What Can the TSA Get Away With In the Name of Security?

Airports are always a flurry of activity, but this week they’ve been a hotbed of news stories. During the same time as #LeggingsGate, Jennifer Williamson posted a video on Facebook Sunday that showed her son, Aaron, enduring a two-minute, invasive pat down from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

In her original post, Williamson writes about their two-hour ordeal, believed to have been brought on because Aaron forgot he had a laptop in his book bag. The TSA told Williamson that her son would have to submit to a pat-down even though he did not set off the body scanner. She asked the agents to screen her son in “other ways” because he has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). In an oversimplification of the condition, SPD is a neurological disorder where those affected are overly sensitive to environmental stimuli and have trouble processing and responding appropriately. Williamson said that her family were “treated like dogs.” Two DFW Airport police officers were also called in to pat down her son, “flanking him on each side.”

The video shows the TSA agent patting Aaron down thoroughly along his body with both the front and back of his hands, including running fingers along the inside of shorts, the front of his shorts, and in-between his thighs. If you haven’t had the opportunity to watch the video, please do. It is honestly one of the creepiest things I’ve seen in awhile. I do not understand how anyone watching wasn’t disturbed by Grandpa Gropes-A-Lot thoroughly examining a 12-year-old child in such a way.

“I believe he was patted down excessively,” Williamson told reporters in an interview. “They went over his sensitive areas, a little more than necessary, especially given that he wasn’t wearing bulky clothing or anything like that.”  The TSA has since reached out to the Williamson family, explaining that the procedure was completed to standard but that they welcomed feedback to improve their processes.

"TSA engaged in conversation with Ms. Williamson to learn more about her family’s screening experience at Dallas Fort Worth airport. While the proper procedures were followed, we appreciate her feedback and look forward to continued dialogue. TSA has a long standing partnership with a coalition of disability advocacy groups, community-based organizations and individuals, and we welcome Ms. Williamson’s input. TSA is committed to ensuring the security of travelers, while treating all with dignity and respect."

It seems as though this will be the new trend. As of March 2, the TSA announced an elimination of multiple types of physical pat-downs in favor of a single, universal approach. The change is partly the result of an undercover audit in 2015 by the Inspector General’s Office of Homeland Security that revealed major lapses in security. There were even warnings that police and the security organization itself were expecting more complaints as they described the new physicals as “intimate.”

That’s clearly what everyone wants: to become more physically intimate with some TSA agents.

Every week- and almost every day recently- we hear about new nightmare stories regarding the TSA, who take the opposite approach to the American way: you’re guilty until proven innocent. The problem is, the general consensus in the population is that the TSA is a joke. Nearly 90% of frequency flyers expressed unhappiness with the agency in a recent poll. It caught no one by surprise that the TSA missed a whopping 95% of guns and bombs in airport security tests back in 2015. Hell, there are reports from as recent as yesterday that the TSA missed a gun in a woman’s purse. Katrina Jackson of Hoover, Alabama, discovered that she still had her .38-caliber handgun while searching for her passport in her bag, and went to the police herself. TSA has since fired the screener.

I don’t think it really matters, though. If the TSA ever actively stops terrorist plots, they don’t admit it. They can claim that it’s for security purposes all they want, but when a TSA agent is groping a 65-year old woman because she was wearing a panty-liner, I have serious doubts about their effectiveness. The argument that the mere presence of TSA airport screeners deters terrorist attacks is moot in my opinion; there were private contractors handling checkpoints before the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 went into effect.

At what point are we sacrificing our freedoms by giving into these security fears? If a simple feminine hygiene product can be grounds for an invasive search, where do we draw the line? In the Tri-Cities Airport alone, over 40 harassment complaints were filed in the last year, with at least a quarter of them linked to humiliating, invasive physical touching. Sexual complaints are regularly filed with the agency as well it seems. Many more were about alleged damaged and missing personal items. The TSA has been failing its mandate since its inception: it failed tests in 2003, 91% failure rate at Newark Liberty International in 2006, 75% failure rate at Los Angeles International in 2007, more failures in 2008. These are only a few examples, and only the publicly released results. Who knows what internal reports the TSA has kept out of the media?

I understand that security screening is an incredibly boring job, and it’s hard to stay constantly vigilant. Technological failures are also inevitable. For example, screening technologies we have right now are terrible at detecting the plastic explosive PETN (that’s what the underwear bomber had) and that a disassembled weapon can pretty much always make it through airport security. You can even use items allowed by the TSA to stab people. We haven’t even delved into the discrimination and blatant racial profiling of passengers; where retired police chief Hassan Aden of North Carolina was detained for almost two hours; CNN’s Angela Rye- who has a Homeland Security background- endured a humiliating, invasive pat-down; and trauma surgeon Christine Trankiem was escorted to a private room for an intense search.

“In [the separate room] I found at least two dozen travelers; all but two had varying shades of brown and yellow skin,” Trankiem said. “Never in my life did I ever think that as an American citizen I would be subject to this kind of racial profiling and scrutiny. It makes me fearful of the climate of our country and where we are headed.”

Look, we don’t need perfect airport security. We need security that’s good enough to dissuade someone from building a plot around evading it. If someone is caught with a gun or a bomb, the TSA calls the FBI. Bruce Schneier expertly coined the term “security theater,” and I cannot think of a better description for our TSA. My apologies to the individuals at the agency, but I have yet to see the effectiveness of any of their measures.

The TSA is failing to defend us against the threat of terrorism; thankfully, terrorists are much rarer than we think. Sorry President Trump, I know it goes against your constant fear mongering, but launching a terrorist plot is much more difficult than we think. The attacks being covered by the media as of late are far and few between. The TSA’s consistently high failure rates of detecting threats seem like the overarching powers we’ve given them at airports are just for show, and I find it hard to justify the invasions of privacy and personal space we’ve allowed them.

We need to question why we are constantly expanding the powers given to the TSA, especially as their results are abysmal. Bring it back to a time when a video of a TSA agent using the front of his hands on a 12-year old boy’s genital area would be evidence in a courtroom, not “protocol,” or else it might be time for the curtain to close on this security show.

Related News