Myth or fact? TSA can’t seem to get it straight

By | November 21st, 2010

So the Transportation Security Administration wants to “get everybody on the same page with the facts” about its new security procedures by posting a roundup of rumors to dispel.

There’s just one problem: it doesn’t.

TSA’s statements twist facts, put words into the mouth of its critics, and deceive the flying public.

Let’s take closer look at the top three “myths”:

Myth: All children will receive pat-downs.

Fact: TSA officers are trained to work with parents to ensure a respectful screening process for the entire family, while providing the best possible security for all travelers. Children 12 years old and under who require extra screening will receive a modified pat down.

Actually, no one is saying that “all children” or even “everyone” will receive pat-downs. Rather, parents are concerned that if they opt their kids out of the full-body scanners, their offspring will get patted down like this three-year-old.

Here’s a video in which TSA screeners apparently remove a child’s clothing. (TSA says the boy’s father removed the shirt voluntarily.)

Fact is, TSA announced last Wednesday that it had decided to “exempt” kids 12 and under from so-called “enhanced” pat-downs. From John Pistole’s testimony:

PISTOLE: First, Senator, one thing that we did not — I did not do a good job of communicating is that children 12 and under are exempted from the enhanced patdown. So that’s one issue, because of this concerns about dealing with children.

Actually, the decision was reportedly made just last week after the agency was sued, so the TSA administrator couldn’t have done a better job of communicating this new policy. It was brand-new. What’s more, we don’t know how kids 12 and under will be screened if they opt out, because TSA won’t tell us for “security reasons.”

Related story:   Car rental FAIL? Industry misses a "D" by one point -- again

I also think this doesn’t address the bigger problem of minors being inappropriately touched by adults. Would you want your 13-year-old daughter’s vagina rubbed by a same-gender screener during an “enhanced” pat-down?

Here’s another one.

Myth: The TSA pat-down is invasive

Fact: Only passengers who alarm a walk through metal detector or AIT machine or opt out of the AIT receive a pat-down. For this reason, it is designed to be thorough in order to detect any potential threats and keep the traveling public safe. Pat-downs are performed by same-gender officers and all passengers have the right to a private screening with a travel companion at any time.

But the pat-downs are invasive. Pistole even said so in his Congressional testimony. Here’s an exchange between Sen. Dorgan and the TSA administrator.

DORGAN: What — did it make you uncomfortable? I mean, what was your impressions as a person?

PISTOLE: Yes. Yes. So it was more invasive than what I was used to. Of course, what is in my mind, from almost 27 years with the FBI and all of the counterterrorism work since 9/11 is what are the plots out there, and how are we informed by the latest intelligence and the latest technology, and what do we need to do to assure the American people that, as they travel, that we are being thorough.

So yes, it is clearly more invasive. The purpose of that is to obviously detect those type of devices that we had not seen before, for example last Christmas. I am very sensitive to and concerned about people’s privacy concerns, and I want to work through that as best we can. The bottom line is we need to provide for the best possible security.

And here’s the former TSA administrator, Kip Hawley, in a Jan. 18, 2008, interview with Congressional Quarterly.

Q. You’re testing active millimeter-wave and backscatter technology. Do you have any preliminary results?

A. They’re both good at detection. The millimeter-wave has had slightly higher acceptance rates – in the 90 percent range, 90 percent plus. The backscatter’s been in the 70-75 percent range, but the numbers are not big enough that I would draw a whole lot from that. I think the public is demanding better technology to do personal screening and I think that’s a good thing and it’s, I believe it is less invasive to use this technology than to do the pat-down. The pat-down can be pretty invasive and we like these technologies because they are effective and we have privacy measures built into them. So I think that most people realize that there really is not a privacy risk when they go through.

You’ll note that in 2008, the TSA wasn’t even using an “enhanced” pat-down yet. So you can imagine how much more “invasive” the new procedure is.

Here’s another “myth” TSA tries to dispel.

Myth: The pat-down is a punishment for opting out of the AIT.

: There’s nothing punitive about it – it just makes good security sense. And the weapons and other dangerous and prohibited items we’ve found during pat downs speak to this.

The pat-downs may make good security sense, but that doesn’t make them any less punitive.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center recently received copies of passenger complaints from the TSA through the Freedom of Information Act that directly contradicts the agency’s assertion.

In one complaint, a rape victim described her humiliation as a male TSA agent touched her body after she declined the full body scan. In another complaint, the father of an eight-year-old boy declared that he would never allow his son to fly because the scanner images amount to child pornography.

If TSA can’t “bust” the top three myths about its enhanced screening techniques, then what else is it getting wrong?

  • Dwalker

    “Same-gender screeners”.  Not all people fall neatly into one of the two primary gender categories. 

We want your feedback. Your opinion is important to us. Here's how you can share your thoughts:
  • Send us a letter to the editor. We'll publish your most thoughtful missives in our daily newsletter or in an upcoming post.
  • Leave a message on one of our social networks. We have an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and a Twitter account. Every story on this site is posted on those channels. The conversation ranges from completely unmoderated (Twitter) to moderated (Facebook and LinkedIn).
  • Post a question to our help forums or ask our advocates for a hand through our assistance intake form. Please note that our help forum is not a place for debate. It's there primarily to assist readers with a consumer problem.
  • If you have a news tip or want to report an error or omission, you can email the site publisher directly. You may also contact the post's author directly. Contact information is in the author tagline.