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A little empathy for the TSA: They are being told to do the impossible

In yet another good article in CQ Homeland Security, Rob Margetta raises the issue of TSA body cavity searches. It’s not an outrageous question. The logic of the new enhanced patdowns is that individuals presenting a threat are more likely to hide dangerous material in their junk, to use the Internet-driven word of choice. However, this same logic can reasonably be taken a step further to cavity searches. A serious and determined individual meaning to do harm, especially one with training, is going to be willing to insert materials into all kinds of freakish places that you’d think only happen in dank by-the-hour hotels. Look at the drug trafficking industry. Ask for a presentation from the DEA or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. They can show you some photos and videos of items stuffed in deeply awkward areas that you’d never believe unless you saw it with your own eyes.

However, the TSA is never going to go that far. For obvious reasons. Which calls into question the whole concept of these enhanced body patdowns.

Still, the TSA is put in an impossible situation. They are being asked to protect the public from a near-infinite variety of threats – ten years ago, who would have thought of box cutters as major terrorist weapons? – all the while taking a beating from privacy groups no matter what security tactics they try to employ.

Currently, privacy groups are fighting an all-out campaign against whole body imaging scanners. They disingenuously portray the machines has effectively capturing pictures of you naked. This is ridiculous. The images are x-rays. They are blurry black and white images that show no real anatomical detail. Yet the privacy lobby – which has grown strong with a lot of financial support – blasts the scanners and lobbies Congress and engages in public advocacy campaigns to kill the scanners.

Soooo … the TSA turns to patdowns as an alternative. The previous patdowns were relatively inoffensive. Annoying. Time consuming. But no awkward Freudian TSA groping. It’s unclear why the decision was made to move toward the kind of frisking usually engaged by street cops busting known drug dealers who are as likely to have a knife or worse on their persons than not. (Even these guys, however, aren’t shoving shivs up their anal canals.) I would speculate that it is some kind of combination of law-enforcement sensitive intelligence that they have (and the public doesn’t) along with an effort to respond to opposition to body scanners.

Yet all hell has broken loose. And for good reason. Innocent travelers have been willing to put up with the previous patdown routine. But once mammary glands are involved, there’s a general consensus that this has gone too far.

Fine. What now? Throw up our hands and give up on security practices so travelers can get on planes without any inconvenience whatsoever? Sure, that will be celebrated – until a terrorist blows up a plane in mid-flight.

The answer is intelligence. This means profiling. Not the kind of profiling of popular imagination : Hey, that dude looks Muslim or something. Let’s tackle him. (This is yet another false understanding largely promoted by professional privacy advocates always looking for something to protest.)

Profiling with regard to air travel means examining certain patterns – obvious patterns that should raise some red flags. Where are your traveling from? Where are you travelling to? Did you buy a return-flight ticket or a one-way? Did you use cash or credit? Who are you traveling with?

And yes, there is behavioral profiling. A guy furtively looking around the security checkpoints, avoiding eye contact with Transportation Security Officers, evidencing clear nervousness … these things could simply be a traveler nervous about flying. No big deal. But they could be indications of something more ominous.

But the professional privacy lobby doesn’t want profiling, either. They don’t feel that you should have to share that kind of information. It’s not of the government’s business. It’s not like you are being asked what kind of movies you watch or preferred sexual practices. It’s entirely focused on travel patterns.

So why the hysterical reaction? Professional lobbyists must protest something.

If we want to skip the patdowns –and we should –  and we still want to travel with some level of confidence that we are secure, a balance is going to have to be struck between privacy and security. We should be vigilant that the government does not over reach and ask for information that goes beyond travel patterns, but we’re going to have to make some concessions.

Asking the TSA to protect us but then telling them that they can’t use technology, that they can’t gather information, that they can’t touch us, that they should probably just go away – but still protect us – isn’t reality.

It’s easy to attack the TSA. These guys are at the point of the spear. But it’s time for the public to have an honest debate about what really is a privacy intrusion and what is not. And we need to move back toward an intelligence-driven, risk-based layered security model rather than the current politically useful model of claiming to implement efforts to stop every single terrorist threat that Americans may possibly encounter.

So, sure, let’s all rise up and say “Don’t touch my junk.”

But then what?

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More
  • Lynn Miller Dean

    I liked your empathy piece. What's key is that avoiding a pat down for most people is pretty easy. Take everything out of your pockets, and if you're directed through AIT, go through it. People with metal implants should use AIT to avoid a pat down.

    About 3 out of one hundred passengers get a pat down, by the way. Could be because they have metal in their body and go through a metal detector instead of AIT, because they alarm either technology, or because they opt out of AIT.

    You get a pat down if you opt out of AIT because if you decline to go through it, we have to give you the same level of screening. Earlier this year, a 17 year old male opted out of AIT, and when he got the pat down, they found a ceramic knife hanging from a cord around his neck. If we had just sent him through the metal detector when he opted out, the knife would have gotten on the plane.

  • Atlhockeymom

    Great piece!