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.

Comment by Mike B

November 10, 2009 @ 10:39 am

I’m a caucasian European without a criminal record.
I’ve stopped visiting the U.S.A. years ago after my last encounter with an American airport.

When I’m coming to a country I want to feel welcome, and certainly not being treated like a “probably-guilty-unless-proven-otherwise terrorist”.

I’ve told my wife that I refuse that our son is going to the U.S.A. as well for this reason.

So yes, I’m personally boycotting tourism to the U.S.A and I hope many more will do so. A country that treats visitors this way should not generate money from tourism.

It’s up to American citizens to get this changed. It’s “we the people”, right? If this doesn’t change I’m wishing the U.S.A. to have a nice bankruptcy.

Comment by Rob

November 10, 2009 @ 11:10 am

I will not fly in the US anymore. I am appalled by the suspension of out Constitutional rights while in the airport and at the total lack of common courtesy displayed by nearly all TSA personnel. Remember that these folks have never caught a proven terrorist.
Last time I flew was shortly following an incident where an air martial had emptied his piston into the back ( and backpack) of a man running away from him while his wife screamed at the marshalls that he was mentally ill and off his medication and was harmless and scared. It was alledged that he said something about a bomb in his backpack which caused the shooting but nobody except the air martial heard id said. No investigation resulted. I made the mistake of asking the TSA person why there was no investigation. After some discussion they separated me and made me wait in an enclosure for twenty minutes while they stood checking their watches. Then one of them slowly gave the pat down and wanding until he received a wave from another TSA person. I am sure that the wave indicated the end of boarding of our plane. On the second leg of our trip I got to watch as a short haired female employee did several pat downs on randomly chosen people. She was very thorough and the subjects seemed quite embarrassed bu the process. They were all randomly chosen young attractive female travelers.
I no longer fly. I no longer trust our government after seeing that.I wish I could have the USA back again.

Comment by Mark

November 10, 2009 @ 11:14 am

Every single time that I traveled in uniform, I was selected. Every single time that I used my Navy ID, I was selected. When I used my driver’s license, I was picked once. Yet, as a single male flier, with little baggage, I fit the profile for a possible threat. TSA wants compliant passengers. THAT is the criteria they use. Except when they just want to screw with someone.

Security Theater says it all.

Comment by Groovymarlin

November 10, 2009 @ 11:44 am

I often read the TSA blog, where “Bob” seems helpful and genuinely interested in getting TSA’s side of the story out. But it’s discouraging to me that TSA isn’t doing even the simplest collection of data, which would help either support their claims that screening is truly random, or help them recognize that it is not, and correct the situation. But TSA isn’t really interested in data and thoughtful analysis – as is always pointed out, it’s purely “security theater.”

What astounds me is that the airlines are complicit in this madness. They have to realize that this infringement on people’s rights and the demeaning treatment that many passengers receive at the hands of TSA is hurting their business. I for one refuse to fly unless it is absolutely unavoidable. I’ve only taken a trip by plane once in the past five years, and have no intention of flying again until things change. Maybe that means I’ll NEVER fly again; so be it. I’m contemplating a trip to visit family at the holidays in December, and my two viable options are an overnight train trip, or a 10-hour drive. Both are more appealing to me than going to any airport.

Comment by Dean Peters

November 10, 2009 @ 11:50 am

Reminds me a few years back when traveling through Orlando with my elderly parents.

It was like a scene out of a Fellini film, out of the 8 open lines, 5 were busy wanding senior citizens in almost perfect synchronization. The only thing missing was the ballet music.

Why the emphasis on seasoned citizens? Well, perturbed that both of my parents were called out, I went and asked the others why they thought they were singled out.

Turns out, including my parents, two had hip replacements, two had knee replacements, one was wearing a brace.

I also asked the gentlemen if they had served in WWII or Korea. Turns out that three, including my father, were decorated veterans of the 2nd World War.

As I thanked them for their service to our country, I couldn’t help but wonder which bad-guys were getting through because the TSA was busy giving an undue number of grandmas and grandpas the once over.

Comment by Tony

November 10, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

It’s not just the TSA, it’s airport security agencies world wide that are making a complete mess of air travel. In Canada, we’ve armed our airport security with guns and have them wearing bullet-proof jackets despite there never having been an incident of one of them being shot at or in any other sort of serious peril. Furthermore, they are NOT police officers and are not trained as thoroughly – their armament is hazardous at best.

But on to the random searches; my fiance, both her parents, her brother and his girlfriend, along with my mother, my sister, my niece and my cousins, all of whom I have travelled with, have NEVER been ‘randomly’ selected for a search. Ever. Of the 10+ trips I’ve taken with various assortments of the extended family I’ve listed above, my return flight from Fiji last week was the ONLY time I have travelled on not been ‘randomly’ selected by either the TSA or Canada Customs for further screening and questioning.

Of course, the fact that I have an unorthodox European first name with but a single vowel at the end of it in addition to being slightly darker with my features has absolutely nothing to do with it. Right? Right.

The simple fact of the matter is that these procedures will not be able to prevent someone who is determined on bringing terror via airplane. Certainly not someone willing to give their own life.

Airport screening procedures are not secret. A few trips back and forth as trial runs are all an individual would need to potentially devise a way of gaining access to a plane with contra-ban. So can we ease up on the farcical display of ‘prevention’ that most likely doesn’t prevent very much at all?

How many people die from assorted violent crimes every year? Compare that to how many die from airplane related ‘attacks’ – I’d wager the numbers are drastically different. Why don’t we focus more on the causes of all the things that bring harm to us and start putting money into the ones that cause the greatest number of deaths and stop putting on a show for the world?

Comment by Jeanie

November 10, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

The nicest TSA folks are at the Kansas City airport. They manage to get us through the line without pissing me off.

Leaving Washington DC, I left my boarding pass in my purse and sent it through the xray machine. I stepped through the scanner with no beeps. Then they asked to see my boarding pass. I pointed to my purse, coming out of the xray and said it was there. They wouldn’t let me get it and they said they couldn’t touch my purse either. So they let a little girl traveling with me (school field trip) get my pass and hand it to me. THEN. Then the agent had me step back through the scanner so that I could be scanned “properly” which evidently means “with paper in my hand.” He didn’t check my ID to make sure it was my boarding pass, so it might as well have been anyone’s boarding pass. Naturally, the scanner beeped as I stepped through for the second time and the third time. I removed my barette and finally got through with no beeps.

In the meantime, my purse is still sitting unattended on the end of the conveyor belt.

Same airport: one of the students had a small snowglobe confiscated because of the liquid in it. Never mind that the liquid had to be less than the max allowed.

One more story: Mother of a friend is a TSA agent in Omaha. I asked her if her mom ever finds anything. “Oh yeah! She finds stuff all the time!” When I asked what she finds, she said her mom finds things like marijuana…which, of course, is no danger to anyone, and not the point of TSA to begin with.

This topic makes me angry. TSA makes me feel LESS secure, not more. While they are patting down grandmas and babies, laptops and purses and bags are left sitting where anyone can walk off with them. Who are they NOT seeing when they make sure that I step through the scanner four times?

The TSA should be dismantled and security should be turned over to the airports.

Comment by TTB

November 10, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

My step-son flew from Honolulu to Salt Lake City and back last weekend for a funeral, carrying only a small back pack.

He forgot that there was a Swiss Army knife in one of the pockets.

TSA missed that knife in Honolulu, LAX, and on his return from Salt Lake City. It was only found by TSA in Portland, where he had to mail it home.

We go through all the body search BS for this quality of security? Why?

Comment by Mamamia

November 10, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

Thank you, once again, Chief Walker for exposing the TSA for what it truly is: a totally inefficient agency that is just wasting tax-payer dollars.

I am especially appreciative of your pointing out the placement of signage at WBI machines. While “Blogger Bob” at the TSA blog insists there is signage at all WBI, your report and reports of others (including Annie above), tell a different story. Did you notice other signage prior to the WBI advising of what the machines do and showing a graphic of the naked image as seen by the screener or were travelers just being directed toward the machines without knowing what they were?

Please continue writing on your experiences at airports as it is only through reports from extremely credible persons such as yourself that pressure will be brought to bare that will result in the TSA being brought under control.

Thank you.

Comment by Jenn

November 10, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

Thank you for including the information that you learned through your “field interview” with the TSA agent patting you down. The last time I was randomly selected at SFO, I asked the agent patting me down why I had been selected from the line. She replied, “I don’t have to tell you. I don’t have to answer your questions.”

My husband and I requested to speak to a manager and asked again why I had been screened. He spoke in private to the screener, then returned with the explanation that I was wearing a skirt, and skirts can conceal things. Yes, in this instance, the skirt was an attempt to conceal my 3 month pregnancy.

I have been chosen for screening over a dozen times in the past 7 years. My husband has never been chosen. But this screening bothered me more than all the others, because I was told I do not have the right to question the process or address my accuser.

Comment by Dedicated_Dad

November 11, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

I’m a very, very caucasian, nordic-looking guy. Just under average height, stocky but relatively athletic build. Short hair and a close-cropped goatee.

Every single time I fly, I get selected for “special treatment” — with minor exception I’ll cover below.

I’m also handicapped – one of my legs is horribly mangled from an accident. It’s full of metal, and never fails to set off their metal-detector. I WOULD think this is the cause of my “special treatment” but many times I’m sent off to the “special” line before the detector.

Every time I fly, I wear shorts so they can see the huge scars and skin-grafts on my leg. This is apparently still not enough to alleviate “concern” when their wand goes off as they pass the scars. So many times the jack-boots have literally squeezed my leg – right on the scars which are still painful.

I’ve gotten to the point that when they start I’ll tell them “PLEASE don’t touch the scars or grafts – they HURT.” Doesn’t seem to matter.

On one – sudden and unplanned – trip, I was as usual sent over for “special” screening. I was carrying a small backpack I’d used the day before for a trip to the pistol range. As he ran his swab through my bag it hit me — all sorts of powder residue since I collect my empty cases for reloading. “Oh CRAP!!”

Breezed right through. Now I’m thinking “WTF??!!”

My bag was searched, and x-rayed twice, then I was finally allowed to go on.

When I got to my hotel, I emptied my backpack on the bed then inverted and shook it – as is my habit – to ensure I’d gotten everything out of it.

Imagine my shock when 4 live pistol rounds fell out on the bed…!!

To recap: explosive swabs failed to detect nitrocellulose, and 2 x-rays missed 4 live pistol rounds. Gosh, I feel SOOO much safer now – don’t YOU?!

It gets better. I have a concealed-carry permit good in 31 states. Occasionally I bring one or more pistols on my trips, especially if I’m going to a place where I can carry – sometimes to competitions. I’m VERY careful to follow the letter of the law, and always print the TSA and Airline regulations and bring them with me — because MOST of the time both airline and TSA personnel don’t know the law. I’ve had to ask for supervisors and show THEM the printed regs to avoid being forced – for example – to give them the key to my gun-box: Something the law says NEVER to do. I’ve also had them tell me “you can’t pack ammunition” when the law says quite clearly that I CAN. You know it’s a shame when you have to argue with them about the rules — ESPECIALLY when you’re right/they’re wrong and you’ve got printed proof in your hand…

Anyway, here’s the money-shot: The only trips I can remember when I was NOT sent aside for special-treatment is on the occasions when I checked a bag containing a declared pistol.

Apparently, TELLING them you have a gun in your (checked) bag is a good way to avoid being strip-searched to be sure you don’t have one on your person.

Lastly, I am completely convinced that my multiple-handgun-ownership and my habit of (legally!) travelling with them has me on some sort of “list.” They assume I have a gun on every trip, so if I CHECK one they see no need to search me thoroughly – if not, they figure I might be hiding one so I get to strip and be fondled.

This while mess is so idiotic, and so utterly incompetent I can only conclude that it’s nothing more than a show, and a “conditioning” exercize to get us in the habit of following orders like cattle.

Finally, being handicapped, running or fighting is really not an option for me, so I am NEVER without some sort of improvised weapon. Some of the things I carry are MUCH more lethal than a knife, yet none ever get a second glance from a “security screener.”

Our society is NUTS.


Comment by William R. Cumming

November 11, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

Clearly TSA must be under contract to guard the entrance and screen visitors to all DOD facilities, including FT. HOOD. In the physical security op I ran for severl US sites in FRG no weapons allowed. Weapon inventory twice a day. Random search for all weapons including pat down at Kaserne entrance and for US secure facilities. By the way was the Major at FT HOOD on meds? Did he self prescribe? I was once told by one of my expert witnesses that any competent bench chemist could enter any Supermarket or Base Commissary and gather enough in trip for needed chemicals to blow up a 4-story building. I guess TSA should be sending their highly qualified staff to advise DOD on force protection issues.

Comment by ROBERT

November 15, 2009 @ 5:51 am

Hey, anyone want to stress-test the TSA-idiot system? Fly into Cincinnati from overseas! You EXIT your plane into a TSA screening line! You are “required” to go through screening to LEAVE the airport! This is because international arrivals are debarked into a “secure” area. But it seems to me that there is ABSOLUTELY no basis for requiring someone who has ended their flight, and does not have a ticket for any continuation flight, to go through any screening whatsoever. Just say no! The only thing TSA can do is forbid you to board a plane. Or maybe you’ll end up like Tom Hanks’ character in “Terminal” — caught in limbo, never able to leave the airport? I wish I had thought of it in time the last time I flew to Cincinnati.

Comment by Baughn

November 15, 2009 @ 11:44 am

I’m a european student. I have not actually visited america for roughly ten years; considering this, and all the other blog posts on your newfound excessive security theater, I don’t believe I will either.

What’s more interesting is this:

Quite a lot of computer science conferences used to be held in america, either every year or at least fairly frequently. Over the last five years, most of these have switched to being europe-only, or at least never-america; this is universally claimed to be due to the aggravation involved in visiting america.

Similarly, we’ve seen an upswing in international students lately. Some casual questioning reveals that many of them were thinking of going to an american university, but after being subjected to suspicion (and pat-downs) during visits, they changed their minds.

I cannot help but be sympathetic to their plight, but.. this is certainly good for Europe, but the long-term effect on america will be anything but good. I sure hope you have enough good home-grown students; are there any statistics on international admissions?

Comment by John David Galt

November 15, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

The big problem with airport security as currently practiced in the US is that it’s locking the barn door long after the horse was stolen. Three of the four 9/11 attacks worked because the passengers still believed that an airplane hijacking meant you were going to be held for ransom, somewhere on the ground. But nobody believes that any more, and any future attempt will end the way Flight 93 did. The terrorists know this, and they won’t try again. So screening passengers AT ALL any more is just stupid.

Which doesn’t mean aircraft can’t be used again. If I were head of TSA I’d be looking for (a) another Lockerbie bomb, perhaps sent by postal mail; (b) hijacking of a cargo aircraft, perhaps by stowaways aboard a cargo container; or (c) rogue-owned aircraft, probably not launched from an airport. But mostly I’d be looking for kinds of attacks not involving transportation systems at all.

Mark: I agree with you that this stuff needs to stop. Unfortunately, the TSA is a bureaucracy and as impervious to complaints from Americans as from foreigners. I probably will not fly again unless some court upholds a challenge under the Bill of Rights, which probably will not happen any time soon.

Comment by Amelia

November 16, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

i had a friend flying shortly after 9/11, from honolulu to minneapolis for her brother’s birthday. being practical, what he asked her for as a gift was an alarm clock. she found him a digital clock, and had it gift wrapped in her carry-on bag. at the last minute she decided to throw in something fun, and without thinking of it threw some fireworks into the bag with the clock.

she was flying with an explosive and a timing devise. and didn’t get stopped.

but that kid with the snowglobe, he’s trouble.

Comment by Lee McMillian

November 16, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

I was “randomly” searched on 11 out of 13 trips through Hobby Airport in Houston. I am a 50+ year old white male, over six feet tall, and height/weight proportional. Former deputy sheriff, lawyer for two decades, former deputy district attorney. After this run of “random” bad luck, I wrote letters to the President and Board of Directors of Southwest Airlines, POTUS, my congressman, senator, local Unites States Attorney, Tom Ridge(then head of Homeland Security), the US Attorney General, and the presiding judge for the local Federal District Court. I have never been “randomly” searched since at any location.
It’s not random, folks. They just push you arond until you won’t put up with it any more.
Don;t hold your breath to see a person of middle eastern appearance searched.

Comment by Sebastian

November 18, 2009 @ 6:08 am

…I used to get searched every damned time i flew! I would feel annoyed, and act accordingly. Then i started adopting a more friendly “hey, it’s not YOUR fault i’m being searched” attitude…would make small talk and just generally make the poor guy/gal who had to piss people off all day long happy and relieved that they got to search ME of all people. Eventually, over a couple of years, I am now NEVER searched!

what’s the point of getting pissy and rude over something you have no control over? do you think THEY like searching you? Everyone knows it’s a 99.999999% waste of time…so dont torture them, and they’ll probably put you on their “good boy/girl” list.

Comment by Nola Lee Kelsey

November 18, 2009 @ 9:53 am

Random? Not for me. As I get selected at least 80%+ of the time anyway, I now just automatically walk over to secondary. You can’t really blame them. As one of those pudgy 40 something blondes with translucent Scandinavian skin, I look so unlike a terrorist type it must either be the perfect disguise or I perfectly fit the quota needed to make TSA look like they are not profiling bearded men. I just keep a magazine out and flip through it while they unstuff my perfectly packed carry on. Ho hum.

Comment by Anthony

December 1, 2009 @ 12:54 am

Unbeleivable incompetence of TSA, not enough male screeners so screen women only, were’nt the 9-11 hijackers all MALE!!!!!!!

Comment by JG

December 8, 2009 @ 6:02 am

The brilliance of airport screenings is scary.

A few years back, I was at Tampa late at night, with a child, for our return trip to Milwaukee. Tampa is a nice airport, with a little shuttle train to the terminals. However, the brilliant TSA placed the security screening checkpoint right after you got off the train; we got off and proceeded to wait through a crowded and cramped queue line for about a half an hour, all the while being yelled at to keep packing in, since the trains seemed to be delivering people more rapidly than TSA was clearing them.

I was thinking it was hard enough to do this with a kid. However, directly in front of us was a group of seniors, who patiently waited through the whole thing. They got to the first TSA agent. She eyeballed them, and told them to remove their shoes. Two of them did without trouble, but the oldest lady could not. There was no place to sit. We ended up watching her companions hold her under her armpits while she bent over to remove her shoes.

Worse? These were summer sandals. You know the kind. They’ve got cardboard-thin soles and some basic straps to hold them on the foot. There’s literally nothing substantial to them. After watching this drama unfold for several minutes, I turned to the TSA agent and asked if that was really necessary to make her remove her shoes.

She gets this very indignant, pompous look on her face and says to me in a loud voice “Well, you know we had a shoe bomber, SIR!” Like I’m an ignorant idiot who is interfering with her protecting us from the old lady’s sandals.

I mean, come on. I don’t really mind being asked to take off my workboots too much. They’re steel-toed and they have thick soles. Possibly a threat.

However, the threat model is all wrong for the old lady.

Terrorists are more likely to be interested in attacking during the day, when they can leverage live media coverage.

Terrorists are more likely to be interested in bigger, fuel-laden planes, not a regional’s little MD-80’s.

To assume that a group of grandparents is actually a dangerous terrorist cell that’s developed a new super-thin explosive that is embedded in the lady’s wafer-thin shoes is much less likely than the possibility that you’re just a real ass for making her remove her obviously non-dangerous shoes so she can get on her late night low risk flight.

But I can see how you might think that… if you’ve had a total lobotomy.

Comment by Seattlite

December 17, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

This is a few years ago at a tiny regional airport with 5 gates. I originally went through security with about an hour until my flight was scheduled to leave. I was about 25 and an average looking white female.

Going through screening I was “randomly” selected. They ran a cloth pad over my carry-on and put it into a machine (haven’t seen this for a couple years now). Whatever they were looking for came up as a hit. The person running the machine was shocked and therefore ran a new cloth over the same location like 10 more times. All of them set the machine off.

She took EVERYTHING out of my bag and felt along everywhere in it to see if there was a hidden area or anything. She then went through everything that was in my bag and didn’t find anything. She then called a supervisor over and told them what was going on. They ran a couple more cloths over different parts of my bag and identified and exact location that was alerting the machine.

While they’re testing my bag and going through my things, but flight is repeatedly announced over the loudspeaker.

Eventually they start questioning me. Do I own any firearms? Have I been near any firearms or to any firing ranges? Do I deal with chemicals? I answered everything they asked and told them I had no idea how anything like that could have gotten into my bag. The only thing I could remember happening is that on my last trip some of my conditioner had leaked out of a bottle and gotten on the bag. They stepped away for a bit to confer. I mentioned to them that my flight was on the final boarding call and I didn’t want to miss it. They told me, “This is about national security.”

Finally they came back to me said they were going to have to pat me down and make me sign something. They did the pat down (honestly I don’t remember how thorough it was) and made me re-answer all of the questions they asked me before on a form. Then I had to explain that I had spilled conditioner in my bag and try to remember what brand it was. I went ahead and signed it – only because I was REALLY afraid I was going to miss my flight. They had started paging me, using my name.

The screeners were happy with my filling out of the form and wished me a nice day. The airline gate person read me the riot act for holding up the plane.

I just remember thinking at the time: “How did making me sign something make anything any safer?”

Comment by hwKeitel

December 31, 2009 @ 5:40 am

“If the green lamp, you proceeded through to the scanners. If the red light, you stepped aside for additional screening.”

this is a great way to enforce the random selection, but you lose the intuition of a good screener. a skilled and experienced screener should notice the behaviour of the people (sweating, nerviness, etc.). having a beard or being a woman is not random and not a suspicious fact.

Comment by Norm Grande

January 4, 2010 @ 10:32 am

Check out how security could be done better…


Comment by danny thompson

November 23, 2010 @ 4:18 am

I was RANDOMLY selected on 3 consecutive flights in USA…when I asked why and how could it be random the security agent asked when I had booked my flight and was it one-way when I told him that tickets had been booked recently and one-way he said “Oh ! that’s it then you will always be checked ” I then told him that he had just told me how to get by random searches. handy advice for me if I was a “Bad Guy”….some security…worrying isn’t it ??

Comment by J. Anthony Carter

April 22, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

When is this inane travesty going to end? It started with G.W.(Idiot) Bush using “Terrorism” as a bugaboo to scare us all into giving him ultimate power over his own citizenry and then he places a Gestapo-type department in charge of “supposed” airport security, but whose real job is humiliating, harassing and insulting Americans INSIDE of our own country!
This IS NOT the land of the free and the home of the brave! We HAVE to totally eliminate Homeland Security and every one of their untrained, incompletely trained, lying, Nazis NOW! There is no need for “terrorism” security IN the USA! No need for people to irradiate us without our consent! No need for strange, incompetent, idiots to grope us like we’re in prison and have to be checked for “shivs” and fingernail clippers! NO NEED!! Stop the freakin’ INSANITY!!!

Comment by Kara

June 18, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

I never thought I would be treated like a criminal in a country that I was born and raised in! After traveling with my 12 yr. old daughter today at the SNA airport and having the metal detector beep at me because I was being “randomly” chosen for additional screening as my 12 year old was told to go a different direction, left to take care of our 5 bins of security “stuff” by herself and get away from her criminal Mom. A cocky, too much powered TSA male worker, the same one that took 10 minutes on our boarding passes, drawing all over them, RAN to get in front of me snapping his gloves and said, “didn’t expect to see me again!” even though there was a TSA woman in front of me that was ready to do the screening, he backed off when I said, “what the h**## do you think you are doing?”, he said, “Oh, there is a woman here to do this.” After she swabbed me for explosives on my hands, because all white mid 40 Mom’s are out playing with gunpowder before we board planes, she said she didn’t need to pat me down. Wow, that little TSA powered idiot just made me feel like a harassed, powerless criminal and made my daughter very upset that her Mom was chosen out like a terrorist and she was separated from me.
The U.S. TSA is treating us worse than criminals, they at least have rights! We can’t even question this kind of treatment as our will for flying is gone! I will not fly again without my husband, but according to the other comments, this may not even help. Being a white woman in her mid 40’s is now the discrimination that is facing our country if you want to fly anywhere!
It is out of control and something has to be done. A terrorist will find a way to hurt us if they really want to. In the meantime, the innocent, just trying to fly in and out of the U.S., will be harassed, discriminated and abused for no reason!!!

Pingback by links for 2009-11-11 | zota

December 17, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

[…] “Where are all the white guys?” — Update on “Do I have the right to refuse this search.” |… I said “If you are only selecting women, how is that random?” […]

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