TSA Watch: After Osama’s death, are screeners spreading confusion and fear?

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of “TSA Watch,” a new weekly column about the federal agency charged with protecting America’s transportation systems. Why? Because no one else is.

The TSA’s response to Osama Bin Laden’s death last week couldn’t have been less clear — or more self-serving.

Here’s an event that many believed would directly affect the way people travel. They felt a prudent move would be to tighten security at airports, train stations and other public areas, for fear of a retaliatory attack by Al Qaeda.

Instead, the agency charged with protecting the nation’s transportation systems said nothing for several days, allowing us to speculate about our upcoming trips. Would we all be patted down at the airport? Stopped at a checkpoint on the bridge? Strip-searched before we boarded the subway?

Then TSA released a statement more than four days after the event that essentially said nothing:

I can reassure you that we’re constantly looking at current intelligence to evaluate and adapt our procedures to keep the flying public safe.

Passengers may continue to notice a variety of security measures at U.S. airports to include the use of physical bag checks, random gate screening, explosives detection technology, canine teams and behavior detection officers.

We ask that you remain vigilant when you travel and report any suspicious activity to the authorities.

It gets worse. The next day, the TSA issued another a press release. Good idea, right? Maybe it could further clarify the post-Osama security precautions. But no. Instead, it published a silly statement extolling its shoe-removal requirement.

Related story:   On airline seat size law, Senate is on the wrong side of history


So the bad guys are threatening holy jihad against America, and TSA is high-fiving itself over a knife found in a passenger’s shoes in San Juan? I don’t have to tell you there’s something wrong, very wrong, with this picture.

In fairness to TSA, the Department of Homeland Security did issue a statement on Monday about its security posture after Osama’s death. But it was even more vague than TSA’s, saying only that the United States remained “at a heightened state of vigilance” but that it wouldn’t take any additional steps.

Let’s pull back a little and get some perspective on this. Just a few days before TSA’s non-response to Osama’s death, it did another questionable thing. It had children manning its screening areas.

I’m not making this up. Here’s a firsthand report. A passenger reported having his ID checked by an eight-year-old boy (part of “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day”) in State College, Pa. The post caused a little dustup in the frequent flier community, which questioned why children would be allowed to perform vital security functions.

In an unusual move, the TSA’s notorious “Blogger Bob” responded in the comments of his last post to critics. “While what you read about or witnessed may seem odd, the children were not making any security decisions,” he wrote.

As if that didn’t confuse passengers enough — and I’ve gotta tell you, if I’d had a six-year-old-girl ask me if I wanted to be scanned or patted down, I might have been thrown for a loop — there was this. Earlier in the week, the TSA released a few details of its plan to selectively screen passengers to a reporter who had been more cooperative with the agency than yours truly. (No, they don’t let me talk with Administrator John Pistole, even when I’m on assignment for one of my big-name, A-list media outlets. They know better.)

Related story:   The Insider: Read this before your next TSA screening

The plan was as troubling as it was vague. TSA apparently wants to exempt certain elite-level frequent fliers from screening, but not always. They don’t want to be too predictable, says Pistole.

Personally, I don’t believe any of it. If TSA is making a statement to the press the very next day on the virtues of having us take our shoes off at the airport, then it’s either lying to us or to the reporter. Care to guess who’s being duped?

So why would the TSA want to spread fear and confusion after Osama’s demise? Easy. The more fearful we are, the more compliant we become. We won’t question the scanners, the pat-downs, the shoe removal, the random gate checks. We won’t mind being stopped on the Metro and interrogated or pulled over at a checkpoint on the road and searched.

Why? Because we are afraid the terrorists will get us, and we incorrectly believe the only thing standing between us and them are an army of underpaid, poorly-trained screeners with no law enforcement ability whatsoever.

The Department of Homeland Security seems to be positioning Bin Laden’s death as an excuse to bulk up its security apparatus. But while ramping up the fear and confusion certainly serves the system, does it also serve the taxpayers that fund it?

If anything, maybe this is a good time to consider dismantling the reactionary, incompetent and unconstitutional security machine that was created after 9/11.

(Photo: gTa rded/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • I will forever more boycott flying until the TSA is gone

  • Frank Clarke

    Christopher Elliot guilty of bait-and-switch? Say it ain’t so! After correctly labeling TSA “unconstitutional”, the only options in the poll are ‘scale it up a little’, ‘scale it down a little’, and ‘keep it the same’. Why no ‘scale it down to zero’?

    That’s the only choice I could vote for.

  • @facebook-100000180732678:disqus Good point! I would have added “get rid of TSA altogether” to the poll, but Zoomerang won’t let me do that to an active poll. But you’re right. That should have been an option.

  • Cheryl

    I just got back from Athens, Greece, traveling through Heathrow, they randomly ask people to remove their shoes. I guess I’ve been well trained, security told me as I was taking them off, it wasn’t necessary!

  • JJWeldon

    The premise is false – they don’t have to spread anything. You have to do what they tell you, and you have no recourse. They don’t have to change your attitude about anything.

    Think about that the next time you pull the lever for your incumbent.

    Also, in case you had not noticed, the TSA wasn’t the ones who were threatening or spreading rumors about retaliation. That was the folks at Al Qaeda. But it is nice of you to give Lisa another day to post her links and rant.

  • Chris, I find it remarkable you get on a plane at all when you’re traveling! I imagine you’re certainly a thorn in the side of TSA.

    Like you, I was sure the country would be on heightened security following the death of Bin Laden but TSA went on with their “business as usual” attitude. I guess when an agency is already a huge screw up, they have no choice but to give us more of the same.

  • Anonymous

    I want another option to vote: Disband the TSA and return airport security to it’s state on 9/10/01. When was the last hijacking before 2001?

    Just remember, according to the TSA: bin Laden is dead. Keep fear alive!

  • cjr001

    It’s TSA: they’re ALWAYS spreading confusion and fear.

    And quite honestly, I don’t like the poll options. bin Laden’s death or not, TSA should be completely dismantled and started over from the ground up.

  • None

    Elite-level flyers? That’s code for wealthy & influential. A way for them to not screen politicians. Given a reasonable alternative I’d never fly again.

  • Leeannewrites

    Bravo Christopher! It’s so refreshing to see someone in the media actually calling out the TSA on their increasingly boneheaded activities and posturing. They are the biggest waste of taxpayer dollars in America today – and the biggest threat to our freedom. DISBAND THE TSA!

  • MarkieA

    Reading the attached article about “trusted passengers” makes me think; frequent traveler = trusted traveler? Really? How about the men and the women in the military? How about all of those folks with high-level security clearances who work for the Government? Are these not “trusted” passengers? As soon as the terrorists figure out that frequent = trusted, and trusted means little or no security screening, you can be sure that they will be taking lots more trips.

  • Leeannewrites

    @a045430ff91c6e152085d049994070d9:disqus – you seem to be operating under the mistaken impression that terrorists are still targeting domestic air travel in the US. REALLY? where are you your information? Since terrorists ALREADY could easily thwart the ridiculous security-theater being performed by the TSA, and yet are not…why would they bother trying to exploit a trusted-traveler program?

    You seem to forget that they don’t even need to do that. The ways in which they could get past TSA checkpoints now are many and varied. The whole liquids thing is a joke – you can already carry on more than enough liquid explosives to blow up a plane – as long as you have them split up into 3-oz containers and packed in a quart-size freedom baggie. You can sneak on more than enough plastic explosives to take down a jumbo jet simply by shoving it into an orifice. Or, just taping it to your underwear exactly the way the underwear bomber did! Remember, even the TSA has acknowledged that the nude-o-scopes wouldn’t have detected his explosives.

    Or, better yet, a terrorist who wants to target our air travel doesn’t even have to bother getting through the checkpoint. Just get in line at a crowded checkpoint, then blow himself up. He’ll take out hundreds, and make a powerful statement that our air travel network will never be safe from terrorism no matter how many 6-yr-old children or 91-yr-old grandmothers are sexually assaulted. And the terrorist wouldn’t even have to let his junk get touched by an infidel before he pulls the trigger and sends himself up to meet his 72 virgins.

    So, ask yourself — why are these things not already happening? Why would a terrorist need to bother with going to all the trouble and expense of becoming a trusted traveler, when he could take out a plane or a checkpoint NOW? And if there really are terrorists hellbent on blowing up Americans and crippling our travel infrastructure…where are they? Why haven’t they blown up a train or bus, which they could do easily right now without even having to see a TSA checkpoint?

    The answer is – we have REAL intelligence stopping terrorism before it gets to that point. The TSA is NOT intelligence. It’s a works program for uneducated Walmart rejects. It’s a theatrical presentation for the purpose of obtaining ever more funding from OUR tax dollars. It serves no purpose, it stops no terrorists. Remember, not ONE terrorist attack has been stopped by the TSA. Not one terrorist caught. Out of the thousands of “prohibited items” confiscated (aka stolen) by the TSA, you will find a dizzying assortment of boyscout pen knives, technician’s tools, and eyelash curlers (yes, they took my eyelash curler), but not ONE substance or weapon that could have taken down a plane, in today’s world of reinforced cockpit doors and aware passengers.

    No, the terrorists will not be taking more trips. At least, not here within the states. They don’t need to. They just sit around and watch us do this to ourselves. And laugh.

  • Annapolis2

    I think that screeners are actually spreading quite an intense load of contempt and rage among their passenger-victims. See this article about passengers who assault screeners:


    And note the intense language used in the comments vilifying screeners. These people are even angrier than I am!

    the real terrorists are the so-called officers… you disgust me … that excuse didn’t work for the Nazis at Nuremberg … digital rape machine … jack booted thug …. national sex offender registry …. vile piece of filth you are … you’re the same dirtbags who groped my wife … knuckle-dragging Neanderthals …. molested by the tyrant’s minions …. (none of these are my comments; I’m just reposting my favorites!)

    John Pistole will not get away with this. I hope to see him rot in prison for his crimes.

  • Brooklyn

    No group of people can be singled out as no-risk; the terrorists are not going to go through security wearing black masks and waving machetes! But neither is profiling the answer; it just means targeting the most vulnerable groups in the knowledge that they don’t have enough clout to complain. Respect for human rights isn’t something we do when it’s convenient – it has to be absolute, all the time and for everyone. Furthermore, we don’t need these precautions – they don’t work and with the cockpit doors locked, they’re absurd as well as invasive and abusive. We should go back to the level of security we had pre-9/11 and take our chances, just as we do when we ride the subway or get into our cars for a drive. Life doesn’t come with guarantees, sheeple!

  • Wow, some of those comments are intense! But I’m glad to see so many people standing up for their rights and giving the TSA the drubbing it deserves. Gives me some hope that maybe the entire country won’t roll over and play dead, and that we will, as Chris keeps saying, eventually win.

  • Zeke321

    I think everyone who flies through MCO should legally change their name to “Christopher Elliott.” Now THAT would mix things up a bit, eh? ; )

  • AnnaH

    I especially enjoyed reading this response from ‘UpsetTSO’;

    The 4th ammendment doesnt apply during the screening process. By submitting yourself and your items to be screened you are giving your CONSENT to be searched and if you take the time to read the signs that are posted everywhere it states that as well….so it doesnt violate your 4th ammendment. Therefore, we, TSA and TSO’s dont need a warrent to search your items or your person. There is no “legal molestation” with TSA and if you dont want to submit yourself or your items to be screened there is a bus or a train you can take. Just remember this, there is no security to go through with them, so ANYONE and ANYTHING can get on a bus or train!!! Goodluck with that…”If they truly believe that, I wonder how many people are allowed to leave once they’ve been told what they have to submit themselves to in order to pass security, and I wonder how many people are allowed to decline the random screenings TSA sets up – road check points, bus stops and train stations, which s/he claims is not happening. Perhaps she missed the memo or s/he is outright lying. Not to mention some locations where there are no alternatives.. unless you want to take a 3 month walk or swim there. *rolls eyes* (yes, yes, exaggeration.. but not to the fact that there are places where you travel that there simply are no viable options to flight.)

  • Crissy

    There is no money in the nation being secure, so there will always be a threat to us as a nation.

  • John

    These people are no more of threat than getting into our cars. Now that’s more of a risk. Please don’t give in to the TSA. At first it’ll be incremental pat-downs, then it’ll be total control of traveling in the name of false fears..

  • John

    American Revolution against the TSA.

  • Randy

     “maybe this is a good time to consider dismantling the reactionary, incompetent and unconstitutional security machine that was created after 9/11.”  
    I did have some faint hope that sanity might return, but, sadly, folly remains our M.O.  No matter how counter-productive, these things are never reversed.

  • I asked about the shoe removal thing at Gatwick. The answer I was given was that the metal detectors are more highly tuned than they used to be and some shoes contain metal fasteners that set it off. Thus, they are removed so you don’t set off the detector.

    The UK is less concerned about shoe bombs than about causing a bottleneck at the metal detector. Of course, their airport police are walking around with machine guns…

%d bloggers like this:
Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.