Transportation Silliness at Airports

When a TSA inspector at a U.S. airport says he's going to touch your genitals and asks, 'Is that OK?
Written by Nathaniel Forbes, Contributor

When a TSA inspector at a U.S. airport says he's going to touch your genitals and asks, 'Is that OK?', what's the right answer?

A uniformed Transportation Security Administration inspector at the Los Angeles airport asked me that question in December (2006).

Let me confess my bias: I believe the "security theater" (as security blogger Bruce Schneier described it) performed by the TSA at U.S. airports is a poor allocation of time, money and resources.

TSA screening at airports makes travel a lot more difficult for people who are NOT terrorists, like me, but I've not heard or read a single story of post-9/11 airport security procedures preventing an armed terrorist from boarding a plane.

In November 2005 a TSA inspector ordered a woman passenger in line in front of me to remove her denim vest – which was also her blouse – at a checkpoint in St. Louis, Missouri. The woman had to pass through the TSA check point in her brassiere.

I'm sure TSA hopes travelers will forget stories of knitting needles confiscated from grandmothers, and mothers being ordered to sip their own breast milk. I'm trying to forget all the lip balm, fingernail cutters and miniature screw drivers I've surrendered.

I make it a point not to speak at the check points so I don't make a wise crack and get hauled off for inquisition. Last year TSA inspectors began trying out chirpy conversation-opening gambits on me; they must have just completed a Dale Carnegie course. I forestall conversation by remaining silent, looking them directly in the eye and smiling blandly. I can see them trying to decide if I'm being recalcitrant, or if I'm deaf, mute or both, or mentally handicapped, or a foreigner who can't speak English.

So, I have a bad attitude about transportation silliness.

I always set off the walk-through magnetometer because I wear a bracelet that I can't remove. So I'm familiar with the TSA checkpoint drill: 'sit in the chair', 'raise your leg', 'now the other one', 'stand up', 'arms outstretched', 'undo your belt buckle', 'I'm going to pat you down now', 'OK, you can go'… sometimes even, 'Have a nice flight!'

But at about 12:30 p.m. on Friday, 15 December at the Northwest Airlines terminal at LAX, a TSA man waved a handheld magnetic wand (metal detector) over me and said instead "I'm going to have to check every beep, sir." I hadn't heard that one before.

The wand beeped on my belt buckle, and I unbuckled my belt. It also beeped, repeatedly, on both my shins, although neither my shins nor pants had any metal in them, and like everyone else in line, I was shoeless.

Then he waved the wand up and down over the zipper of my pants and – surprise! – it beeped.

"Please roll down your waist band, sir."

I went a bit farther: I undid the button on my pants and lowered my zipper so that the front flaps of my pants were hanging open, displaying my underwear to the TSA man, who did not flinch.

With my pants hanging open, he ran the wand over my… reproductive organ. Not my crotch, not my groin, not my lower abdomen. My “privates.”

No beep. A sigh of relief from me. 'OK, you can do your pants up now, sir." I zipped up and re-buckled my belt. But then…

"I'm going to touch your privates now, sir. OK?"

I must have looked like a deer caught in the headlights. I tried to think of a quick answer. What IS the right answer? 'Yes, it's OK if you grope me?' Or 'No way!', and off I go to Guantanamo?

There was no right answer. I hesitated. And what do Americans do when they think you can't understand what they're saying?

They say it again, louder.

"I'M GOING TO TOUCH YOUR PRIVATES NOW, SIR. OK?!", the TSA man said, his face 18 inches from mine, in a voice that could be heard all around us.

I had the distinct feeling that the entire checkpoint was now looking at me. It was probably just my imagination. I didn't look around because I flushed as crimson as Rudolf's nose. You know that sudden stillness when someone in a crowd speaks louder than everyone else around? That definitely happened. Maybe everyone was looking at us. I suppose the TSA guy was embarrassed, too.

I blurted out, "What do you expect me to say?!"

He didn't answer. He dropped into a crouch and with his palms out, fingers extended, rubber gloves on, he stroked down the insides of my crotch--carefully grazing my private part but not fondling it directly. It was over in 3 seconds. He stood up and dismissed me, brusquely: "OK, you can go."

There had to be at least 50 witnesses. I didn't get their names. I didn't want them to know mine. Maybe you're embarrassed just reading this. Me, too.

So What? I told this story several times over the Christmas holiday. Everybody laughed, shook their heads, said they couldn't believe it. I still don't think it's funny.

I am concerned about airport security because I fly regularly, and I want to be safe when I do. I'm also a business continuity planner; my job is trying to prevent calamities. I know that an ounce of prevention (security) is worth a pound of cure (business continuity management).

The TSA airport procedures are security theater run amok. An expensive, long-running, pretentious vaudeville act to make U.S. travelers believe that something is being done to protect them. If TSA had even one checkpoint success story, I think we’d all have heard about it.

The problem is that the TSA is chasing the means, not the motives. That chase is futile. They can never guess all the imaginative ways to get an IED on an airplane, so they'll never catch the tragically successful one at an airport security checkpoint. Airport security screening didn't catch the hijackers' box cutters. It didn't catch Richard Reid's shoe bomb. It hasn’t caught liquid explosives in shampoo bottles or toothpaste tubes since August, 2006. It’s not just that it doesn't make me safer; it’s that it can’t make me safer.

The only practice that ever actually stopped a terrorist from getting on an airplane is profiling, supplemented by face-to-face interviews at the airport by trained security professionals. People who are trained to ferret out a passenger's intentions, not dig in his toiletries. No one does it better than Israeli airline El Al, as far as I can tell. It's been their practice for years, and face-to-face interviews have been routine for several years for all flights to the U.S. from Asia, where I live.

Some Americans have reasonable civil liberties objections to profiling. The accuracy of the TSA’s No Fly list - and the speed with which errors on it are corrected – are not cause for optimism, I admit. But if that’s what it takes to keep my fly zipped and my shoes on at airports, I’d like to be profiled - soon.

Some travelers in America will object to face-to-face interviews for domestic flights, but it's hard to argue that interviews will delay them longer than undressing, unpacking, re-dressing and re-packing does at TSA checkpoints.

The Blueprint What do I recommend, or hope? That qualified TSA professionals can be trained to conduct those interviews. I’d like them to patrol airports in plain clothes, observing the behavior of individuals, looking for those few who fit a carefully-considered risk profile, and watching for aberrant behavior that signals malevolent intent.

If you read soon that my name has suddenly appeared on the No-Fly List, you'll know why.

All I know for certain that I'm not a terrorist.

I have privates to prove it.

Author's Note: I learned this month that El Al actually stopped Richard Reid from boarding a flight months before he boarded a flight in the U.K. with a bomb in his shoe. He was using a different name when El Al caught him, and so the warning that Israeli security passed to the U.K. about him went for nothing.

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