What’s the problem with the TSA’s pat-downs?

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By Christopher Elliott

Michelle Dunaj, the terminally ill passenger who claims TSA agents in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport botched her pat-down, drew a visceral reaction from travelers with the humiliating details of her screening.

Readers were outraged that agents at Sea-Tac, an airport where TSA employees have a reputation for being difficult, would subject a dying passenger to such indignities. (And if you don’t believe me, read these comments from the wire story that ran on the Huffington Post.)

But largely missing from the discussion is this question: Do these pat-downs accomplish anything?

Absolutely not, says Robert Yamin. And he ought to know. He’s a retired Baltimore cop, an expert witness, and he knows how to frisk a suspect.

The pat-downs done by TSA agents, says Yamin, are fake.

You must touch what?

“To really search you must basically but gently grab the testicles and feel if there is something hidden there,” he said after reading last week’s column about the passenger who says an agent whacked him in the groin after he asked to opt out of a screening. “I have been through TSA security about 40 times since 9/11. I have only been properly searched once.”

Yamin says the bad guys — at least the smart ones — would exploit this vulnerability if they wanted to commit an act of airborne terrorism. Specifically, they would carry a gun or knife strapped to their upper thigh or under their testicles. Then they would opt out of the full body scanner and allow the poorly-trained TSA agents to give them a pass.

“An agent would never notice or feel [the hidden weapons],” he says.

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The number is still zero

The TSA says its pat-downs are an effective part of its vaunted 20 layers of security. When asked to prove it, the agency points to its week in review page on its blog, in which it shows off all of the contraband it confiscated from passengers.

But critics say the same results could be achieved by setting up random checkpoints anywhere in America with the rent-a-cops the TSA agents replaced after 9/11. They say a more effective measure would be the number of terrorists caught after being frisked.

That number is still zero.

I’m a skeptic. I’ve experienced several “enhanced” pat-downs, most recently yesterday in Washington. It was thorough but I probably could have hidden a six-shooter in my shorts and the agent wouldn’t have found it. He didn’t want to make contact with my testicles — euphemistically referred to as “resistance” in TSA lingo — any more than I did. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you’re traveling.)

The TSA is a circus

Maybe the Dunaj story provoked the right discussion at the wrong time. Yes, we should be talking about how we treat a terminally ill passenger who poses no threat to anyone, particularly at a time when the TSA’s own leadership is distancing itself from a one-size-fits all-screening.

But this is no time to be falling down a rabbit hole, even one this important. Rather, since we are just days from a presidential election, we should be discussing the bigger issue. Why are American citizens who have done nothing wrong being frisked like prisoners in the first place?

I asked Yamin.

He said it’s all for show. “It’s like a circus,” he told me.

And the criminals and terrorists know it, they know how to exploit it, and the only thing the ineffective pat-downs do is make some people feel safer.

The Dunaj episode points us to a greater truth about pat-downs, say experts like Yamin. Most of the layers of security are little more than illusions reinforced by a government agency that feeds off the paranoia and fear of the masses. Doing away with them would make America’s transportation systems no less safe.

The TSA claims Dunaj was screened correctly and implied she’s just a complainer. My colleague Steven Frischling even made a brave effort to contact the TSA supervisor in Seattle who oversaw her screening. Here’s his post, in which he says he debunks her account (warning — the comments contain some salty language).

So who do we believe?

It’s a real he said/she said, isn’t it?

So who do you believe — the claims of a career bureaucrat demanding anonymity or the assertions of a terminally ill passenger with nothing to lose? Or the mother who claims that she has been sexually assaulted?

I don’t know. That’s a tough one.

We shouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place. Dunaj should have been allowed to fly without being hassled, or without feeling as if she was hassled.

So should the rest of us.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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