had while being taken aside by TSA operatives – I’ve read part of the transcript and if cops did the same thing, they’d be on charges for unprofessional conduct faster than you can blink – there were threats, bluster, refusing to confirm his rights, the whole shebang.

As to your statement “don’t wear baggy clothes or sweatshirts”, that really highlights one of the main problems with the current attitude. You’re going to dictate what people wear for a flight now!? I’m sure that many people would agree that baggy clothing is far more comfortable for longer flights – so the TSA discriminates against people wanting to be comfortable by saying “if you wear baggy clothes, be prepared for an embarrassing pat down”?? I’m afraid that’s not the correct attitude. I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate being treated like that. the whole a mile in another man’s sho… I mean, barefeet/socks.

The author dind’t point-blank refuse – she asked if she had the right to refuse. Then, because they tried to threaten/bully/pressure her, she took a stand and was then treated to the further procedures – except for the ones the officers forgot about, of course.

One question for you – why wasn’t she taken aside for the patdown, rather than it being in full public view? To me, it sounds like spiteful revenge rather than normal procedure, just because they could.

It’s great that you’re proud of your job and that you feel you are making a difference – I wish more people felt that way about their jobs. However, your response in general really highlights the type of defensive yet aggressive response that gets nothing done. If the TSA took criticism on board, kept proper records, trained their staff properly and looked for intelligent solutions rather than concentrating on security theatre, they would be able to improve their service as well as ensuring the safety of those flying.

At the moment, they just seem to be annyoing a hell of a lot of people.

Comment by François Schiettecatte

October 29, 2009 @ 9:21 am

Speaking to Rah’s comment, the post is not whether the TSA are cops or not, but rather about the fact that they fail when it comes to making sure that people are not carrying weapons on board. The screening is done in a hurried fashion and the system demonstrated in the post is designed to cower passengers into submission and to humiliate them if they question or push back against the process. This is security theatre. There are been a nunber of TSA tests which show that things can get past the screening process. Liquids taken from us at the check-points are given to homeless shelters (I will let you work out the implications of that yourself.)

The point of the post is that the system is clearly broken and needs to be fixed in measurable ways to assess whether it is effective or not. This is tax dollars we are spending, we should at least know whether they are being used effectively or not.

Comment by yoda morganstern

October 29, 2009 @ 9:21 am

Its my understanding that if the TSA is the government, or an agent of the government, they must have probable cause under the 4th amendment to search your person, beyond the described “pat down.”

Absent PC, they must have uncoerced consent.

Comment by Another Kevin

October 29, 2009 @ 10:41 am

@Yoda Morgenstern

They HAVE uncoerced consent. You consent to the search by buying a ticket or entering the security line, And you cannot arbitrarily withdraw the consent; it’s irrevocable.

They also have probable cause. After 9/11, every person is a terrorism suspect and there is probable cause to search anything at any time.

If the security police don’t have such powers, how can they defend our freedom?

Comment by Brandioch Conner

October 29, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

@Another Kevin
“They also have probable cause. After 9/11, every person is a terrorism suspect and there is probable cause to search anything at any time.

If the security police don’t have such powers, how can they defend our freedom?”

I don’t believe that you understand what the word “freedom” means.

Comment by asdf

October 29, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

Welcome to the world of regular people/cop interaction…..

Comment by Christian J.

October 29, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

RAH clearly demonstrates why the TSA is an abject failure.

His first failure is reading comprehension. Ms. Walker’s piece is very well written, clear, and provides the detail necessary to support her claims. RAH’s inability to comprehend this well-written article displays the knee-jerk reactions indicative of someone who KNOWS they are in the wrong, and therefore start off in a defensive posture.

So he starts off responding to something completely fallacious. Yes, the TSA are not trained police officers, and therefore they use inefficient and rely on ineffective methods that have very little to do with executing effectively on the TSA’s stated goal.

Mr. Walker makes this discrepancy clear, and that is the basis of her article. RAH’s inability to understand the central thesis of this article demonstrates his utter failure in reading comprehension.

Sadly, his second failure is the most heinous. He makes the assumption that has gotten so many people killed over the last 25 years; that military training has anything at all to do with policing.

As an ex-NATO contractor, I have been involved with the use of the military as a police force in three different theaters of operation. Every single time the military has failed in their attempt to police a region (Haiti, Mogadishu, Kosovo, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc, etc, etc) because THEY ARE NOT TRAINED IN POLICE SKILLS.

No aspect of military training is focused on the methods and techniques of effective policing. When the military has been forced to play the role of policemen, everyone is unhappy. The soldiers, the policed, and the governments that thought it was a good idea.

The fact that “most of the TSA personnel are prior military” just reinforces Ms. Walker’s central thesis that the TSA Screeners are inadequately trained for an unspecific job, and have no way to measure their effectiveness due to a total failure to address the actual problem.

The TSA is Security Theater. It is simply a collection of poor actors playing out a badly written script that has zero effect on the real issues we face today. That is why it is an abject failure and continues to hire incompetents like RAH.

Comment by Rob

October 29, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

–All this screening is supposedly to protect “us” from terrorism. It’s supposed to prevent airplanes from being stolen and flown into buildings.
–Both suppositions are bs.
–The proof is in the actual screening. Passenger flights make up a minority of daily flights in the US. If the intent was genuinely to protect, then all flights would have similiar harrassment. They don’t. Freight operations, charter operations and private operations come and go, basically unsecured, except for whatever private security is in place.
–The real purpose behind the TSA passenger operations “lottery” is to accustom free-born Americans to being treated like cattle at the whim of TSA functionaries.

Comment by Gomez

October 29, 2009 @ 1:57 pm


“They also have probable cause. After 9/11, every person is a terrorism suspect and there is probable cause to search anything at any time.”

This is absurd on the face of it. It’s equivalent to saying that if a single murder occurs in Chicago every Chicagoan will forever be a murder suspect and treated as such. Ludicrious.

“If the security police don’t have such powers, how can they defend our freedom?”

Quis custidiet ipsos custodes

Comment by Jaduardo

October 29, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

On a similar note: I have always been frustrated that I am forced to remove my shoes but airport employees, airline employees, and other officials are not — EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE FORCED TO SCREEN THEIR BAGGAGE. In other words, these people could be carrying weapons or explosives in their baggage, but we trust they would never stoop so low as to hide them in their shoes.

Clearly this is a form of favoritism that can be exploited.

Comment by Older

October 29, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

In the early days of screening, I got searched quite often. After one such episode, an onlooker said “why are they searching you? You look like the last person to be a terrorist.” I said “That’s actually the point. They’d like to search only young, foreign-looking men, but then their statistics would leave them open to a legal challenge. So they have to also search old, native-born-looking women.”

Of course, they did get more sophisticated.

Comment by Demosthenes XXI

October 29, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

Well, I’m glad to see this being done. Besides the fact that there are these unwarranted searches, and profiling done without a reasonable basis in reality (my in-laws who are African American have been on and off of “no-fly lists” simply because of their race and membership in a nationally known church- Chicago’s Apostolic Church of God), I have reported instances of theft from the screeners who handle the checked luggage without avail, as have many other Americans. The sooner that this useless agency goes away, the better our country will be.

Comment by Mike

October 29, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

Re: Another Kevin

Is it only me who caught the irony in his statements?

As for Ms. Walker and her essay….brava, Madame! It gives me food for thought on the relationships between law enforcement, bureaucracy and politics. Thank you for speaking out and your service.

Comment by Chris

October 29, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

The perfunctory check of an ID against a boarding pass is laughable. Anymore, airlines encourage e-checkin and associated printing of boarding passes at home. That increases the chance that a person can readily create a fake one. At no time during this step in the screening process is a log created of you passing through security. There is no electronic check that the boarding pass is actually valid.

Let’s not even jump behind the scenes to commercial cargo that often gets loaded onto passenger planes — unscreened!

Flight crews have to go through security screenings, too. Why? They’re already in control of the cockpit. They have no need to smuggle a weapon aboard in order to take control!

All of this drives home the point that image is everything. With little publicly available to point to any other work being done behind the curtain, what else can one conclude?

Comment by Another Kevin

October 29, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

I ought to know that irony doesn’t work on the Internet.

Comment by Tommy

October 30, 2009 @ 3:44 am

I have a friend who used to work as a screener at Arlanda Airport i Stockholm, Sweden. My friend said to me once that it was common practice for male personell to do frequent body-pat-downs on “beautiful women”.

My trust in and respect for the airport screening process reached an all-time low at this occasion.

Comment by Victor

October 30, 2009 @ 5:30 am

Fascinating. Recently had the “opportunity” to pass thru SFO wearing a metal-soled “boot” I acquired after injuring my foot. It’s difficult to remove but I said i *could*. Instead, I was subjected to additional screening instead. This consisted of an elderly male screener (I’m male, 50s) patting down my arms and legs, but not my crotch or armpits, no wanding. It felt totally perfunctory like the way my ordinary US passport is scrutinized at the beginning. I was glad to get out of there without more inconvenience or inspection, but also thought: not only did this simple prop on my foot get me priority boarding, it also distracted them into doing a half-assed screening. I’ve long believed that all the “heightened security” was to create an illusion of security for frightened passengers more than a deterrent for would-be terrorists.

Comment by Josh

October 30, 2009 @ 6:00 am

What I’ve struggled with is the appearance of security, and the heavy handed approach to this. Traveling through Israel (now more than ten years ago)I was stunned at how good and non-intrusive it was. Every passenger was talked to by a well trained professional (not carrying an m-16) in a relax manner before check in. I was asked why I was in Israel, where I had gone, what was the significance of a particular site etc. Whether I was too knowledgable as to be rehearsed or whether what, I was told I was going to be searched, “Okay?”. I joked that I didn’t suppose that I had much choice. He said, “No, not really.” It was all very pleasant, and I never once felt intimidated. I was led to a side area where there were a number of individual tables, where officers were searching other passengers’ bags. They proceeded to search my belongings, after finding nothing, checked my bag for me, and walked me through the first check point. The only thing that bothered me was that the only people I saw being searched were backpackers (including myself). But ultimately, it never felt intimidating, but felt secure.
Currently we have it the other way around, we’re made to feel intimidated, but it lacks the security. Perhaps that’s the idea, security in itself is a deterrent, but I don’t believe that that’ll work.

Comment by Forrest

October 30, 2009 @ 6:38 am

Locks are to keep honest people out of your house.

It’s the illusion of security.

TSA is the illusion of security. For the money we have spent on xraying shoes and harassing normal travellers, we could cure cancer and end poverty.

Europe doesn’t screen to the level we do. Arguably, they have a more diverse population, greater social stresses, more chances for terrorism, yet they manage not to burden their population with useless procedures.

TSA is a Bush-era wet dream… one more step to fearful conservatives dominating the psychic space of a moldable population. TSA needs to be scaled back, and we need to quit being such cowards.

It is, after all, rumored to be “Land of the free and home of the brave”. The shoe bomber won. He had more effect on our economy and society by fear than he had if his frigging shoes had exploded.

America… land of pansies. Afraid to take a calculated risk. “Please TSA…. save us!!! We’ll do whatever you ask!”. The Framers would not be pleased.

Comment by Tom G.

October 30, 2009 @ 6:56 am

The “T” in TSA has always stood for Theater. Americans love the theater. Terrorists don’t care for it.

Comment by CP

October 30, 2009 @ 7:51 am

Thank you for an informed, thoughtful piece.

Regarding the “random” nature of secondary searches, I offer the following incident which I observed while flying in August 2009.

A TSA screener was posted at the gate and was selecting people for “random” screening before they were allowed to board. In the usual scene at boarding gates, a group of people were hovering in a ring around the agent checking boarding passes when someone asked “who is being boarded now?” One woman helpfully and chipperly piped up with the correct answer. The TSA checker, with the demeanor of a schoolyard bully said to the woman, “You seem to have all the answers, you get additional screening.” Everyone suddenly went very quiet.

The incident bothered me at the time, but it wasn’t until I read your piece that I figured out why this woman was selected for additional screening: she was helpful by nature and likely to comply. Well, I learned my lesson.

Comment by Pelle Peloton

October 30, 2009 @ 8:15 am

Nice work. Airport screenings are a joke. I have been flying a lot this year, over 300k miles and so I have been screened a lot.

I can’t remember where I was going but in Feb 2009 I passed the security screening and while packing up I realized that I still had in my pocket an Olfa Graphic Cutter (search Amazon.com for it) – a nice very sharp cutter I use for all kinds of stuff. Ever since noticing that TSA didn’t notice it I have been carrying at least one into the cabin of the aircraft on every flight. In fact, I have now Olfa knives with me when traveling. They never find them but they ALWAYS find any water bottles I have on me (which I have never tried to smuggle through – I just don’t keep track of what I have in my backpack).

Strange stuff. All this gymnastics make no sense to me…

Comment by Ian

October 30, 2009 @ 10:15 am

If you want to conduct a study of TSA screening behavior, you can rent a hotel room inside the airport in Orlando with a balcony overlooking the security lines.

Presumably, you could sit there all day with a clipboard and eventually publish your results.

Comment by ksjhntg39tg

October 30, 2009 @ 10:19 am

I don’t believe the TSA is really that incompent or stupid. I think we misunderstand their objective. The TSA is only trying to make people *think* it is safe to fly in order to frighten away terrorists and to minimize any possible economic disruptions from the 9/11 attacks. They are not concerned with actual safety, only with creating the illusion of safety. Real safety would cost the airlines too much money and be too inconvenient for passengers.

Comment by MrJM

October 30, 2009 @ 11:24 am

Thank you.

— MrJM

Comment by Mary

October 30, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

Re: BRENDAN’s comment
8 years ago, I had dyed black hair and wore a hand-painted black leather motorcycle jacket. My luggage was searched every single time I flew.
About 3 years ago, I started dying my hair auburn, and stopped wearing the leather for traveling. I haven’t been chosen for “random” screening since.

Comment by B.Sturgis

October 30, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

I believe that the whole TSA screening for airline passengers is and will be a waste of time and money. On 9/11 the terrorists hijacked many planes at once because they knew that they would not get a second chance to hijack planes once their deeds were done. They have no plans to do it again, I mean why would you plan to hijack a plane when the scrutiny of the passengers has become so intense?

The terrorists are laughing at our expensive and highly wasteful attempts to catch terrorists hijacking planes, when the terrorists would be crazy to try it again, because now that we are watching passengers and screening baggage it would be easy to catch them. Shoe bombs, liquid bombs, etc. are just distractions and ideas put forth by “Homeland Security”, terrorists will not try to hijack or blow up another plane in the USA because the chances of getting caught in the TSA lines are too high.

But I suppose that if they don’t keep up the scrutiny at airports the terrorists may again find planes an attractive weapon. What a double edged sword…

Comment by Mike

October 30, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

In response to the comment by “RAH”:

I like my Job and I feel like I am making a difference.

1) Whether or not you like your job is immaterial and of no consequence to this discussion. None, zero, zip.

2) More importantly, “feeling” like you’re making a difference is NOT the same as actually making a difference. Your comment displays the “security theater” mindset that permeates the TSA. Putting a Band-Aid on a brain tumor may let you feel like you’re making a difference, but you’re not.

Comment by rick386

October 30, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

This is a great article and I must say Deirdre is very knowledgeable on law. Many cops routinely violate people’s civil rights.
Another commenter notes that terrorism is a rare event, also correct.
Here’s my question (which i believe is patriotic, not anarchist)…
How far do you let authorities go in violating your civil rights? They justify taking off probably millions of people’s shoes because of Reed? Can you even hide a bomb big enough in a shoe to do any real damage? Recently, an assassin tried to take out a member of the royal Saudi family with a bomb planted in his ass. That’s a joke in itself, the attackers own body sheilded much of the force of the explosion. If they use that for justification, one day you will hear ‘Sir, we’re gonna have to poke around a bit.’ I haven’t taken an airplane flight since 9/11, not because I’m scared. You have a better chance of getting hit by a car, train, or being struck by lightning. I don’t like people violating my privacy.

Comment by rick386

October 30, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

vado fvck vestri

Comment by Connor

October 30, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

It’s sad. Do any of the TSA procedures actually protect safety rather than just allow the screeners to “do their job well”? None of it is well thought out or subject to serious questioning. For example, a bad guy can’t bring big water bottles through security, because they contain too much liquid, but 10-20 of his friends could take a bag full of small liquid bottles through, then buy bigger containers once inside…..

Comment by Mike also

October 30, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

I was only really ever selected for additional screening when I wore copious amounts of tactical gear. No, it wasn’t an attempt at trolling the TSA, I was bringing the stuff with me and had no room to pack it. Also, wearing so many pockets gave me another way to get around the carry-on bag limit. I refuse to check bags, I’ve had too many disappear.

I know I’m going to get searched. Please don’t tell me it’s random that’s just insulting.

The interesting thing, one of the first times I did this I was not only wearing a fair amount of extra pockets, but had a number of pelican cases with laptops and other electronics. This freaked them out, terribly. I was very polite and complied with all of their demands. They searched and re-searched all of my possessions. They had multiple people looking, so as to have fresh eyes on the situation. I was absolutely fine with all of this, until I reached my destination and found a small tied-up corner of a bag concealed in the plastic capsule of a Kinder Egg containing marijuana in one of my cases. To this day I don’t know where it came from or why it was in my luggage (roommates using my cases, gremlins, Loki, etc), nor do I care, but it disturbs me greatly that I was able to successfully go through that level of scrutiny with illegal drugs.

Comment by jh

October 30, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

I’ve always been astounded at the lack of logic behind the TSA policy. As a security professional with experience in national security and intelligence, I know how little the theater acts at airport checkpoints actually accomplish. But what really irks me is that even the play-acting is not based on any logical premise. My pet peeve is the laptop rule. I have to take my laptop out of the bag. My laptop is an electronic circuit board, a disk drive, a battery, and a display screen. Why this combination of items is special, I have no idea. Especially when, left inside my bag are an iPod (circuit board, hard drive, battery, display screen – JUST LIKE A LAPTOP), a spare battery, a cell phone (same as a laptop minus the hard drive), a video camera (same as a laptop minus the hard drive), a spare laptop battery, and an external hard drive. My bag contains all the components of a laptop, so what’s so special about the laptop itself?

Another ridiculous policy is the relentless hunt for water bottles. These items are prohibited because they may contain deadly chemicals, right? So what does TSA do with one of these potential hand grenades when they find one? They dump it in the trash right next to the passengers on top of all the other potentially lethal bottles of confiscated chemicals.

Because of poor leadership and knee-jerk management, TSA is operating under illogical, ineffective and baseless policy that does nothing tangible to make the airport safer.

Comment by dvg

October 30, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

Always question.

I wrote about a similar experience at LAX a few years ago.


Comment by *THE* Bob

October 30, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

Several years ago (before 9/11) I was returning to the US from Germany on business. While in Germany I had purchased a replica crossbow that I had packed in my check in luggage. Figuring I should disclose it before it raised any concern from the baggage screeners, I notified the ticket person. They took my bag to a table where they located and inspected the replica… for about 2 seconds before they turned their attention to my alarm clock. They spent about 10 minutes inspecting that. I had to laugh a little.

Comment by James

October 30, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

“TSA: A farce to be reckoned with”

A lot of good comments here. I could tell many a story of the absurdity of it all, but we all know them. The laptop rule, the shoes rule, the liquid rule, the lighter rule; all virtually useless as actual security measures. I have inadvertently smuggled things through security more times than I should say (3 exacto knives in my backpack on the conveyor, for example).

There is a lot of “feel good” policies that are all but worthless for anything else. Like the commenter above, I can only imagine what they must be trying to figure out as a procedure after the Asieri incident.

Comment by Monica D

October 30, 2009 @ 5:19 pm


“They went through the same process as you so no one is different”
Did they? EVERYONE on the plane was subject to the “Random” screening?

“and there is nothing getting on the plane that is dangerous.”
A number of comments following yours disproves this.
In general now: I haven’t flown since 9/11 myself. Not out of fear–just no reason, though I’m due to fly next august, when I move to university. Glad to know what I’ll be up against.

Comment by someDavid

October 30, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

Thank for writing the piece. It’s a good read – thoughtful, considered, articulate, probing, focused.

But raises a question that it doesn’t answer: why did you write it? Are you trying to fix something that’s broken, and if so, what’s that? Are you writing to get something off your chest, to help clarify your own position on the matter?

My impression is that you want TSA to be better at its supposed role of protecting life, liberty and property. It sounds like you want to TSA to be more aware of its own blindspots and unconscious habits, and to use that awareness to do a better job, to be better police (or security staff).

But maybe the TSA aren’t designed to be good in those ways. Maybe your interest in providing good service is just another way of being too compliant. Maybe the TSA don’t want to fix their problems – for any number of plausible reasons – and maybe you are misguided (in the nicest possible way) by wanting to be helpful.

Back to my initial question: why did you write the piece? To help the TSA improve?

If so, I wonder whether it would be more helpful to write about doing away with the agency instead, and about helping people find better ways of dealing with security concerns.

Comment by Mark Richards

October 30, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

The question was posed but not answered. And there are other details worthy of noting which are not noted in the article

The TSA and law enforcers obtain control and compliance based on what you don’t know. The former police officer surprises me in asking “Do I have a right to refuse this search”? She should already know the answer so the question is unnecessary. The rest becomes a word game.

So let’s assume she knows the game and has therefore set herself up for a “process”.

The security section is managed by the TSA. You can fly, and therefore have to go through their mediocre gauntlet, or turn tail and get escorted out of the airport.

There is a caveat…

In a police action (TSA is different animal to a point), you may be detained briefly when the officer believes (reasonable suspicion) that a crime has been or may be committed. This then opens the door for a safety pat down, requests for ID, questions, and a search of your car (anything within reach and “control”). You can refuse most of this, but not forever… and it just digs a deeper hole.

The same search process comes into play in the TSA environment and is heightened when your peg falls into the TSA’s corresponding hole. At this point the level of interaction may rise, as it seemed to in this case, to a “reasonable suspicion” level, warranting detention and further screening.

If you are not being detained for a clear law enforcement purpose then you are indeed “free to go”. No law enforcer will tell you that. Not knowing is the tool.

Keep in mind the real purpose of the “screening”: it’s a dragnet. The TSA is very interested in individuals with outstanding warrants and other law-enforcement entanglements. Checking watch lists is only part of the deal. Law enforcement cannot (yet) set up checkpoints to screen for these things. The airports provide a venue, all with a somewhat worthwhile and more public agenda.

And the law enforcement officer writing this piece did not point this out.

The fact that you are there indicates, whether you understand it or not, that you are waiving certain rights. If you know this, then there’s the option to un-waive them at any time. Of course, provided you have not presented yourself as “reasonable suspicion” material. You just don’t fly. And watch (pun) what happens the next time you try.

Such is a restriction in rights that we have come to accept as being a (reasonable?) entry fee to air travel.

A member of the (very) general public will have no clue on these distinctions. A former law enforcement officer who wrote this piece should.

I wish the TSA presented a higher level of sophistication and smarts when it comes to their mission. Unfortunately you get what you are willing to pay for.

We also get what we are willing to abdicate. The whole mess has been pretty much taken out of public hands and as a result has become an ineffective, foolish mess.

The officer’s analysis is good as to how dumb the system is. A lot of other details that would help make the case were left out.

Comment by Monica D

October 30, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

I forgot to add (it only just occered to me) this was Albany NY–my home airport. The one I’ll BE flying from in 9 months. *sigh* I better make sure I get there VERY early.

Comment by Ruth

October 30, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

When so many people are pissed off about the TSA, when security experts and experienced police officers are boggled by the security theatre, I have to wonder why this institution has lasted as long as it has. I don’t think even Obama would be brave enough to try and have its mandate revoked or to force it to clean up its act because of all the bullshit that would instantly fly into the air. Just look at the health care issue. But I would dearly love for someone to stand up and do something about it.

Comment by Bill

October 30, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

A little perspective on the politics of fear:


Comment by Julie McBrien

October 30, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

OMG – I promise you right now – I will forevermore ask if I have the right to refuse this search.

Comment by Mister Mister

October 30, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

I solved my TSA problems six years ago.

It’s been six years since I set foot in an airport.

I don’t feel like entering a Constitution-free zone.

I hope the airlines all go out of business. It would serve the TSA right.

Comment by Scott

October 30, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

Back in the pre-9/11 days there was a group of people at my work that traveled routinely together and usually on the same flights. Of the 4 or 5 people, she was always the one routinely selected for inspection of her carry on bag which contained pretty much the same items as everyone else’s bags. A laptop computer, a power brick, a book, a network cable: nothing different than the rest of the group of business travelers.

We decided it was for the following reasons:

1. Inspectors had a quota and they wanted to minimize effort and still meet the quota.

2. She looked innocuous and wholesome with a Marie Osmond kind of vibe, so they figured she’d cause no problems.

3. She was reasonably attractive for her age. Might as well talk to what seemed like a nice and pretty woman for a second.

4. She carried a fairly small carry-on bag compared to others in the party so the search could be completed quickly and with less effort.

It seems that with the change of everything since 9/11 not much has really changed aside from more strict rules for carry-ons.

Whatever incentives the screeners have are probably about meeting their quotas, minimizing their problems and taking home a paycheck–not so much making things safer.

So if they’re not making things particularly safer and travel is more difficult, then what are we paying them for?

I agree, we need some kind of data, any data at all that shows anything we’re doing is effective. If it’s not effective then lets save some money and some hassle for travelers and do something else.

Comment by MuonDecay

October 31, 2009 @ 4:59 am

“terrorists will not try to hijack or blow up another plane in the USA because the chances of getting caught in the TSA lines are too high.”

The hijackers who succeeded ALL nearly got caught themselves. Each and every one of them had caused red flags and suspicion. At least one was very nearly detained and questioned by the FBI after throwing up red flags when seeking pilot training specifically and immediately for a specific airliner.

The only reason they weren’t stopped was some mixture of incompetence and complacency in federal law enforcement, due to the perceived security of the American mainland from threats… as well as an insufficient amount of information-sharing between agencies.

The TSA is completely ineffective and unnecessary, and furthermore there are those in the TSA who seem to be keenly aware of both and simply do not care.

Even if the TSA did not exist, those attacks would not again succeed. They barely, _barely_ succeeded even in a complacent pre-hijacking world.

Even without any increased surveillance, wiretapping, baggage searching, passenger harassment, and every other minor little chip and papercut into people’s privacy and rights, the people responsible for the 9/11 attacks would, today, have been caught sheerly by virtue of increased vigilance and more active cooperation of law enforcement agencies, which is known to be the primary failures that allowed it to happen.

These things are not public enough. If they were all the government did, the people, unaware and unfamiliar with what goes on behind the scenes, would complain not enough is being done… even if what would be happening was the exact correct course of action to fill in that gap in policing.

The TSA’s purpose is to pretend to do an unnecessary job, and to do so as visibly as possible, to satisfy people’s complaints of a lack of security. The TSA was created by people who were only looking forward to the next election year, out of fear of being called “soft on terrorism”, which used to be as bad in politics as calling someone a communist once was.

Unfortunately, it is our fault the TSA exists, and it is our responsibility to reform it into an agency that at least attempts to be useful and productive, instead of an expensive, awkward feint whose sole purpose in conception was an act of political a**-covering.

Comment by Aislinn O'Connor

October 31, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

The people such systems are in theory intended to dissuade or catch are the very ones who will see straight through them, leaving innocent members of the public as the only ones to suffer any inconvenience.

I mean no disrespect to individual members of the TSA, who are no doubt doing their best without adequate training or direction, but this kind of badly-thought-out, look-good, being-seen-to-do-something expedient is not just a public nuisance.

By insisting on procedures that are ineffective, it sooner or later will succeed in posing a security threat in its own right.

Comment by Rick Turner

October 31, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

TSA is all window dressing designed and set up to fake the flying public into thinking they are safe. The fact is that any organization with half a brain amongst them who really wants to take down an airplane can do so, particularly if they don’t care about the personal consequences.

The TSA has about as much of a relationship to reality as shoot-em-ups do at Western theme parks.

Comment by Bixby

October 31, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

Thank you for this article confirming what any thinking person knows to be true. I fly a lot and spend most of my idle time in the security line thinking of the obvious (theoretical) ways to foil the process, under the assumption that it’s all fakery that couldn’t stop any determined terrorist. For a long time after 9/11 (and perhaps even now), the fact that baggage (and ports, and cargo planes, etc.) wasn’t screened made the whole thing a farce. And yet in Europe, nobody’s taking off their coats, pulling out their laptops, etc.

In Alaska, I’ve flown on small carriers (10- or 20-seaters) that every passenger boarded without undergoing a single screening in the originating Anchorage international airport (I shouldn’t complain, I know), and when we fly over the Trans-Alaska pipeline or the port that offloads oil into tankers, you can guess what my thoughts turn to. I’ve seen Yup’ik Eskimo elders who don’t speak English submitting to a bewildering “patdown” in a small town airport that, of course, still has a TSA presence. Recently in Phoenix I saw, while in line, that they were using one of these new imaging machines. Instantly enraged, I searched for information about my options, should I be sent through that line. A small sign informed me that my only choice would be a personal search. Meanwhile, many passengers were cheerfully submitting to it because it was novel and futuristic-looking. What made me angriest was my own ignorance about these machines, their uses, and my rights.

I wish I could believe there will ever be any politician or official with enough integrity and courage to start questioning the way we’ve meekly surrendered to this “process” and proved ourselves to be a nation of cowards. Instead, we’ll be taking off our shoes for the rest of our lives.

Comment by Mary Chico

October 31, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

THANK YOU for knowing, caring, and putting yourself through this exercise! This same dynamic occurs in frightening places. I saw a jarring example in the US Embassy visa application room at Amman, Jordan. For six hours I watched, waiting the turn of my friend, as ‘the guy at Window #4’ turned down everyone but one woman who came his way. In his turn, my friend received his heart-breaking denial as well. The purpose of his trip is yet to be such a positive contributor to the human dilemma, and his character so solid and fixed on that admirable goal… but we were unable to read the mind of the person behind the plexiglas who was obviously determined to stand alone between the USA and people from the Middle East (who were by geography bound to be a problem of some kind). My fury has not subsided, it merely seeks appropriate venues for positive action. Your article is a great encouragement. Thanks for writing it so well!

Comment by Ed

October 31, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

I have flown twice since 9/11 and after dealing with the nonsense I am driving two days to visit my family. Take my shoes, what a load.

Comment by Pam

October 31, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

Thank you for a calm and quiet assessment. I, too, before Sept.11, was routinely–as in nearly every flight–pulled aside after the x-ray screen to have my purse and carry-ons searched, which they weren’t doing routinely in those days. After about the 15th time, I started asking why. I was told it was random, which had to be BS, and I said that, though more gently than that. Finally a supervisor said yes, I was on a list of some sort, though he didn’t know what, which did nothing to allay my concerns. There’s absolutely about me to put me on any kind of list. When I started traveling with my child, it happened less frequently, but still occurred. I agree–I think they take the people they think will cause the least fuss, in my case, a white woman then in my 40s, dressed usually in jeans and blouse, nothing fancy. So they figured I wasn’t powerful enough to make a fuss.And if they were worried about race discrimination complaints, I guess I could balance out. I have flown just once since Sept.11 and had no problems but then it was terribly crowded both ways.

Comment by Jim O'Connell

November 1, 2009 @ 10:16 am

Random selection: two other areas of our security where the randomness appears amateurish are (a) customs screening at international airports on arrival; screeners are supposed to pick out, besides people where they have cause for sending them to secondary screening, 1/100 at random. I travel a lot and have seen the heuristic — first single passenger off a plane (usually a high-fare, high-miler) can easily get pulled aside — so it’s done and they’ve remembered to do it. Couples, never. (b) Amtrak reports that they are required to screen passengers: the conductor thinks of a number and if that’s the ending of your ticket number, they ask for photo ID; watching conductors, they ask for the ID either very rarely or not at all. It used to be said they were thinking of a number from 1 to 10, which would mean half a dozen per car on average, and that’s certainly not the case.

So: good point that “random” selection actually takes some work and not just “when the screener remembers or feels like it”.

Jim O’C

Comment by mr bill

November 1, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

I am not sure if the TSA is really there to make the traveling public feel safe as the “security theater” aspect of the whole process would seem to indicate as much to reinforce the fear that terrorist attacks are eminent.

the incompetence and ineffectiveness is well known even by any apologists and defenders that make such loud defenses of the agency and processes.

Comment by J

November 1, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

May I just say that this article was very well written. It was neutral, and I am glad that this former law officer understands what it like out there in the field.

However, As a “front line” TSA officer. What I CAN’T tell you is a lot, but what I CAN tell you is yes, there is training,(that officer was either new or needs re-cert) yes, YOU can refuse screening but once YOU or your items go past the metal detector or into x-ray they MUST be screened.If you do refuse at the walk through guess what?? Your going greyhound.

The things I see everyday would boggle the mind. If people only knew what was really out there then you would have no question of why we are here.

At the end of the day you always have to ask yourself if you did a good enough job to put your loved one on that plane. I really do ask that question everyday and for me the answer is YES.

Comment by QED

November 2, 2009 @ 4:17 am

This is one of the main reasons the U.S. didn’t get the Olympics…

Comment by Henry Barth

November 2, 2009 @ 4:51 am

I note that the TSA website lists prohibited items you may not bring on board in your carry-on luggage: http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/prohibited/permitted-prohibited-items.shtm

Does anyone see nail clippers prohibited? Yet every time I try to go through they are confiscated by TSA screeners.

And now allowed by the TSA: Safety razors (including disposable razors). The bosses should tell the troops.

Try showing that list to the TSA screener on your next visit, and watch them look for the latex gloves to conduct a ‘proper’ search.

As for Richard Reed and his sneakers, the govt never proved his sneaker-bomb would actually explode. Let’s hope someone doesn’t claim they have an exploding book.

Comment by screened and then some

November 2, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

The writer talks about a ‘pat-down’ that was mild, to say the least. I’ve experienced a ‘pat-down’ at Schipol airport in Amsterdam that under other circumstances would at least require the purchase of a dinner beforehand or breakfast afterwards. I only wish I had the balls to feign an orgasm as her hand rammed my crotch and groped my breasts (seriously), or maybe when she was tugging at my panties with her hand well down my pants. All in public, no walls, just public groping under the auspices of security. At least she used protection! ;)

Comment by Ron

November 3, 2009 @ 10:00 am

I retired from a major airline after 38 years. Was there when the first metal detector was installed, and had the opportunity to osbersve the evolution of the security systen that is the TSA. I believe the screening is nothing more than ‘Eye Wash’, a facade to deter (not stop) would-be terrorist.
If someone or group wanted to do harm, there are many ways for it to be accomplished without being concerned about the low-paid TAS.

Comment by MMC in SF

November 3, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

I suspect nothing will change until someone manages to hijack or crash an aircraft after having passed undetected thru TSA’s show.

Comment by Al A. Baster

November 3, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

When I fly, I carry 20 pounds of crap in my briefcase, including a microphone (I do media work). The other day flying out of Louisville, the microphone (which is long, cylindrical, and has wiring inside) finally got noticed for the first time. The TSA screener at the X-Ray said with a smile “are you a singer?”. No extra screening, but the one damn time I wore a pair of Orvis pants that have a key ring sewn into the pocket, all hell broke loose! I want real security…not Paul Blart wannabes!

Comment by Paris

November 4, 2009 @ 1:59 am

I feel frustrated by the fact that simply because I am in a wheelchair, I am subjected to a full body pat down,complete with search on my chair. I travel frequently. I don’t have the luxury of arriving to the security point less than ninety minutes before my flight takes off because of the added time to go through this procedure (not to mention I often have to wait at least 10 minutes for a female TSA agent). I find that the procedures are not consistent. Either they forego the breaast area, forget to search my chair, or don’t bother to do a chemical test on my hands. This lack of consistency irritates me. If you are going to discriminate against me, at least do a proper job of searching me.

Comment by Rich

November 4, 2009 @ 10:49 am

Don’t forget the vested interests in security theatre. There is plenty of money to be made in running vast armies of security staff (in most of the world its private sector), manufacture of new scanners, sniffers and other expensive hardware: even the supply of plastic bags… It will be a brave politician that takes business away from the security lobby….

Comment by Arnie

November 5, 2009 @ 7:05 am

I am glad to see that reasonable minds are starting to question the effectiveness of the airport screening methodology. In my personal experience, there has been periods of substantial domestic business travel. For a period of time, I selected for searches with high frequency whenever I traveled Delta and its affiliated carriers. Since I was flying 2 to 3 different airlines every week, I believe that it was likely additional selection criteria had been added to my profile whenever I flew with this airline group. (My hypothesis is that my profile was modified by a counter agent who told me that I was too late to check in for a flight by 3 minutes and I pointed out that I had been standing at the counter for 10 minutes while they were attending to a personal call in front of me.) After several selections, I called TSA from the security line as I was clearing security. The TSA rep informed me that the airlines apply the criteria for selection not the TSA. My next call was to Delta customer service and they insisted that the TSA was responsible for my consistent selection. Neither said they could help me. When I traveled next on a Delta itiniery, I was selected for screening again. To make the screeners as uncomfortable as I was, I proceeded to make a scene as a last resort. I called Delta customer service from my mobile while being screened until I was put through to someone I was told was a manager. So that the entire screening area could participate my call, I proceeded through the number of times I had been screened which coincindentally only happenned Delta and it affiliate carrier flights. When they told me that TSA was responsible, I asked for a TSA manager to take the phone and to confirm that it was the airlines that ran the security criteria. Embarassingly, it was a loud and annoying drama but thankfully I stopped being selected everytime I flew with this group. Perhaps this is all coincidence that I stopped being selected. However, I probably would never have recognised that I was getting screened on a specific carrier with less frequent travel.

Comment by 2b489

November 6, 2009 @ 10:30 am

I am an airline crew member who observes on a daily basis the workings of a TSA security checkpoint. When TSA first took over the job we were advised by our union that if TSA requested a search of our person or property we did have the right to request a private room to conduct the search.

Whenever I am singled out for a secondary search I always request a private room. Often it is obvious that is very inconvenient for the TSA screeners. I do not want my luggage opened in view of the public. I fly for my job and am not allowed to check my luggage, so it contains everything I need to live while away from home for 3-7 days. Before asking for the private screenings I’ve had my underwear and personal items displayed to other TSA employees while my screener made inappropriate comments (I did file a complaint with TSA about this incident and nothing ever came of it).

Our uniforms have a wider pant leg and recently when I request a private screening I am told I will be subjected to a pat down. Every time I have been pat down it has never been with an open hand, but rather a squeezing grope to all areas of my body except those areas mentioned by the author. I don’t think seeing your flight crew being groped by TSA helps build passenger confidence. I’ve already undergone an intensive background check, fingerprinting, etc. to be allowed to do my job and am still suspected of being a possible terrorist. I wonder if TSA employees are screened before they go to work?

My advice to you, always request a private room for any additional screening!

Comment by Former TSA

November 6, 2009 @ 10:53 am

For what it’s worth:
As a former TSA-HQ geek myself, I agree with the writer 110%. Further, the following comment is from yet another former Maryland cop:

“I do know her. She is one of the smartest people that I have ever met. She received a fellowship while on the PD to attend the Monterey Institute, and while out there someone snatched her up. I had hoped that she would become the next chief of police. I think her article raises a valid point, and she presented it well . I think it would take a lot for her to reach this point of frustration, as she was a die hard cop, and she has never been known as a bleeding heart liberal.”

Comment by Grizelda

November 6, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

TSA = Thousands Standing Around.

Thanks for a well-written and well-thought article which prompted a lot of thought-provoking comments.

If you fly out of our little regional airport here, there is a 100% likelihood you will get the full pat-down and full bag search. Why? Simple — there are only 4 commercial flights out each day, and the TSA agents spend most of their days standing around drinking coffee and watching TV, so they need to justify their phoney-baloney jobs. Meanwhile, in another building a stone’s throw away, private planes and corporate jets are subject to absolutely no security procedures.

But — remember that the biggest debate when the TSA was being created was whether employees would be allowed to join the federal employees’ union. The answer was yes, so the TSA isn’t going away anytime soon, because the union would fight it every inch of the way.

The M.O. of terror is surprise. It wasn’t airplanes in London, Madrid or Mumbai, and it probably won’t be airplanes here next time. So how much longer are we going to flush taxpayer dollars down this particular rathole? (Answer to a rhetorical question: As long as union jobs are at stake.)

Comment by Dean Jackson

November 7, 2009 @ 8:07 am

I always refuse to remove my shoes, as by TSA regs, you’re allowed to do that.

They always threaten me with the full body pat down.

I usually ask if that involves an extra charge, which has two results:

1. The supervisor cracks a smile.
2. The person assigned to search me hurries it even more than they would have.

Our “security” is a fucking sham, made worse by the feeling that there’s no effective way to oppose it.

Comment by Henry Barth

November 8, 2009 @ 9:10 am

Dean, You are incorrect as to the TSA Regs.

The TSA regs say you are required to remove shoes:

Do I Have to Remove My Shoes?

Yes, you are required to remove your shoes before you enter the walk-through metal detector. This includes all types of footwear.

Due to the Homeland Security threat level being raised for the U.S. aviation sector worldwide this is critical to protect the world’s travelers who transit by air to and from the United States.

Our Security Officers will ask that you remove your shoes before entering the metal detector based on the fact that many types of footwear can be used to carry prohibited items. When a Security Officer asks you to remove your shoes, please do. If you refuse, you will not be able to board your flight.

You are required to remove your shoes before you enter the walk-through metal detector. All types of footwear must be placed on the X-ray machine to be screened. If you do not comply with Security Officers, you will not be allowed to board your flight

Comment by Marocure

November 10, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

Of course airport security is a sham. Example: limits on the amount of gels and liquids. If they are worried about these liquids, in large quantities hiding potentially explosive liquids of similar colour/viscosity, etc, then those that bring them should not be allowed on the plane. Future bomber: “I can’t bring these gels on? Maybe next time, or the time after that, or the time after that” Either it is a rule for terrorist reasons or it shouldn’t be a rule at all. Their bonehead policies are based on mentally deficient screeners, and evidently mentally deficient terrorists.

Comment by Blain

November 11, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

Reading Deidre’s post confirms my belief that TSA is and has ever been “window dressing”, a farce enacted to trick the “masses” into believing their safety is improved by TSA presence. I’ve had or witnessed many unpleasant experiences with them. The Atlanta airport may be one of the worst venues. I was once asked to step aside to await a “Supervisor”. When I asked why, the TSA agent said that another agent heard me call her stupid while I was in the line. First of all, I had said no such thing (frankly, didn’t remember seeing that agent); secondly, even if I had, SO WHAT? I couldn’t believe the amount of time wasted over a nonsense issue. On a return trip from Mexico, while my bag was being hand searched, I watched a man (wearing a backpack) walk into the terminal from outside. He by-passed the security lines, proceeding straight to a check-in counter. I alerted a TSA agent (who pretended not to understand English), and then sought out another agent, pointing out the man who avoided the seurity lines. I was told not to worry, that was just “Mr. Somebody” who frequently traveled and would not be a risk. I continued to watch that passenger – he went to board his plane, backback unchecked. Yeah, I feel so much better with TSA on the job………….

Comment by Frank Mahoney

November 11, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

Dear Mme. Walker,

I am an undergraduate anthropology student, and it strikes me that collecting data on who is searched by the TSA, how they conduct searches, and how the TSA resoponds to unexpected situations are just the sort of thing that Anthropology, Psychology, or Sociology students would love to take a look at. Perhaps if you have any friends in teaching positions you could suggest the idea to them.


Frank Mahoney

Comment by TSA Joe

November 15, 2009 @ 7:34 am

I must go to bat and defend some of this article for the purposes of TSA, if not the front-line workers and supervisors themselves. The “Security-Theatre” that so many claim we are involved in is actually more of an information overload; daily the TSA workforce is bombarded with data regarding terrorist plots, latest tactics, police incidents from around the country, issues of notice from other countries regarding emerging terrorist threats, daily news and updates from the warzones in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Homeland Security updates…notices…postings…emails, etc. When individuals are bombarded with so much information from their superiors, they tend to shut down. Then the TSA are subjected to continual and constant changes in procedures regarding passenger and baggage screening and how to “pat-down” passengers without violating their civil rights while attempting to find items that could be used to detonate bombs onboard aviation aircraft. Most security checks are aimed at finding items smaller than a handcuff key, but once again, the procedures are geared toward professionalism, upholding passenger civil rights, and randomness of searches without regard to race versus trying to find all possible threats…it is a very fine tightrope to walk. Most passengers are patient, but daily do TSA staff have to endure the grunts, moans, complaints and sometimes the physical abuse that is brought about by individuals who are “fed up” with government intervention in the airline industry. I simply propose this: Real security as seen in Israel or in the Texas Prison System is needed…civil rights and public opinion is not necessary as long as the procedures are applied to EVERYONE consistently. Instead of worrying about civil rights and keeping passengers happy, we should be working to completely secure an airplane and it’s passengers; civil rights and happy riders notwithstanding. Happiness comes from knowing that everyone around you is as safe and secure as you.

Comment by TSA Tom

November 15, 2009 @ 11:07 am

TSA Joe is right in his defense of TSA.

BUT, I want to go more into the aspect of training.

We get all of the training we need but not everyone can keep up with the changes in the procedures that occur because some politician, politician’s wife, big dollar lobbyist or some other so-called influential person objects to the way they were screened.

We also have to go through retesting of our skills on an annual basis with the possibility of termination hanging over our head.

How many of you can handle that in your job?

But then again, peoples safety aren’t at stake in most jobs.

I will say this, it is just like passing your driving test, just because you pass, doesn’t mean you drive the speed limit.

Comment by Ryan

December 1, 2009 @ 3:30 pm

@ TSA Tom

I am sure 90% percent of the people reading this blog have the intelligence to handle a TSA security job. The TSA needs more people that are educated and have insightful thoughts on increasing the security, while shifting their security paradigm. However, TSA has to listen to these people that have real security experience in different fields, rather than listening to reactive politicians.


Comment by Rider940

December 9, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

>>>You consent to the search by buying a ticket or entering the security line<<<

No you don’t. You consent by passing through the magnetometer (metal detector) or placing your items on the conveyor into the x-ray. At any point before these actions you may turn around and walk away.

Comment by m

December 16, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

It’s a really simple answer to your questions. The people who work at TSA are NOT trained and many of them are EX-McDonald’s/Wendy’s/Fastfood employees with ZERO experience outside of the deep fryer. One minute of observation is all it takes to realize we are being herded around by a group of uneducated/untrained carnival workers. There is no more safety than pre-911. Just the illusion of safety if you are not paying attention.

Comment by Fellow Traveller

December 17, 2009 @ 9:48 am

Actually, I believe that this problem has existed for decades. Long before 9/11, I was traveling with my infant son, and was carrying him when I went through the metal detector. The machine beeped, and I was directed to stand at a separate place for a wanding. The security staffer instructed me to hand my son to my wife, and proceeded to wand just me, completely ignoring the fact that whatever set off the metal detector might have been on the baby.

Comment by mr joe

December 17, 2009 @ 10:18 am

I’ll remember to keep the sharpened glass box-cutter between my bum cheeks, glass so it doesn’t set off any alarms.

Reminds me of http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_09_ccN71Yk
So easy to be a terrorist.

Comment by bob

December 17, 2009 @ 10:26 am

I started reading this article.
I was then inundated with secondary issues not related to the article or at least to the theme of it.
So I stopped reading the article.
I like the facts, just the facts, then if you want to add the other stuff, it can be put at the end of the article.
T$@ sucks, as does flying.
I drive as often as I can.
At least until Cap and Tax is shoved down our gullets.

Comment by GK

December 17, 2009 @ 10:30 am

I’ve been in airports where you had to press a button for random searches. If the light was green you were allowed to continue on, but if it turned red you were subject to extra screening. Coincidently none of these airports were in America.

Comment by David Gabriel

December 17, 2009 @ 10:31 am

Excellent article.

As an officer of 20 years, I could not agree more.

Comment by Sully

December 17, 2009 @ 10:34 am

Once I was in an airport and I was “randomly” searched twice. I was pulled out of the metal-detector line for a random search, then I was pulled out of the boarding line for a random search.


Comment by jojo

December 17, 2009 @ 10:36 am

tsa is just another “look busy” federal boondoggle….costing BILLIONS, achieving absolutely NOTHING beyond harassment of the “protected” citizenry.

Comment by Private Pilot in Training

December 17, 2009 @ 10:44 am

I know this will sound a bit outlandish and not happen, but I’ll say it anyway. Anyone who can afford it should really try to fly charter flights or find a pilot in the General Aviation realm who can fly them around for reasonable prices. No, the flights won’t be as cheap as commercial, but the more demand there is for lower-cost alternatives to flying commercial, the more efficiencies will be found. Think of it as your sky taxi. With enough demand and competition – as well as continued security, regular folks may be able to skip the whole TSA hassle and fly private. Just my $0.02, FWIW. Thoughts?

Comment by random

December 17, 2009 @ 11:05 am

Unfortunately, the kind of person that ends up working as a TSA screener is not going to be the brightest bulb on the shelf. While it can be frustrating to (rightfully) argue with screeners, it really doesn’t get anything done since they aren’t out to punish you, but just to follow policies to the best of their ability. The best thing they can do IMO to improve screening is to make it as automated as possible with as little accessory policies for screening, since if the machine doesn’t catch something, chances are slim to nil that the zombies in uniform will.

Comment by Phil

December 17, 2009 @ 11:15 am

The TSA doesn’t work as an organization. They’re there to make it appear that we have airport security and safety in mind. It is easier to appear to be doing something than actually doing something meaningful. That’s what the TSA is all about. They’re a waste of time, effort and money.

Comment by Anonymous

December 17, 2009 @ 11:17 am

Excellent post and thoughts. And you’re right while LEOs are highly trained individuals, TSA employees seem to be the exact opposite of that. Our country’s “security” “protected” by minimum-wage monkeys. I’ve decided that TSA really stands for The Stupidest Agency.

Comment by toner arsivi

December 17, 2009 @ 11:25 am

Excellent post and thoughts. And you’re right while LEOs are highly trained individuals, TSA employees seem to be the exact opposite of that. Our country’s “security” “protected

Comment by John

December 17, 2009 @ 11:27 am

“These folks, after all, are merely doing what we, the American traveling public, have permitted and now expect them to do.”

I and nobody I know have permitted them to do this.

Comment by Bret Branon

December 17, 2009 @ 11:34 am

End this farce.
American citizens getting searched at the airport by other American citizens means the terrorists have won.
It’s money wasted. It’s rights abused. It’s busy work that adds nothing to the economy.
We should all be ashamed that we let it happen.
Stop being afraid.

Comment by Simon

December 17, 2009 @ 11:37 am

Two points. 1) Something that’s inevitable is, by definition, unpreventable. 2) The author gives local police far too much credit. All of the data they collect seemingly have done nothing to curb the biased nature of local policing. Blacks and latinos remain the overwhelming majority of incarcerated Americans. This is primarily the fault of the War on Drugs, but let’s not pretend that local police provide an adequate model for TSA—or anyone else for that matter.

Overall, I think the point that TSA is primarily concerned with enforcing compliance as opposed to ensuring safety is very astute. I am convinced this is also true of cops though, along with the other organs of our disciplinary state. To expect anything else is wishful thinking. The notion that data will somehow provide the corrective is deeply flawed because, ultimately, people do the deed, and the culture of security-at-all-cost and assumed criminality shared by cops and baggage screeners alike, combined with the ego-inflating sense of authority that comes with wearing a uniform, guarantee that incompetence abuse of power will continue to be the norm. From now until eternity, amen.

Comment by NotTelling

December 17, 2009 @ 11:38 am

Most TSA are prior military? LOL! Not at Chicago’s O’Hare! I fly a few times a week through there and they seem to be taken from the bottom of the barrel where they can often be found sitting on break in any number of passenger waiting areas texting and eating mcDonald’s.

Just last week I sat next to a TSA agent eating and talking on her cell phone where she used the worst kind of ghetto language talking about some guy she was dating and had a fight with.

As a former CWO in the Navy I can tell you none of these people display any military bearing, pride in their uniform, or professionalism. The haphazard rules that change airport to airport are maddening and lack of consistency confusing to a frequent traveler like myself.

Comment by Greg

December 17, 2009 @ 11:39 am

You should have told them to kiss your ass and that you wouldn’t submit to any search of any kind

Comment by cbadbigbeef

December 17, 2009 @ 11:52 am

The TSA are not COPS they do not have the authority to touch certain areas like the Police do otherwise there would be alot of people complaining that they were fondled. When you refuse to do something that you are asked to do that raises the alarm and it shows you maybe hiding something that is why there is additional screening. If you listen to the news you would know why the TSA is doing the procedures they are doing. Random screening is happing more and more so the people trying to get something by are being stopped. The shoes, look up REED. The liquid how are exploves created. When you go to board a plane do you know the person sitting next to you? or on the plane with you? They went through the same process as you so no one is different and there is nothing getting on the plane that is dangerous. If you don’t want to be screened then don’t wear baggy clothing or sweatshirts that are bulky. Instead of getting mad at the TSA’s for doing their job, try to understand what happened in the world for them to use the procedures. I like my Job and I feel like I am making a difference. Most of the TSA Personnel are prior Military not just someone from a fast food place.

where are you from? here all the TSA staff are a bunch of ignorant niggers that spend 99% of their time texting on their government copped phones and the 1% of the time they pay attention they screen nothing. I’ve repeatedly gone through security and they wont even look at the x-ray screen while the bags pass through!

Comment by Steve Hawkins

December 17, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

Great article. I have two weird/bad experiences with TSA. In one they found a wine opener in my camera bag and confiscated it. However there were two wine openers and they only confiscated the expensive one. Another time at the Dallas airport I was being wanded and the wand beeped as it passed the metal button on my pants. The young woman screener asked me, “May I touch you”. I said yes and to my surprise she grabbed a handful of my genitals and squeezed. My reaction I guess, assured her that the bulge was me and not something else.

Comment by Steph

December 17, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

That was a phenomenal, detailed, and well-written article. Thank you.

Comment by Michael

December 17, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

Liked the article, not much to say.

I got randomly searched, and at worst, I look like a friendly giant.

Comment by fail friend

December 17, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

Awesome Article, I always had in the back of my mind I’d fight anything I felt was an invasion of my privacy. using those body scanners or pat downs. I just don’t want to miss any vacation time fighting for my rights either.

Comment by beyerch

December 17, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

A person with common sense, OMG!

Now if only we can get people with this mythical ‘common sense’ in charge we could maybe … just maybe … fix things in this country.

Great write up.

Comment by bobsmith

December 17, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

SECURITY THEATER is a waste of our tax dollars.

Comment by bobsmith

December 17, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

@TSA Joe “Instead of worrying about civil rights and keeping passengers happy, we should be working to completely secure an airplane and it’s passengers”

Those who give up liberty for security deserve neither. It’s absolutely disgusting that people will so easily give up their freedoms that our forefathers fought so vigilantly for. What you propose is what leads to fascism. We are the Land of the FREE! not Land of the safe or secure.

Comment by verdis

December 17, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

I was selected in houston for the new GE body scan, i refused and was put into the glass observatory to get padded down. (why in the world would someone subject themselves to unneeded radiation?). I then went on a mini, yet calm, tirade on everything from “911 was an inside job” to “we are living in a police state”….the agent was pretty cool and actually agreed with me that many of the policies were ridiculous.

TSA is just another phantom industry to preserve a capitalist system that is obviously on shaky grounds.

Comment by devin

December 17, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

you’ve scratched the tip of the iceburg… most of current / recent government is only there to look like its doing something when its really an ineffective waste of our money.

Comment by Kyle

December 17, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

Can you tell this hit the front page of Digg on December 17?

TSA Joe, you need a lesson on being American:

“Real security as seen in Israel or in the Texas Prison System is needed…civil rights and public opinion is not necessary as long as the procedures are applied to EVERYONE consistently.”

So you suggest treating random travelers passing through your screenings in the same way a convicted criminal would be treated in Texas prison? Civil rights be damned? I thought it was supposed to be the terrorists who hated freedom. You, sir, need to sit down and read the Bill of Rights, and should never be trusted with any position of authority.

Comment by Jake

December 17, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

From the article:
Perhaps in a nod to decorum, she did not check my crotch, my armpits or either breast area.

LOL, TSA has never checked these areas. Always thought it was supposed to be a wink and a nod to the stoner crowd just trying to carry a small amount of cannabis through security without being hassled.

I too am routinely asked to go through secondary screening. I usually have like an eight of an ounce of pot. There is no way for screener not to smell it. Yet the give you the slight pat down but never check the crotch.

Comment by Carmen

December 17, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

This was an excellent article. We had an issue with TSA while flying on family Vacation on our return trip home they confiscated a toy from my 3 year old that was a Snowglobe the size of a quarter. The same Snowglobe made it through the security on our flight out but was some how now deemed a risked because they can’t test the liquid inside “no snowglobes are allowed through security”.

The real issue is not that they took it but that policy is not consistently enforced across the organization. In addition, there were snowglobes past security in one of the gift stores. How did they test that liquid?

My other complaint would be the screener was so obnoxious about because he pull the bag aside and was loud, my daughter saw her bag and caught wind of him taking her toy. Which resulted in a heart break, tears, and her asking repeatedly for her toy back. I immediately found a supervisor and was quoted policy, and my comment on how it was done fell on deaf ears.

Comment by Jocose

December 17, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

Two years ago I was travelling internationally from Detroit airport to London Heathrow. At this time there was little known about the chemical tester machines, and Detroit was the first airport I had encountered it at (although, a year later it was noticably absent).
It was part of the initial security screening to head into the departure lounge, and seeing as it had a much shorter cue, I stepped in and was blasted with air.
I asked the TSA watcher what the purpose of it was – to check for chemicals.
However, what was very strange was that beyound the chemical tester there was no metal detector and I swept on through, picking my handluggage off the bag checker with barely a regard to the effects of the lapse in security.
Had I been hiding a knife or any other contraband within my clothing, I would have easily been able to carry it aboard my flight and cause damage.
Another fault in my situation was that the flyer was able to choose between a metal detector and an unknown detector; and I wondered what so many people had to hide from an unknown machine.

I’m really glad that got rid of the tester, as I have not seen it at any major airport since, and it appeared to be completely useless.

Comment by Nick

December 17, 2009 @ 2:49 pm


Comment by moreinfo

December 17, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

The TSA is serving the purpose for which it was created.

The general public now has the illusion of safety and security
on an airplane and politicians can brag about what they have
personally done to keep this country safe.

Stopping an incident of terrorism is a possible side effect.

Comment by J

December 17, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

Awesome just plain awesome … summed up my feelings perfectly

Comment by Robin A. Flood

December 17, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

Not an aviation anecdote, but a scanner story nevertheless. Last week I travelled from Brussels Belgium to Lille France on the Eurostar train, boarding on which – as it terminates in the UK – passengers are subjected to UK immigration (show a passport) and security scanning, even if they are not going to the United Kingdom. I wasn’t aware of this before I reached the station.

In my suitcase I had a bottle of aftershave, creams, and some rather gooey Belgian chocolates, some were almond flavour (we all know what that smells of) – plus a pocket knife, scissors etc. My case was scanned and I saw the operator look at the image on her screen. She said nothing.

Which begs the question: what ARE they looking for ?

Complete madness and folly, and an utter waste of time.


Comment by AG

December 17, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

I used to be harrassed every time.

As a pedestrian I was hit by a car accident (not my fault) and one of my injuries was a spiral fracture of my leg, in which they had to put in a big titanium rod in my leg.

Well needless to say each time going through the metal dectector, I went off like a christmas tree.

Each time I went through the machine, I had to explain to them again and again, that I have a bar in my leg. Well they push me to the side, and 10 minutes later than do a full check and bag check…..

I was sick and tired of this 10 min search and sometimes 20 minutes wasted with them, when I haven’t done anything wrong. It’s not my fault a . So I did something that allowed me to get through in record time. I take my shoes off, and take my trousers off, with only my boxes and walk through. They get freaked out that a guy in his boxer shorts and quickly see my scar detect it and quickly get me to put my clothes back on.

Having travelled to LA about 6 times in the week. The recognized me and instead of their embarrassment just said come through. Then a TSA guy told me that when walking through the machine, stand directly in the middle and move my leg parallel instead of an angle and there is a good chance the machine won’t be flash.

I tried this without going to my boxers and I could get through about 2 in 3 without being detected – going through the exact middle and moving my leg parallel on the walk.

Further to this matter before the accident, whenever I wore skateboard clothes I was singled out….if I wore a suit I was never checked.


Comment by ir

December 17, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

Your a cop and being pissy about it yet im sure you do the exact same thing. Cops are the most stereotypical a**holes in the country and when they are singled out they get mad about it. Welcome to life bro… gtf over it.

Comment by DBogosian

December 17, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

I have to concur with the author especially on this point, which I think was particularly insightful:

I was left to conclude that I am not screened because I look like a terrorist. I am routinely screened because I look like someone who will readily comply.

I haven’t been chosen for a ‘random’ screening in years, and I believe it is due, in part, to adopting a (very genuine btw) annoyed, sightly contemptuous, impatient, yet not uncooperative attitude as I pass through security.

It’s the same ‘posture’ I learned to project when walking about the rough neighborhood I grew up in: bullies want easy marks. And the kids they coerce into serving their purposs want even easier ones.

Thus the purely speculative notion I have that, increasingly, it’s the elderly and the citizens who LOOK as if they ‘don’t want to miss any vacation time fighting for my rights’ (comment by FAIL FRIEND, and those with small children) who are singled out for random searches and property confiscation.

BTW, I was once admonished by a screener that if I didn’t want my bags searched, I should properly display my liquids in a plastic bag for inspection. Thus, the next time I DID display liquids in a plastic bag, to demonstrate my passive obedience——the liquids I left hidden in my bag (to test this theory) passed through without incident.

More anecdotal evidence to support the writer’s contentions.

Comment by ogden lafaye

December 17, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

At the turn of the century I traveled internationally 6 or 8 times a year which entailed 25 to 35 foreign airports and 12 to 15 US airports. The US security leads the pack in sheer goofiness and hilarity. We are a laughing stock in Europe with our “politically correct”, “random search” and “profiling” silliness.

Comment by susan

December 17, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

I think truly after years of a motto througout american law enforcement is all that matters is you go home alive…. I’m so sorry you had to get a puff of wind in your face boo effing hoo…. I want someone to notice if you look like a terroist and that I am not going to get blown up in a airplane I will take the wait if it makes me safe. I will let them do what they need to do so it detures criminals.. I seriously can’t beleive people pay to read your crap… You should no better they are just doing their job…

Comment by Matt D

December 17, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

The issue is compounded by the fact that most TSA screeners appear to be the folks that formerly would have been working at McDonald’s flipping burgers. I rarely observe one that seems to care about their job and they usually seem much more interested in talking about which club they’re going to later or what time their shift ends than they are in looking for potential threats. In my experience this “phenomenon” appears highly prevalent at LAX, moreso than the many other airports I’ve flown through.

Comment by Carol H.

December 17, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

A very intelligent, highly evocative report. And we do all follow like sheep. These screeners are not only poorly paid, but poorly trained. Like so much of what was instituted after 9/11, it made little sense. And to change what is now a flawed program will be like everything else in the government. Slow and slower.

Comment by Joe chiazza

December 17, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

I get on airplanes with lighters almost everytime I travel. Those airport security people give even less of a crap than any of us about our jobs. So why should we expect any less.

Comment by Jim

December 17, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

An extraordinarily well-written and thoughtful piece from a law enforcement professional. Thank you for your observations.

Comment by squishy brain thing

December 17, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

I think if they are so concerned with the safety of us all that maybe they would not allow retards to conduct these searches. Then again I’m sure the procedures would be way more of a pain in the ass If say these people were real cops and military personnel. I have a steel rod in My spine. How is that for a hard time?

Comment by King S

December 17, 2009 @ 11:20 pm

My advise is for you and EVERYONE else to refuse secondary searches. The trouble of the searches themsleves will faze out this rediculous practice.

Comment by thomas

December 18, 2009 @ 12:47 am

I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that you are white. If so, welcome to what it’s like being a minority at the airport since 9/11. I’ve been “randomly searched” half the time I’ve flown. I’m Vietnamese, an American citizen since birth, and a college grad. Maybe I look funny…

Comment by Alia Al-Alawi

December 18, 2009 @ 1:16 am

I am stopped not sometimes but EVERYTIME I fly! Inside I am laughing because it is truly a joke. These procedures fill the public with a false sense of security. And for the people that are randomly searched, it’s just plain annoying. There are so many holes in the fabric of it all. I always comply but I know it’s all for show. And besides, do they actually think that these terrorists will strike twice doing the same thing? I doubt it.

Comment by Erin

December 18, 2009 @ 2:39 am

I was recently in the Newark airport and was taken aback when I realized that the mostly male TSA guards seemed to be singling out younger women for this “specialized” type screening. I think it’s ridiculous that they make you strip down any outer clothing (including sweaters and sweatshirts) prior to going through the metal detector. I noticed several men going through with outer garments on, and they were not being asked to take them off. When I questioned a TSA officer about this, he said the same thing “they have the right to refuse” to take of their outer garments, but then they go through the thorough search. It really is just a bunch of BS. I agree with this post completely, and feel like the TSA people are just there because we felt the airport needed more workers. They really aren’t there to protect us. I think they’re purely there for intimidation.

Comment by Andrew

December 18, 2009 @ 3:46 am

While I agree with the author that the TSA is basically security theater, I disagree that we need to make the TSA better. There is no way to improve “security theater.” The only thing that was required doing after the 9/11 attacks was to put locks on the cockpit doors, and never open them once the flight is started. This was done fairly quickly, although to be honest was surprising it hadn’t been done earlier, as the Israelis did this decades ago. Security theater is nothing more than forcing people into agreeing with their rights being removed the moment they intend to board a plane. “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

Comment by Joe

December 18, 2009 @ 4:05 am

A note for Mr Terrorist: TSA has no problem with a framed picture of virtually any size passing thru security, even if covered with glass. Such glass, when shattered, can make several blades, each up to nearly two feet long. No need to bother with nail clippers, razor blades (or tennis shoes), these glass shards will be sharper and sturdier. You’ll instantly not have only one knife, but a dozen or more to pass out to your friends.

Oh, and Guitar Strings make great garrotes. Wrap one around two innocent looking blocks of wood, and zip! off with a head.

I want my money back. When they instituted “security” after the hijackings back in the 70’s, we were told that the screeners were (going to be) trained in how to spot someone who was “acting suspicious”. We were lied to. TSA is just the most recent incarnation of that lie. They’re not watching people.. they’re only looking at the goods you try to take thru.

Next time you’re in an airport listen to the announcements. “Will the passenger who left (something) at security check point X please return to claim it”.

I contend that ANY time such an announcement is made, that there should be a TSA agent FIRED ON THE SPOT. If their job is to watch people, then HOW in the world can someone walk away, having left something at the station?!?

If you want true security, it should be an “airlock” type system: you clear security with ALL your stuff before the next person is allowed in, or you don’t get thru at all.

Comment by Anticonn

December 18, 2009 @ 4:23 am

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin, 1759

Comment by WC

December 18, 2009 @ 6:59 am

For years now I have refused to take airplanes because of the invasive and ineffective ‘security measures’ at the airports.

It never occurred to me that my active refusal to be subjected to such insanity would actually be worse for the problem than going through it, but with my eyes wide open and my mouth and mind active.

Comment by 22q

December 18, 2009 @ 7:43 am

Thank you for writing this. I hope that it is widely disseminated and read.

Comment by Anna

December 18, 2009 @ 8:36 am

I disagree with the entire idea of the TSA.
It’s like trying to comb out nits with a pitchfork. I have looked and have not been able to find even one instance where TSA has actually been able to prevent a terrorist attack. However, I have found many instances of people who are able to slip things past TSA.
Your article highlights this ineffectiveness.

In the US, you are innocent until proven guilty everywhere but an airport. What makes a trustworthy, law-abiding citizen suddenly less trustworthy the moment they want to board a plane?

Comment by Sean

December 18, 2009 @ 10:03 am

“We had to destroy your freedom in order to save it.”

Comment by Hagop Hagopian

December 18, 2009 @ 10:47 am

Your response is much more civil than mine. I have no respect for the actions of these TSA employees, and am appalled at the American public for authorizing their existence and complying with their intrusiveness in our lives. It’s amazing what fear will do to an idiotic public.

Comment by Doug

December 18, 2009 @ 11:56 am

The establishment of a tyrannical government demands as precursor the formation of a some form of secret police, examples include: the Gestapo in Nazi Germany, KGB in communist Russia, and GRU in the former East Germany.
TSA is an off shoot of the “Patriot Act” the most inappropriately named law in US history. I agree with the writer of this article in that TSA screening is not about security. It is about getting the American Public to submit to this foolishness. There should have been outrage among the citizens of the USA at the passage of this heinous law but we meekly submitted and continued down that slippery slope. As Benjamin Franklin so aptly stated many years ago, “He who trades liberty for security, does not deserve the one and will never the get the other.”
The Patriot Act should be repealed, and if airline security is necessary, then some substantive means to provide it should be sought from a intelligent and rational vantage point. TSA was a knee jerk reaction to a national disaster.

Comment by Dan

December 18, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

It would be nice to know exactly what our rights are and where the legal boundries of the TSA fall.
I think it’s much more effective in that situation when you can tell a screener exactly what they can and cannot legally do to you rather than simply stating that you object to it.
Most TSA personnel are not trained in anything other than their area of “expertise”. If confronted with a passenger who clearly knows their rights and can state it in an intelligent, calm manner, you may find that the agent would choose their procedure more carefully. Just a thought.

Comment by gus

December 18, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

Shut up and get your shoes off!!!

Comment by Maria

December 18, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

Henry Barth posted the following link above: http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/screening/index.shtm. In it, it suggests that travelers do no wear under-wire bras. Just what do they expect women to wear? My bras have never set off the alarm (although my belt has).

Comment by One Who Knows

December 20, 2009 @ 12:26 am

I haven’t seen anyone actually answer the original question: “Do I have the right to refuse this search?” So here goes.

There are two kinds of searches: criminal and administrative. The first requires probable cause, and can only be done by law enforcement officers, which TSA screeners are not.

TSA does administrative searches, which require implied consent. Administrative searches have been a part of American life since colonial days, though the first modern precedent is Frank v Maryland, 1959.

Administrative searches are used when there is “substantial government interest” and they are to be “carefully limited in time, place, and scope.” The screener who searches your bag at the airport is not authorized to do the same on the street.

Here is a mundane example of the administrative search. When you get a license to open a restaurant, you agree to random visits from the health inspector. These inspections happen, not because anyone said that you were putting mice in the soup, but because there is “substantial government interest” in maintaining public health and safety.

Or say that there is a sign on the door of a store indicating the presence of security cameras. You go in. You have implicitly consented to being videotaped. Should a camera catch you putting something in your pocket and walking out, you will not be able to argue that the videotaping was illegally done.

Signs are posted at the airport saying that you are subject to screening if you enter the checkpoint. You give your implied consent, by entering, to the entire search process. What does the entire process consist of?

The goal of the screener is to ensure that none of the items on this week’s prohibited items list gets past the checkpoint. The screeners have some discretion in choosing procedures, and if you have objections to one procedure (radiation, etc.) they can usually offer an alternative.

So the answer is that you have the right to refuse that search, but you do not have the right to refuse all search procedures once you start the process. The leads and supervisors and leads have more discretionary authority than the screeners, so feel free to ask to speak to one if your concerns are not being addressed by the screeners.

Incidentally, to the poster who objected to radiation from the scanner, I suggest that you look up how much radiation you expose yourself to by flying in a plane. The scanner is the least of your worries.

Comment by erica

December 20, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

I traveled for a while to teach classes for a phone company. I was ‘randomly’ selected for all of my trips (14+)

I wondered too why I was being selected. I carried a laptop, I am a blonde haired blue eyed fair skin woman.

I was told for me it was because I had booked flights the cancelled them ( I ended up staying for a weekend or I rented a car instead of flying to stay longer in a closer city), they were one way, and I was not travelling with anyone.

So much for randomness.. there was a pattern there. And, when it was booked, my ticket that was printed (in different airports) showed different ways of me being ‘flagged’

Comment by Thomas

December 21, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

I’m tired of the ‘security circus’ that surrounds airport “security”. I’m tired of the invasion of my privacy. I’m tired of having to take off half my clothes.

This tiredness reached a peak last summer as I was heading back from Boston to LHR. I had taken off my shoes, my jacket, my belt but had a pair or braces (suspenders as the yanks call them). I was ordered to take them off – but I explained to the screener I could not do so without taking of my trousers (I have a shoulder issue and can not reach behind my back). He told me again to remove them – so I did, I took off my trousers. They freaked out and started some serious shouting. I took the abuse but decided then and there enough is enough.

I now routinely ask the question: “Can I say No to this” and the security people do not like it at all. They are used to meek lambs and simply do not know how to handle the question.

This article convinces me that we need to say NO. Politely and legally. It’s time to reclaim some dignity back from a flawed system.


Comment by Mickey p

December 21, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

Even i had been pulled aside for extra screening, sad part is i work for the airport and was taking a passgner in a weelchair to thier gate(to get the job i had to go through all sorts of backround checks). I can refuse this but i will need to look for anther job. The othe thing is we have an MP working at our tsa he faild traning twice by doing what police do (he call it a better search the way the army traind him). he did it there way and pass. your right about this

Comment by BJ

December 22, 2009 @ 1:50 am

Last time I was randomly selected, out of a mix of curiosity and boredom, I asked the screener whether there was any particular reason why I was chosen.

The answer: “You looked the sort of person who wouldn’t make a fuss”

Maybe the real strategy behind random screening is to just make a spectacle and in doing so, try and scare would be criminals off? Let’s just hope they don’t call the bluff

Comment by aerie

December 23, 2009 @ 4:28 am

This “security theatre” is what we, the American public, asked for & I assume it makes some feel ‘safe’. It’s a farce. Screeners look for someone who won’t bitch or make a stir thus making their job easier. How’s that for safety?

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Benjamin Franklin

Comment by Santa

December 23, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

“Security Theater” is a dumb term and people just love quoting Schneier. People love to throw this word around for any circumstance that does not fit their security beliefs. Flaws will always exist in Security, so what can one do? You can mitigate these flaws by doing what they are doing, which is not perfect. But this issue will never be fixed, since someone will always find a way in.

Comment by Lusion

December 25, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

Considering that Montgomery County Police are one of the most prejudice if not racist police forces in Maryland I have to take your article as just banter. To say that the TSA receive less training then MCPD is just your view of it. How about you consentrate on MCPD training and procedures instead of poking at TSA when you refused to perform a scan that most others are happy to take just for the illusion of safety. How about this, how about you go back to MCPD and tell them to stop racially profiling african americans and other non white races. How about they not pull over ever african american in a cadillac or other select vehicle from your list just because your officers have been ordered to do so. You have no right to question another agencies way of performing when your own police force is in shambles.

Comment by Mel

December 26, 2009 @ 6:00 pm


October 30, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

“Another ridiculous policy is the relentless hunt for water bottles. These items are prohibited because they may contain deadly chemicals, right? So what does TSA do with one of these potential hand grenades when they find one? They dump it in the trash right next to the passengers on top of all the other potentially lethal bottles of confiscated chemicals.”

Common sense. Thank you.

Comment by Anonymous

December 26, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

I’m really glad this is a public website, because of course I would not have known about this great article until I discovered it through digg.

But I’m forced to realize something, this article is recent, too recent. A supposed “terrorist” that would stumble upon this page (with all the wisdom that it holds) would unfortunately be better suited to execute his “terrorist motives.” Now granted that this is a website about Homeland Security, it is really too revealing about domestic affairs. To put it bluntly…. TSA may not be the greatest but we should not point out critical and vital mistakes it has for all the world to read… maybe that’s why the Freedom of Information Act waits 5-43? years to release confidential material.

Other than counterintelligence issues, perfect article. A very enjoyable read.

Comment by Mary

December 27, 2009 @ 10:40 pm

At the airport in Madison, WI last month, on the podium of the TSA agent who checks one’s ID & boarding pass before allowing one to enter the security line, there was a little laminated list of countries taped to the podium. All Middle Eastern countries. I found that quite interesting. So, my assumption was, apparently, if your ID has you originating from one of those countries, or your ticket has your destination as one of those countries, you would automatically be pulled out of line for further search. Which made me wonder — how can that do that? Isn’t it profiling? Isn’t that illegal?

Comment by Michael VanDoorne

December 28, 2009 @ 2:45 am

12/25/09 Nigerian terrorist (known and listed by FBI) tries to blow up plane preparing to land in Detroit by igniting a substance smuggled through security checkpoints in his clothing. Sets himself on fire and subdued by passengers. Knee jerk reaction; no objects allowed in lap one hour prior to landing. No computers nor pillows, nothing. Weakest link? Amsterdam this time. Which airport will be the next target? Odds are, someday another attempt will be made. Another known and listed will get through. How? Who will be held accountable? Is it simply a matter of time before a terrorist is successful?

Comment by Karla

December 28, 2009 @ 11:28 am

Excellent article. Prompted me to write one of my own. I linked to this one. Airport Security — Are They Really Working and Do We Need Them?Karla offers her own unique experiences with the “heroes” in light blue, and asks if what they do is truly stopping another 9/11 dead in its tracks.Read More

Comment by someDavid

December 28, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

From the Guardian: “The US homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, conceded today that the aviation security system failed when a young man on a watchlist with a US visa in his pocket and a powerful explosive hidden on his body was allowed to board a fight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

“Our system did not work in this instance,” Napolitano said on NBC television’s Today show. “No one is happy or satisfied with that”.” (http://is.gd/5EGQ1)

In the public interest then, just how many times has this system worked? Has anyone set out the list of lucky interceptions in comparison the people caught by the regimented procedures?

More importantly, does everyone feel safer today?

Comment by dentist reviews

January 8, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

I will take freedom over safety from a low percentage threat anytime. More soldiers died this year from any amount of terrorist attacks in however many years …. the logic is not sound.

Comment by Vinnie

January 12, 2010 @ 2:28 am

You people are a bunch of hippies.

Comment by scalp

January 14, 2010 @ 9:54 pm

thanks for your life story. wrap it up next time

Comment by Bernard

January 15, 2010 @ 9:25 am

I’ve been hand-searched a few times in US airports, not very effectively. One was so poor that it _might_ have found a baseball bat, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

I’d like to share a searching story. I was flying to DUB from LHR one day in the mid-’80s. I was a frequent flyer back then, the portal beeped, and since that automatically triggered a pat-down, I reflexively stepped towards the screener, arms spread. “Good afternoon sir” says he. “Hello” I said, and with a little smile he began. Over the next minute or so, I was searched thoroughly, from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. And I mean everywhere short of one particular body cavity, behind the ears, between the legs, collar, belt, shoulder-blades, pockets, you name it. It was courteous, totally professional and if I’d have been smuggling a paperclip he’d have found it.

I guessed afterwards that the screener was probably an ex prison officer. There’s no substitute for experience.

PS: If I were a woman, under no circumstances would I consent to being searched by a male. If it takes them 10 minutes to find a female searcher they’re not running the security properly. And in the interests of fairness, I’ll insist on a male searcher if necessary. Screening teams, certainly in Britain & Ireland and every European airport I’ve been in have a good gender balance for that reason, amongst others.

Comment by The Baldchemist

January 16, 2010 @ 9:17 am

“Counter intelligence issues”? In America? Ar eyou kidding me? That must be one of the biggest oxymorons I have ever heard.

The country is paranoid, run by a bunch of knee jerk reactionaries.

Put an overweight, unemployed in a uniform and delusions of grandeur and meglomania appear in what was an escape from massive inferiority complex and disguised narciscism.

You cannot have unemployed,”MacDonalds trainees” taking responsibilty for The security of the World.

And don’t send them to Iraq or Afghanistan either.

The only people benefiting from all this hyped up security are the manufacturers.

Full body screening! What does a tampon look like? A stick of dynamite?

What happened to your GOD? Doesn’t he bless and protect all Americans? When the good stuff happens its a miracle of God. But the bad stuff? Thtas the work of terrorists, who incidently have won this war hands down. You’ve lost your freedom. Live with it.

Thank you for the fabulous article by the way. ( bit of an anarchist just quietly eh?)

Comment by Tony

January 26, 2010 @ 4:08 am

Sorry, but why is “random” good? surely middle aged over weight females should be subjected to less screening along with mothers with young children etc. And not time spent on single young men etc.

Comment by John

January 26, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

A supposed “terrorist” that would stumble upon this page (with all the wisdom that it holds) would unfortunately be better suited to execute his “terrorist motives.”

Anonymous (137682) worries that we here supply terrorists with too much information. From the large number of responses, this is all common knowledge. A perspective terrorist can simply travel and make all the same observations for themselves.

The question is “Who will use this information first to improve their procedures?”; TSA or someone with “terrorist motives.”

Comment by Don

January 29, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

Well written. Thank you.

I only questioned the implication that the TSA ever had public support.

Comment by asa

February 13, 2010 @ 2:07 am

I am judged as a terorist should I do something???
14 counries listed among the list of terorist population and TSA will see every thing in my body.should I just go to airport without pant nor underwar…

Comment by SilentEmotions

March 10, 2010 @ 11:06 am

From the year 2000 beyond muslims, islam and terrorism became synonyms in the mass media. they became the worlds center of attention, most horrid, brutal and intemidating beings. I wonder if these people ever existed before the year 2000, or if they did what was the cause of this sudden change? were they becoming too powerful and dominating or were they too helpless and are being used? Or is this all a propaganda? whatever the cause and the consequences, I pray to God to help us all get throw this and make the new decade a different one, a peaceful one. God Bless us All.

Comment by Cathy

March 21, 2010 @ 10:07 am

It’s not so much the “random” (though I question how random is determined) nature of the total body screening—it’s the fact that my personal and valuable articles were left sitting in the gray basket on a table far enough from me so I could not see and carefully monitor their safety anymore. Come on TSA –let’s figure this one out now– AS, when you randomly search with your “see it all” machine go and fetch my valuables and bring them to where I can monitor them. Thanks!!!

Comment by Edgin Putermon

May 29, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

What lies behind the setting up of “security” at airports is more the real story. Making people to submit, or as I like to say jump through hoops, and that is in how much crap folks put up with before they start to complain. Clearly the author did. He was focused on data collection, and clearly aware of a massive flaw in the system. Authorities are not concerned with passenger safety. It’s obvious to anyone looking. It’s like in traffic court, if everyone, and I mean everyone, pleaded not guilty and asked for a trial, the system would come to a grinding halt in one day, period. They would have to do something to address this new situation. This is the true power people have collectively. Imagine the same situation at the airport, everyone refusing to submit because it is garbage. Sure it would be chaos for everyone for awhile, but the system now goes under inspection, answers demand to be had, and hopefully it gets better. Anyway, being like sheep pisses me off.

Comment by John

July 28, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

Yes you have the right to refuse! Besides the fact that there are these unwarranted searches, and profiling….

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August 10, 2010 @ 11:08 pm

[…] the hell out of this assessment, by a recently-retired police chief, of the absurd ineffectiveness of TSA airport screening. As a […]

Comment by michael j. o'rourke esq

September 6, 2010 @ 9:35 am

I was just searched twice at srq on my retuen to jfk on jet blue 346 on 9/5/10

These are the bottom of the barrel, as a kid in brooklyn ..i am now 67 and about to retire from my law practice we referred to the “agents” as “rent a cops”. The guys who were too dumb to get through school. Since I travel on a regular basis to Sarasota I will be waiting to have fun with these jerks.

I am looking forward to them and will have my tape going at all times. These idiots had to remove the diaper from my 2 month old grandchild..to get their rocks off.

I will follow instructions but at my own pace.
This is a law that violates our rights as Americans.

Comment by Horrified

November 21, 2010 @ 1:58 am

What I have noticed repeatedly is complacent looking white people being pulled out for pat downs by abusive black TSA agents. I have yet to see a single muslim or black person being targeted for screening, in fact, muslims appear to be exempt which makes zero sense. This is just bullying of a certain segment of the American public. Where has the Constitution and our civil rights gone?

Comment by Me myself and I

November 21, 2010 @ 2:06 am

I would just like to add that the treatment is especially bad for disabled people. I have read and seen videos of people with artificial legs and steel knees being forced to remove their pants in front of everyone. This is appalling, a medical note and quick wanding would easily document the person’s condition. It’s easy to dismiss these agents as morons but I think it’s more than that, it’s a power trip for them to humiliate a disabled human being, shy housewives and people who look like they are easily intimidated. If a guy that looked like Hulk Hogan came through they would never pull him out of line. They are targeting weak looking people which makes it especially grotesque and nazi-ish.

Comment by Ken Y

November 21, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

I just want to comment that Ms. Walker’s observations were from October of 2009, a little over a year ago. I would love to see followup comments from her fromthis 2010 travel season. Regrettably, her prediction last year:

That compromise [of the TSA] may come in the form of
terrorist attack, or it may come in the form of a
collapse of public support.

Is coming true, though thankfully, it is the latter and not the former, but compromise of the TSA may indirectly facilitate the former.

Comment by bob

November 21, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

TSA Tom’s post effectively highlights the problem with the people who work for the TSA. They like that they have power and control, such as it is. They think they are doing something far more important than they actually are.

Hilariously, I know someone who forgot they were carrying a box cutter and didn’t notice they had it on them until they were IN FLIGHT. Bravo.

There’s no need to grope people. There’s generally no need for “additional screening” other than the power trip I mention.

And if you want to talk about what people can handle at their jobs TSA Tom, yours is about as mindless as it gets. Many jobs involve way more training, way more changing rules and regulations and for those of us who teach, we are responsible for the safety and security of the most precious cargo of all. Drop the attitude. The things you claim you see every day pale in comparison to what teachers see every day.

Think about this, you don’t need any special education beyond high school to be TSA though I’m sure you require criminal background check. To be a teacher you need university degrees to go with that background check.

Then there are people like police officers, firemen, doctors and nurses. They are responsible for lives. They need more training than you could ever manage. And their jobs are constantly evolving and changing. So get down off the high horse. Your job is not complicated, that’s how come you can do it without any degrees or college training. A monkey could be trained to do it just as effectively. And probably without the bias and the power trip.

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November 21, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

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Comment by Elaine H.

November 21, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

This post is now a year old and more true today than it was then.

I’ve run out of patience with this false sense of safety people seem to get from the creation of “Homeland Security and the TSA”.

If there is a petition or protest to participate in, I’m there.

This process is badly constructed and the idea it would create safety is an illusion. I actually feel bad for the TSA employees. Everyone needs a job. I’ve worked enough places to know that training and bosses usually leave a lot to be desired in equipping you properly for the job. This seems more true than ever with this role.

We have forgotten that we do hold the power as citizens if we would just engage. We whine and complain, but then comply. What’s with that? If we all said, enough! Where would that leave them?

A few years ago, I was flying a lot (at least for me) – every time (not an exaggeration) I flew that year, something went wrong with my experience with the airport. I still remember getting the airport in SF at 8:30am only to be told my direct flight was canceled AND I would need to fly out of San Jose. They gave me a new ticket, shipped me to San Jose via a mini-van. Arrive at San Jose to learn the flight I need to catch is delayed which will make me miss my connecting flight. They suggest I come back the next day (ha!) – after I pressed them to find some way to get me back home – they found me a seat on a different airline. I rushed out, got on a bus to take me to a different airline terminal. Arrived there, only to be told that I was coded as an increased security risk because I changed flights so many times and they had to do a pat down, etc. The female TSA suggested she take me to a private room for the pat down. I said I have to catch this flight and have 30 minutes to make it to the gate from here. You can do the pat down here in front of the whole world. And so she did – very, very minimal pat down – talking with her co-worker the whole time and not paying any attention to what she was doing. ugh! really, this makes people feel safer?

I have no plans to fly anytime soon. If something comes up, I plan to drive.

Comment by SarahW

November 21, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

One who knows – your remarks about radiation from flying vs. scanners need some attention; you are promulgating a false comparison.

Leaving aside the hot spots within machines (near entrance and exit and some of the interior corners) and some radiation leaks also documented at some points of the machinery – leaving aside questions of proper set up, maintenance, and operation of the equipment (with calibration errors increasing the advertised dose manyfold) –

There is a key difference between concentrated exposure to ionizing radiation in time and area.

The radiation in-flight has cumulative risks to be sure – it is an occupational hazard for flight crews and frequent flyers.

The scanners, however, while the advertised overalldose is small, and smaller overall, cannot accurately be analogized to that “cosmic” radiation or to traditional xrays you might receive at a physician’s or dentist’s office.

The ionizing radiation (it strips electrons from molecules) is concentrated on the skin and the tissues immediately beneath. this means that the dose is applied in higher concentration on the skin and tissues than in a traditional xray or from cosmic rays where the radiation diffuses and passes through the body.

It also varies in that the dose occurs over a shorter period of time. Exposures of overall equal dose are not equal if they occur over different periods of time.
Total dose in 30 seconds has potential to cause more damage needing repair than total dose received over 30 minutes. Same dose, more damage.

Those with a history of skin cancer or precancerous lesions should avoid the scanner in every instance, and especially a frequent flyer. Others at risk of lesions immediately beneath the skin (breast tissue, thyroid nodules, testicles)
should also avoid the scanners.

Be aware that the advertised dose may be less than the dose you are receiving, and that comparisons made to other exposures are (deliberately) misleading.

No one should opt in. If you do for your own convenience, be aware of the true unknowns, if not your actual risk.

Also be aware that the policy of aggresive pat-downs ro refusers is an admitted deliberate policy decision to encourage compliance and overcome resistance to risky scans.

Finally, none of these measures provide you with the security they are purported to increase – they can’t reveal explosives or ceramic weapons reliably or more completely than other measures, would not have stopped the so-called “underwear bomber” (per GAO), and divert resources from other measures that would make flights ACTUALLY safer (thus actually increasing your risks of being blown out of the sky) and finally, create opportunities for diversion and distraction and attack that terrorists can reliably exploit.

You aren’t getting very much in return for your acquiescence to unreasonable searches – highly invasive searches of your person – pictures of your naked form and genitals or groping of same – on persons under no suspicion at all.

Comment by spookie

November 21, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

Quite frankly, we need to eliminate the TSA entirely. If we must give up virtually all of our freedom to gain only the semblance of safety the cost is our entire way of life. Submitting to a search when no probable cause exists undermines the fabric of our society. We are being conditioned to accept unacceptable behavior, and the evidence is everywhere. Police routinely stop people without cause, and people who refuse to submit are informed that this behavior is suspicious, thus providing “cause.”

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November 21, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

[…] What happens when an ex-cop asks the TSA screeners, “Do I have a right to refuse this search?” […]

Comment by JD

November 21, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

Excellent essay. If I may make one observation:

That compromise may come in the form of terrorist attack…

The Federal government will facilitate another “terrorist attack” should the public display continued resistance to the policies of the Ruling Class. Many compliant sheep will continue to believe that the government would NEVER commit an attack on its own people when it’s already doing so, in plain sight, via the TSA.

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November 21, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

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November 21, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

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November 22, 2010 @ 12:29 am

[…] who would?” (cbsnews.com) • What happens when an ex-cop asks the TSA screeners, “Do I have a right to refuse this search?” […]

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November 22, 2010 @ 9:31 am

[…] that weren’t bad enough, the new procedures are ineffective. Dierdre Walker cuts right to heart of the matter with this statement: We have unintentionally created an agency that now seeks efficiency and […]

Comment by PhillipC

November 22, 2010 @ 9:58 am

I think it is important to note that the author asked the question “Do I have the right to refuse…”
After asking she was ultimately met with “Supervisor, she refused!”

It would be interesting if Ms. Walker has stated “No, I did not refuse. I simply asked if I have the right to.”

Comment by G. Creager

November 22, 2010 @ 10:51 am

Having had a little experience with threat assessments, a bit with organic and biochemistry, and some knowledge of things that go boom, I’ve had an interesting time assessing TSA performance in my travels.

For a period of over a year, I was profiled into additional screening, because my travels would often have several legs, rarely departing and returning from a single pair of points, eg., IAH-DCA-IAH. However, as soon as my travel stabilized into well defined city and home trips, I was magically removed from that profile. Oh, yeah, I forgot: We don’t employ profiles, do we.

Another chilling example consistent with Deirdre’s piece. Several years ago, I had to change my travel plans to return home: A tropical storm was threatening Houston, and several airlines had terminated flights in/out. I was able to take another airline to Dallas and drive home, but I had the most interesting experience getting onto the plane.

First, I was directed to the main terminal TSA security point… then escorted there. My norm is to walk to the concourse security point, but this was unacceptable. Then, when my new ticket was checked at screening, a supervisor was called, and I was informed I was required to undergo additional search and screening, since I’d purchased a ticket for same day travel. That this was a reschedule to compensate for an act of nature was not something they wanted to consider.

I was required to remove all contents from all pockets for inspection, as well as my shoes and belt. I wear a belt with a brass buckle to reduce the inconvenience of removing it; it’s never, once, set off an alarm, but they were going to be thorough. They completely unpacked my carryon, and in my presence, looked at each item. When they found something they didn’t know, recognize or understand, they asked, usually in some degree of wonderment, what it was and why I had it. At one point, when they were attenpting to open a CryptoCard, used to provide secure access to computers, I mentioned that if that was damaged it’d be difficult and expensive for me to replace. Without further ado, it was handed back to me.

I’ve been told with some degree of confidence that it’s easy to make binarly liquid explosives and inject them into shoes, that TSA has interdicted some number of shoe-borne explosives (I’ve been told “hundreds” several times at a variety of airports), and that TSA interdicts (although that’s rarely the term their front-line use) terrorists on a daily basis. Color me skeptical, because I don’t think they do engage in reliable profiling, or human evaluations.

I do subscribe to the theory that they perform additional screening on people who least likely, from their bias, to protest, and that this gives them a higher screen count. What I don’t like is that the DHS/TSA penchant for theatre has apparently ignored threat assessment and reality in its race to appear to provide protection to the traveling public.

Airplanes are a big visible symbol. Think of what a bomb in a crowded downtown bus terminal would do. Or, for that matter, an attack on a cruise ship boarding in port.

Finally, I find it odd that color coded threat levels are now higher for air travel than force protection levels are for US military bases. You’d think the bad guys would want to harm the military, too.

Comment by Sparky

November 22, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

I find it odd that the majority of you live under the illusion that you’re actually free or have been at sometime prior to 9/11. Oh sure, free-ER than a lot of of places, and less free than other places, but land of the free? Heh. America sure does love its hyperbole and illusions. It’s right up there with its instituionalized paranoia. The only country in th world where they see enemies lurking around every corner where there are none. And then you act suprised when something like this happens. Simply amazing!

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November 23, 2010 @ 11:57 am

[…] is an interesting article on Homeland Security Watch (via @sladner) by Deirdre Walker.  She was the Assistant Chief of the Montgomery County, Maryland, […]

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November 30, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

[…] about her experiences and analysis of why she's always singled out for additional screening: http://www.hlswatch.com/2009/10/15/%…arch%E2%80%9D/ […]

Comment by Mauibrad

November 30, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

OUTSTANDING observations and post.

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Comment by Calvin

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December 15, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

[…] “falla de inteligencia” cobra todos los sentidos posibles: hace un par de meses, la ex-oficial de policía Deirdre Walker advirtió que los efectivos de la TSA no tienen criterio ni…. En lugar de atender a verdaderas amenazas, someten a chequeos “aleatorios” una y otra […]

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[…] Walker, a retired assistant chief of police, sounds as if she was a pretty good cop, and she writes well here, at Homeland Security Watch, of her growing dismay with the Transportation Safety […]

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