Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 10, 2009

“Where are all the white guys?” — Update on “Do I have the right to refuse this search.”

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on November 10, 2009

Today’s (returning) guest author is Deirdre Walker.  A few weeks ago she wrote a post about her experiences at one of the country’s airports.  Last week she went to another airport.  This post is about that experience.

Before she retired, Walker was the Assistant Chief of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Department of Police.  She spent 24 years as a police officer.  Among her professional accomplishments, Chief Walker helped lead a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional team of law enforcement officials in 2002  investigating what has since become known as the Washington D.C. sniper killings.


I frequently commute between Tampa and Baltimore.  During my travels, I have many opportunities to observe and a lot of time to think.

Lately, I have been engaged in more active observation regarding what is happening in our nation’s airports.  I have come to the troubling conclusion that we have some significant challenges with regard to airport security.  These challenges are fundamental, large, and unwieldy.

I recently blogged about some of these challenges in an article entitled “Do I have the Right to Refuse this Search.” The article, posted October 15 on HLS Watch.com described first my growing awareness that I was becoming a frequent, if not routine, candidate for secondary searches, and then the follow-on from my line-in-the-sand decision to challenge that selection from then/now on.

In my article, I articulated my reasons for my concern (ultimate compromise of traveler faith and safety), endeavored to provide context for those concerns (the role of active and passive discrimination, the need for data collection, and haphazard and inconsistent responses by TSA personnel). I also attempted to establish myself as a credible, concerned participant in the dialogue (retired Assistant Chief of Police, 24 years experience, etc.).

That article was my first  attempt at blogging and I was surprised by the response.  Within less than a month, around one hundred thousand people had at least looked at the article.  I am hopeful that many of those folks may have even read it, in spite of its unTwitter-friendly length.  The article was reposted on at least ten other blogs, to include BoingBoing and TravelSpeak.  On Tuesday, November 3d, it was posted on the blog link for The Economist.

The interest my article has generated is at once gratifying and deeply troubling.  Clearly, based upon the number of readers, and the number and nature of comments posted in reply, there is broad concern (if not outright animosity)  in the blogosphere regarding TSA, and the procedures it employs in both the selection and the searches of American travelers.  I believe that concern is reflected among and generalizable to non-blogging American travelers.


Predictably, interest in my article is starting to wane.  Unfortunately, whatever it is about me that has made me such an appealing target for secondary screening has not waned.

On Tuesday, November 3, I traveled from BWI airport en route to Tampa.  I needed to get to my home in Florida so I could vote in a local election.  Our Gulf Coast community, like many others, is debating charter questions on growth management and I wanted my voice to be heard.  On November 3 as I passed through the security checkpoint, my voice was heard in a different way.

(Since I am uncertain exactly what information is relevant to secondary screening selections, I have provide information below which would, in the course of most discussions,  be considered irrelevant, perhaps even insulting.  This includes descriptions regarding gender, age, height and weight.   Since we have no data regarding patterns of secondary screening decisions, I have to assume that this type of information is, indeed, highly relevant.  In fact, it appears to be all the information we have.)

As I approached the conveyor belt, I carried the contents of my mobile office in a soft brief case and a back pack.   I am a Caucasian female in my late forties, about five eight, and carrying weight that is in excess of what is recommended for my height.  In anticipation of the warmer Florida weather,  I was dressed very casually in shorts, sneakers with ankle socks, and I was wearing a lightweight grey sweat shirt (not a zip or a hoodie) over a t-shirt.  As I stepped through the metal detector, I was told to “Please step over here.”

The uniformed, Caucasian-female screener, likely in her late thirties or early forties, similar to me in height and weight, directed me toward the Full-body Imaging machine.  I said simply, “No.”

She was momentarily stunned and asked me to repeat myself.  I said “No.  If I don’t have to do it, I am not going to do it.”

She told me to step aside to wait and radioed to someone that I had refused the scanner.

As I waited, I reflected that of my last five trips through security, I had been selected for secondary screening three times, twice at BWI. I recalled that within the past year, I have been selected for secondary screening on countless additional trips, but I didn’t start keeping count, regrettably, until the trip in October that generated that first HLS Watch.com blog article.

I considered what the word “random” really means.  I wondered why I could not randomly win the lottery as often as I had been selected for secondary screening.

Within a few moments, I was met by another uniformed agent, who directed me to a glass-enclosed cubicle located between the screening belts for the B gates at BWI.  On my way to the cubicle, I had observed a sign indicating that travelers have  the right to decline the imaging machine and “request” a pat-down instead.  It struck me as odd that in order to really see and absorb the information posted on the sign, you would have already passed by or through the imaging machine.

As I stepped into the cubicle, I was informed by my newly assigned screener that I would be patted down.  The screener, an African-American female most likely in her late twenties, shorter and slimmer than me, struck me as professional, almost pleasant.   It is important to reiterate that this screener had no role in my selection.   She asked whether I had “been through this process before.” I answered that I had.  As I placed my feet on the outlines on the rug and raised my arms from my sides, I wondered how many people she has searched also responded “Yes” to that question.  I lamented all the data lost by the failure to track those responses. She then asked me if I would be more comfortable in a “private” setting.  I chuckled as the inquiry, while thoughtful, felt oddly ironic.  I declined.

My screener then informed me about how she would conduct the search, and stated to me that when she got to a sensitive area, she would “use the back of my hand” to touch that area.  Again, as a retired police officer who has searched hundreds of people over the course of my career, I know that you just can’t feel much with the back of a gloved hand.  God forbid, I thought to myself, that the screener, who had displayed what I felt to be genuine concern for my privacy, should  be fully able to detect any weapons or contraband I might be secreting.

As she commenced the search by patting down my hair (brown, thinning and collar-length), I launched what in my old job would have been considered a classic field interview.

This type of interview, when done right, consists of a series of related questions asked in a rapid fire manner.  The speed is critical as it offers the subject little time (theoretically, anyway) to effectively fabricate information and it also leaves little time for the subject to become defensive.  I needed to tread a fine line between quickly obtaining meaningful information and becoming too aggressive.

Fortunately, my screener was very open and forthcoming.  I asked,  “How are people selected for secondary searches?.  She replied “It’s random.”

I asked “Is there a mark on my boarding pass?”  She replied, “We used to do that, but we don’t do it anymore.”  She did not know why that practice had been discontinued.

I stated “So you look at people as they are entering the metal detector, you make some type of assessment, and then you select people for secondary searches, right?”

She replied, “Well, sometimes if you are wearing bulky clothing, you get selected.”

I said, “Can’t you tell people to take the clothing off?’

She replied, laughing,  “No.  We can’t tell people to take their clothes off.”

My own experience indicates that to be less than accurate information.  I have been frequently directed to remove coats, sweaters and sweat shirts in the past.  Regardless, she seemed to be implying that I had been selected due to the fact that I was wearing a sweat-shirt.

At this point, I turned to look over my shoulder and observed a Caucasian woman in her late thirties or early forties standing inside the whole-body imager.  I called my screener’s attention to this and said. “Look over there.  There’s a woman in the scanner.    You all picked me for a search, and then the very next person you select is a woman.  Why didn’t you pick a white guy?  Where are all the white guys?”

She replied, helpfully, “We are understaffed today and we don’t have enough male screeners to do pat downs.  We are not allowed to do opposite sex pat-downs so we are only selecting women for secondary screening.”

By this point, I was seated and she was patting down the bottom of my feet.  The secondary search, more thorough than the last search I had been subjected to in Albany, but equally ineffective, was nearing completion.  I said “If you are only selecting women, how is that random?”

She said,  “You’re done.  You can collect your belongings, Have a nice day.”

If I had not already been sitting down, I would likely have fallen over.  So much for random searches.  I gathered my belongings and wandered off in search of a lottery ticket.

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Comment by Disturbed hisPANIC

November 10, 2009 @ 3:42 am

I can relate to this post, and that disturbs me.

Let me relate a small vignette of my travels through airport security…
Some time around July of last year, 2008, my mother, sister, and I were coming back home to Sacramento from a month long stay in Honduras. Yes indeed, that small Hispanic country of no relative importance in the world that was recently on the news. We were all quite frazzled from several days of journeying by the time we got to the security checkpoint. We had missed a flight due to rain, spent a night in a hotel, ended up some how in LAX instead of SFO… We were all in a state of unkempt irritability.

We had run to that checkpoint in the hopes of somehow getting on an United flight promised to us after I had an embarrassing episode of tears. I waited impatiently, my mother looked distraught, and my sister seemed as if she were about to enter “stand by mode.” When we finally got the front of the line, everything became just a bit worse.

My mother was carrying my sister’s bag in addition to her own. I still cannot entirely understand what transpired, but as we faced the short, hipster looking 20 something in front of us everything somehow went downhill. He said to us something along the lines of, “You cant have two bags.” We told him it was my sister’s. He told us again, you cant hold two bags. We told him again, it’s HERS and my mother’s just holding it. He told us again, you’re not allowed to hold her bag too. We begin to go, “wtf? It’s just her bag. FINE.” My exhausted sister held her bag again and we moved along. But! Did I just catch you signing to your friend over there?

We suddenly came upon a rather large, African American man behind a podium who looks like he never found out his face could express emotions. He takes our tickets, put a large line over them, and then motions us to go, “That way.” Oh, your inert face couldn’t lie to me! You enjoyed marking our tickets didn’t you? You saw what transpired with your security posse and took decisive action. I could tell by the way you told us to trot along in that direction.

Then we went through the security scanner to the little cubicle area. Why hello there! early 30s something with pants that are just too tight and a classic expression of, “I hate my occupation.” I try to be civil while she pats me down, but I can’t help wondering: we were completely and utterly NOT randomly picked. I saw those nods. I saw that camaraderie.

In short: Random? Yeah, sure. It’s probably about as random as the lady from earlier’s miraculous, “just happened to find” discovery of a flight we might be able to catch.

Comment by The Dude

November 10, 2009 @ 4:14 am

I was through airport security twice in the US, once on my way in and the second on my way out from a holiday. Both times my friend who I was travelling with was randomly selected for and extra check and the only reason I can see why is that he had a beard. Makes you think.

Comment by Chris

November 10, 2009 @ 6:24 am

Sadly, I can’t remember if it was Bangladesh or Nepal, but back in 2001, I went through airport security that looked like this:

The line you were in to approach the scanners had a traffic light with a green and red lens. As each person passed the light, they pressed a large button. Either the green lamp or the red lamp would light. If the green lamp, you proceeded through to the scanners. If the red light, you stepped aside for additional screening.

Here’s the thing: this device could be truly random, but in a controlled fashion. You could set it so that 1/100 people are normally selected. In situations of heightened security, you could set it (temporarily) to 1/20. Furthermore, it would be much harder for potential baddies to thwart it. In a situation described in the article, for example, an observant baddy could notice that primarily women or bearded guys were being selected. Send through a young, clean-shaven man and you’re good. But if you have to face a machine that can’t see you and doesn’t care what you look like, it becomes a crap shoot.

Seems like a better use of “random” then what we have today.

For the record, in one year (2006), I traveled twelve times domestically in the US. That’s 24 trips through airport security. I was “randomly” selected for 21 of those times. I am Canadian and, at the time, on an H1B visa.

Comment by Alice

November 10, 2009 @ 6:25 am

Selection is definitely not random. I (small white woman) have been picked for secondaries 10 times in a row. I think it may be because of the hateful look I give them in anticipation of going through their ridiculous screening system.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 10, 2009 @ 7:11 am

Another interesting post by Ms. Walker. For the moment let’ s talk Airport Security and yes as a target, not just the airplane itself but the airport is an attractive target particulary for mass mayhem during holiday peaks. The federal government has NO repeat no statutory or other role in AIRPORT SECURITY generally. Airports are “Privately” owned and never a federal property except for those on federal facilities which are definitely NOT open to the general public. There may be grants to Airports for security but there are no standards, no federal, state, or local oversight of security. So we have essentially just moved the ratings of the Airports generally up by our pretending random screening of travelers. Hoping I am wrong and readers of this blog more expert than I will comment. The entire TSA operation should be returned to the Department of Transportation for administration. Its inclusion in DHS was just to make the body count (FTE and contractor count)higher and make DHS look more important than it was. In fact TSA has been a big factor in keeping DHS from thinking and doing its main job of WMD detection, prevention, response and recovery. I would argue that if the comments of the current Secretary DHS are accurate that the former Secretary told her he spent 50% of his time on FEMA issues then FEMA is also a distraction from the principle missions of DHS and should be moved out. What is of interest is that in the late 90’s FEMA, DOJ, DOD, and DOE in official reports to Congress stated flatly that the nation was unprepared to prevent and respond to a WMD event. Today’s federal register continues the NATIONAL EMERGENCY first declared by President Clinton in 1994 over the WMD threat and its prevention an proliferation. So who is kidding who? Why did it take a clearly competent Ms. Walker to reveal the King (TSA) has no clothes, whether travelers do or not. Thanks again Ms. Walker.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 10, 2009 @ 7:16 am

Post Script: Hey somewhat off post but will furnish this comment anyhow. One of the reasons government officials and Members of Congress probably have focused so little on TSA is they often travel on government aircraft. During my FEMA years from 1979-1999 I was often witness to appointees and other traveling on military flights or even in AF ONE. The enthusiasm for these trips, in particular the heliocopter sightseeing trips up the Potomac to Mt. Weather was amazing. Hey they made the travelers feedl important and of course essential. Their enthusiam was somewhat dimmed however when I pointed out that the moment they stepped on government aircraft all private life insurance was voided and their survivors might not receive what they thought they would. Notice the demise of private life insurance sales in airports? Sometimes there is progress!

Comment by Mark

November 10, 2009 @ 7:22 am

I’m a Canadian and now live in Hong Kong. I am thankful for your article and hope that Americans will continue to question this farce of a security situation in US airports. The quality of airlines, the experience of airports and now the offensive ‘security’ are making travel into or out of the US a nightmare.

When buying tickets to fly home for a visit I can go direct or via Newark. The Newark flight is $200 to $300 cheaper, but I refuse to do it because I have to go through the TSA nightmare (explain why, when I have cleared security in Hong Kong, my bags have been screened at one of the most high-tech airports in the world, my bags and I have to be re-screened in the USA before travel to Canada? It’s ridiculous!)

But foreigners’ opinions don’t matter, only American voices do. The people of the US need to stop this nonsense before people just avoid the country altogether.

Comment by DaleyT

November 10, 2009 @ 9:37 am

I’ll add my anecdote.

Apparently TSA doesn’t even trust their primary screeners any more. Upon boarding a flight leaving from Orlando, FL, the gate employees stated that their “friends” from TSA would be performing random checks of ID and carryons at the gate as our flight was boarding. One agent was circulating through the crowd (this was a Southwest flight) checking IDs and another kept circling the crowd with a couple of vials of some liquid in his hands (explosives search?). Two more agents were at the head of the line “randomly” choosing passengers for bag checks. In this case, randomly meant whoever was next in line after they checked a passenger. I was separated from my wife and 2 year old child while my CPAP machine was checked again (it’s always swabbed at the primary check for some reason) and my other carryon was completely ignored. I complained about the check and naturally one of the officers got confrontational, pointing a finger at me and complaining. A true professional.

To me, this secondary “random” screening is either:

1. Showing that TSA doesn’t trust the primary screening

2. More security theater (h/t Schneier) to justify their existence.

Neither of these is acceptable justification.

Comment by Annie

November 10, 2009 @ 10:00 am

Let me add my voice to those of the middle aged white ladies who get pulled out of line all the time. Nearly every time I fly, I get patted down, bags searched, etc. I’ve had them tell me I’m being checked because I’m the only woman in line – nice randomness! But honestly, I’m guessing I get pulled over for checking all the time because I look like I’m not going to cause trouble for the screeners. When my parents fly, same thing – my mom gets pulled out for extra screening while my dad breezes through.

I am SO VERY TIRED of the TSA and this silliness!

Oh – I was pulled out to get into the “naked pictures” machine in Denver. As you noted, I did not see the sign telling me I did not have to go into it until I was already through.

And of course, asking questions gets you yelled at by the TSA. As does violations of any of their airport specific rules – all of which seem to vary by airport! Shoes in bins, shoes out of bins; bags on their sides, bags standing up; shoes in first, shoes in last; pull out your bags right away, wait at the end of the conveyor belt, and a host of other trivial things. If, for some odd reason, you are not able to read their minds to know what they will want you to do, they immediately become confrontational – “Ma’am!” in that tone of voice that says “Bitch!” so clearly.

I’ve seen TSA staff screaming at little old ladies who do not speak English. I’ve seen a six year old girl pulled out of line to be scanned with a wand. Everyone emerges from the line shaken and irritated. Some people try to tell themselves that it is the cost of being safe, but you can tell that even as they mouth the words they do not believe it themselves.

I would love to go thru with a video camera, but am SURE that would result in more trouble than I want to deal with at the airport.

All of this trouble, all of this expense – and for what result? The only thing that makes sense to me is that the TSA screeners are probably unemployable anywhere else, and this is a form of welfare for them. Nothing else really justifies this waste.

Comment by John

November 10, 2009 @ 10:37 am

There’s a reason I try to avoid commercial flights anymore: because the airlines allow, no, encourage their customers to abused and treated like idiots. Alas, there are times when I have to fly — as a job necessity — which is fortunately not very often.

I’d rather take the time to drive. Sure, it might take longer for trips over a few hundred miles, but at least I don’t have untrained, unaware, minimum-waged person randomly selecting me for some security theatrics because they think they can intimidate me.

Granted, the whole “avoid commercial airlines” thing isn’t really a possibility for some people.

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