How to survive an “enhanced” TSA pat-down

It happened to me yesterday. I got my first “enhanced” pat-down.

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One minute I was loading my laptop, shoes and liquids into bins on the conveyer belt at Washington National airport, and the next moment, an agent was pointing me toward an empty full-body scanner.

“No, thank you,” I said.

And then I felt my heart beginning to pound.

Before I continue, a disclaimer: I have a complicated relationship with the TSA. It has served me with an illegal subpoena and misled me, if not lied to me, on several occasions. As a result of my experiences, my coverage of the agency has been appropriately critical.

If I could avoid flying altogether, like Alaska state Rep. Sharon Cissna, I would. TSA’s current screening techniques raise several serious privacy concerns, and I’d just as soon not deal with it at all.

But since I don’t have the time or the means to make the 14-hour drive between Washington and Orlando, I had to choose between an untested full-body scan and an invasive, enhanced pat-down.

This probably wasn’t the best week for a known TSA critic like me to be flying. There had been a lot of interesting TSA news to report, and I had a hand in some of it.

First, there was the issue of the Seattle-area cafe that allegedly refused to serve TSA agents. I’m not quite sure how a lightly-sourced anecdote on a blog post could make national news, even when I clearly explained where the comment came from.

The most surprising response to this event wasn’t the TSA’s denial that such a cafe exists (even if it doesn’t know) but that some of my readers thought I’d violated a source’s confidence by revealing her name.

In fact, KC had given me her name and pushed the “submit” button to publish her comment on my site. In a follow-up email, she only said she didn’t want the name of the cafe revealed, which I haven’t done.

Why did KC’s difficult-to-verify story make it all the way to cable TV? It wasn’t who she was — or wasn’t — but what she said. Her succinct criticism of the TSA’s heavy-handed screening practices resonated with readers.

Some of you have asked me why I gave her comments a platform, even when I couldn’t confirm every detail of her story. That’s a good question, and one that online media struggles with every day.

It comes down to this: Do we trust our readers? Had KC’s email bounced back to me, I probably wouldn’t have used her anecdote. But she told a believable story, and at the end of the day, I do trust my readers.

Here’s yet another story that’s difficult to prove, but shocking if true. The video (above) of two kids being patted down after they got off a train in Savannah, Ga.

(Update: A little sleuthing by fellow journalist Lisa Simeone suggests it’s true. TSA has come to Amtrak. Very troubling. TSA has now responded to the incident, too. )

The person who recored it explains:

There were about 14 agents pulling people inside the building and coralling everyone in a roped area AFTER you got OFF THE TRAIN! This made no sense!!! Poor family in front of us! 9 year old getting patted down and wanded. They groped our people too and were very unprofessional.

Makes no sense to me, either.

Earlier this month, I reported about a series of thefts by TSA agents in New York. Last week, another agent in Newark pleaded guilty in federal court to stealing thousands from travelers along with his supervisor during checkpoint screenings. Al Raimi, 29, of Woodbridge, NJ, admitted he stole between $10,000 and $30,000 while he worked as a TSA agent. He reportedly gave some of that money to his supervisor, Michael Arato, who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and kickbacks in the case earlier this month.

And then there’s Charlie Sheen’s anti-TSA rant. Enough said.

So how did I survive my TSA pat-down without pulling a Charlie Sheen?

The TSA agent — I didn’t get his name — asked me to follow him to the back of the screening area.

“Are there any sensitive areas?” he asked as he pulled on a pair of latex gloves.

“No,” I said. “But I’m a little under the weather. I might be contagious.” (This is true. I’m not feeling too well this morning.)

The agent then ran his gloved hands along my arms and sides. He turned me around and did the same thing up my leg, stopping just above my knee.

He didn’t come close to my genital area, for which I was grateful. But now I understand why they call it an “enhanced” pat down. There’s some degree of force involved. At one point, I almost was pushed over, but I quickly righted myself. The agent apologized.

I’m hesitant to offer advice for surviving a pat-down, because I don’t think this should be happening in the first place. But it is.

So here are my thoughts:

Introduce yourself. Give the TSA agent your name and ask for his. I wish I had done that. “Hi, I’m Chris, what’s your name?” That humanizes you and puts the screener on notice that he can’t withdraw into anonymity if something goes wrong with your screening. I believe knowing your screener’s name increases the likelihood that your pat-down will be done by the book.

Be polite. Unless you want to make a political statement, being cordial is the best way to make it through a pat-down quickly. You may believe, as I do, that these screenings violate the Fourth Amendment. And oddly enough, the screener might agree with you. But keep your thoughts to yourself. Feel free to post your comments afterwards on this site, though.

If you feel something, say something. At any time during the screening, if you believe the screener is overstepping his or her boundaries, speak up. Just say, “I’m uncomfortable,” or “I’m sensitive in that area.” Nine times out of ten, they’ll probably back off. The agents don’t want an incident any more than you do.

I still believe the TSA’s current screening policies are misguided, but my generally positive pat-down experience gives me hope that the agency may improve its screening techniques to comply with a little document we refer to as the United States Constitution.