Monday, November 29, 2010

TSA Miscues

The TSA is once again receiving bad press. The TSA has an impossible task – to safeguard millions of passengers and tens of thousands of flights daily from terrorist attacks. Risk free is an impossible goal to achieve with airline safety and security short of grounding all planes.

The magnitude of operations precludes TSA from adopting El Al’s effective security. El Al emphasizes looking at the person. TSA’s focus is searching for objects.

I have experienced no problems with TSA security checks at airports. I have found the TSA agents to be professionals. I’ve surrendered toiletries on a few occasions, but that’s my fault. My only complaint is one time when TSA opened a checked-in bag, they couldn’t figure out to rezipper the twin zippers. Thus the bag came down the luggage carousal with the zippers open and the clothes falling out.

Having said that, mistakes will be made by any agency with that many employees who have to be trained on short notice, both in policy decisions and implementation.

Some of these mistakes are ludicrous. Others are stupid, some offensive to the very sense of human decency, and some may be criminal.

As with any war, the defense must play catchup with the offense. Thus every new threat encourages a greater defensive response by TSA. Banned are box cutters, scissors and knifes, nail cutters, and liquids, and now the new full body scans and enhanced pat downs.

Some of the recent TSA foibles center around the new enhanced pat down rules, which prove that the truth can be stranger than fiction.

Thomas Sawyer, a bladder cancer survivor, wears a urostomy bag, which collects his urine directly from an opening in his stomach. TSA officers ignored his warnings about the bag. He cautioned the officer doing a pat down that if he continued to slide his hands down Sawyer’s chest, the seal on the bag would burst. The officer ignored his admonitions, and the bag burst, covering Sawyer with urine. The officers then told Sawyer to go to his plane.

A U.S. Airways flight attendant, a breast cancer survivor, was ordered to remove her prosthesis during a pat down. This practice, as well as enhanced pat downs, are more common than we might imagine for travelers with prosthetics and body replacement parts which set off the machines.

John Pistole, TSA’s Administrator, claims the agency is responsive to the needs of the disabled.

The TSA changed its procedures to require pilots and flight attendants to go through the same security checks as passengers. The Agency was obviously concerned that pilots would smuggle box cutters or explosives onto a plane. Bureaucracies often lack common sense. If a pilot wishes to destroy a passenger plane, all the pilot has to do is fly it into the ground or the ocean, as may have happened with EgyptAir Flight 990 on October 31, 1999 off Nantucket.

TSA just rescinded the rule for pilots, and then followed up with waiving the rules for flight attendants.

We can watch the recent videos of the young boy and three year old girl receiving the enhanced pat down. You and I would be subject to arrest for child abuse if we engaged in such conduct.

Administrator Pistole testified to Congress on November 17 that children under 12 are exempted from pat downs. The enhanced pat down of the young boy occurred two days later on November 19.


Over the weekend President Obama tried to defend the indefensible.

This is the same TSA that last January in New Orleans confiscated a child’s Christmas present from his grandmother – Play Doo, which is not on a proscribed list. The screener must have thought a child’s Play Doo contained plastic explosives.

At the same time five bottles of honey in checked in luggage shut down Bakersfield Airport.

Back in 2002 a privately employed security guard at JFK Airport, following TSA rules, forced a mother to drink from her three bottles of expressed milk before being allowed to board the flight to Miami. TSA regulations at the time allowed inspectors to require passengers to dink from “suspicious” containers.

Sikhs remain both confused at dismayed at TSA policies applicable to them. TSA in October 2007 gives screeners the discretion to pat down headwear, such as the turbans Sikhs wear.

As a side note, members of Congress, Governors, and cabinet members are exempt from the airport screening requirements if they are accompanied by armed escorts.

These TSA misadventures raise an interesting question. The liberal advocates of privacy who harangued the Bush Administration and the Patriot Act with federal officials hunting down your library records are strangely silent when the liberal Obama Administration is patting down flyer’s genitals. By any reasonable view of privacy, the enhanced TSA pat downs are much greater invasions of personal privacy affecting millions of flyers than a search, with a warrant, of a few people’s library records.

Here’s the problem as airport check ins become increasingly more intrusive as the threats rise. The underwear and shoe bombers failed. A year ago an unsuccessful attempt by a suicide bomber was made on the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister. The explosives were concealed in the suicide bomber’s body cavity.

Let’s see what TSA’s response will be when one of those goes off.

Perhaps Pogo was right. We have met the enemy and he is us.

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