A troubling update to the TSA story

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This week’s most popular post is a slippery, still developing story. You’ll want to know about it or you could soon find yourself in a metal cage with your hands up.

The article? My dissection of the Transportation Security Administration’s new scanning rules and what they mean for you. It drew the usual reaction from TSA supporters and critics. More on that in a second.

But late yesterday, the TSA made things more interesting when it announced the “final” implementation of the REAL ID Act.

Bottom line: Effective Jan. 22, 2018, air travelers with a driver’s license or identification card issued by a state that doesn’t meet the requirements of the act will have to present an alternative form of identification like a passport in order to board a commercial domestic flight.

The act established “minimum” security standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses, and prohibited federal agencies from accepting for certain purposes driver’s licenses and identification cards from states not meeting the act’s minimum standards. And yes, the TSA is a federal agency.

At the moment, only 23 states are fully compliant with the REAL ID Act. Another 27 states and territories have been granted extensions for a period of time to become compliant, according to the government.

Six states and territories – Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Washington, and American Samoa – are noncompliant and do not currently have extensions.

You can follow the drama at the Department of Homeland Security site to see if your state falls in line before the deadline.

My colleague Edward Hasbrouck offers an interesting perspective on the Real ID implementation on his site. You can also read my frequently asked questions about the TSA for background on how air travelers are currently screened.

Oh, about those “optional” scanners

One of the problems with writing a story about the TSA’s new full-body scanner rule was that I couldn’t find anyone who’d been forced through the machines under its new policy. But we didn’t have to wait long. Here’s a passenger who had to use the scanner, even though she had a PreCheck designation on her boarding pass.

And here’s a clip of a TSA agent trying to force a passenger in a wheelchair through a scanner.

Coincidentally, the passenger also happens to have filed an injunction to stop its new policy, one of two lawsuits that are trying to stop the agency from pushing us through these scanners. Looks like they picked the the wrong guy to try their new rules on.

I’m deeply conflicted about this issue. I understand that there are people who would do anything for security and who believe flying is a privilege, not a right. And there are passengers who just as firmly believe travel — including air travel — is a right and that under the Constitution, we are also afforded the right to a non-invasive screening.

The traveling public seemed to be at peace with the TSA’s shenanigans, tolerating its ineffective screening methods and silly scanners. Pre-check and some of the agency’s policies allowed many air travelers to avoid the unpleasantness of a scan or pat-down. Now, the agency has thrown out its rulebook and told us it’s for our own good.

Not to be overly dramatic, but I was trying to think of other places where people are scanned, whether they like it or not. Prisons came to mind. In fact, that’s where the discredited Backscatter scanners, which use x-ray technology, were reportedly sent. The ID thing? I’ve only seen that in a police state or a dictatorship that tries to control its population.

I’m trying to give the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security every benefit of the doubt here, but I just can’t understand their actions. They appear to be flouting the law and the Constitution with zero accountability to us.

I can’t see how any of this is for our own good. But maybe I’m missing something.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • Altosk

    Your link for the “wheelchair man” story goes to a click-bait page where he’s soliciting donations. C’mon, you’re better than that. This guy is just looking for his 15 minutes, GoFundMe, and a reality show.

    ETA: The other story is no better. “Donate Now!”

    Really??? The best you guys can do for a story on the TSA is two sites that are clearly just fluffing to get people to open their pockets?

  • Robyn

    Chris, you are not being overly dramatic. You’re stating facts. There is another fact I would like to know. Is there a stat on how many members of the flying public are likely to attempt to sabotage a flight? It’s got to be less than 1%, right? And that’s the point of all this security theater, no? I admit that I understand why the Feds want to keep things vague, so that those in the trenches have the authority to make decisions on the spot. However, the Feds/ TSA continue to forget that not everyone is a criminal and should not be treated like one. I’m a frequent flyer and have only had one good experience with the TSA. The remainder of the time, they treat me like cattle or they are awful to me. If less than 1% of passengers are likely to carry an explosive or attempt to sabotage a flight, then why not come at it from the opposite viewpoint? Give everyone their dignity while watching for the anomaly. Yes, it only takes one anomaly to bring down a plane, but if the TSA’s system is so great, then they should be able to root out those anomalies [it’s not great but that’s another argument]. It is bizarre that I look forward to ONLY being treated like cattle when I go to the airport.

  • AJPeabody

    Error! The TSA is not for travelers. It is for image. “We are strong! Terrorists are weak! Comply!” The actual policy is irrelevant.

  • Christopher, I always enjoy reading your column. While I take a more market-based approach (usually) to issues you see requiring more regulation (usually), I find your ambivalence confusing here.

    In the instances you advocate for more regulation, it’s most often because of the “abuse of the little guy (or gal)”. I applaud that advocacy, while I disagree with it in favor of freer markets. However, here, the TSA is doing just that — abusing the little guy/gal. Indeed, the video of the 10 year old being patted down while her dad stood by pretty much hopelessly – in violation of the TSA’s own rules – speaks to why you this should bother you.

    Many often default to the mindset “well, government has our best interests at heart”. The government is not some objective, amorphous entity. Government is very much a human, breathing entity with a strong pre-disposition toward oppression (usually under the guise of making it easier for them). While not all government action is oppression/oppressive – at least not here in the USA – government unchecked has a tendency TOWARD oppression. This “throwing out the rule book” seems to prove the rule.

    This is all about security theater. If the TSA were MORE CONCERNED about security, they would not pack several thousand travelers in backed-up, tightly packed, serpentine lines (usually amplified during the holidays) — left as a ripe, soft-target for some ne’er-do-well. Additionally, they would have a 95% success rate, not a 95% failure rate.

    What is needed is competition for security management. Whether the market driver is security of passengers or security of the assets (airliners), or a blend of both, the end goal of either largely achieves the other.

    So, I would be for privatizing airport security. AND government doing what you often advocate them to do: Audit the results. Enforce the compliance.

    You’ve never advocated for government to run an airline. So, why advocate for them to perform security?

    I say your voice is best used to move government to a regulatory role in security, rather than the delivery agent (in airliner security). AND, when you do, make sure you advocate that they not leave thousands of tightly packed, soft targets in velvet rope lines waiting to be hit by the same terrorists outside of security that they don’t want to see get through security.

  • Moo!

  • Robyn

    Exactly. :)

  • Nathan Witt

    I can maybe-sort-of understand the scanners. If you’re getting on a plane, there is a chance, however infinitesimally small, that you might want to do something nasty or terrorist-y on the plane. The best way to deter anyone like this seems to be to have NO rules, and to vary the security procedures and checks regularly, so that no one can predict what measures will be taken on any given day for any given flight. If you take the view that no amount of freedom, dignity or comfort is an acceptable price to pay for a single life lost to terrorism, then I can understand that, even if I disagree. But the IDs? That’s harder to justify, since I can get from any one point in this country to any other point without using an ID. What, exactly, is the benefit of refusing IDs from some states because they might be easier to fake? So what? Even if, for the sake of argument, I manage to trick everyone involved with a fake ID, I still have to go through security. So if we don’t care who travels via train, bus, taxi, etc., why do we care who gets on our planes?

  • MF

    MJ, while I appreciate your thoughtful & reasonable arguments – I have to take exception to your ‘free market’ ideas. From the economists’ point of view, a free market depends upon unlimited small producers & consumers, none of which are large enough to influence price. This clearly is a fiction presently in the USA. Airlines don’t qualify, they are an oligopoly with a congressional waiver from anti-trust legislation for their ‘alliances’.
    If a security vendor is awarded a contract for security screening at an airport, it’s hard to think that there is a ‘free market’ for the length of the contract. Since most contracts are awarded on price, vendors will try to maximize profits by minimizing costs, given contract specifications. Clearly the free market has led a ‘race to the bottom’ for airlines, and it would be hard to imagine security not being treated the same way. Although the TSA is a wasteful, inefficient sham – they might be better than the alternative?

  • Susan Richart

    DHS just blinked with the extension for implementation to January of 2018; it will blink again in 2018.

  • NotThatBrooklynGuy

    Except he did tell the supervisor about three times that he could not stand and hold his hands up about three times. He said it as ‘neither will nor able’.

  • RightNow9435

    Exactly—–it will HAVE to blink, otherwise, tens of millions of people will be unable to fly….hence the airlines will pressure DHS into another extension.

  • CasaAlux

    Just one more reason to avoid flying to, or via the USA for those of us fortunate enough not to live there. This can only hurt the US tourist and airline industries.

  • Lee

    I’m still wondering what TSA has done to become an efficient agency with properly trained employees. It wasn’t so long ago (summer 2015) that there was the report about just inefficient it was and that they were going to revisit their training, policies, etc.

    In that report it was found that “airport screeners failed to detect banned weapons in 96% of undercover tests.” Yes, that makes me feel safe…. Article on it:
    http://news.sky.com/story/1527739/tsa-chief-to-focus-on-gaps-after-damning-report

    If this current situation is their only response to all that then it remains what I have always believed it to be: theater to make people believe they are safe as well as being a colossal waste of money.

    Do we need some security – of course – but, much of what they are putting people through is pretty laughable.

  • pdxmom

    bad for travelers. Rather than trying to catch bad guys we are trying to catch weapons. We don’t want to implement the security like they have in Israel, where things are more effective. The training it would take would be something we wouldn’t want to do, and the profiling they do is somehow anathema to us.

  • pdxmom

    it’s easier to get off a bus when something is happening. not so much on a plane.

  • Carchar

    I am a white senior female and I have always received rigorous questioning, as have the people before me on line, after me on line and on all the other lines, at Israel’s airports.

  • pauletteb

    The whole ID thing is yet another tempest in a teapot. My state’s driver’s license does comply, and I opted in on my last renewal even though it wasn’t yet required. Regardless, with all the publicity, there’s no excuse for not knowing whether your state complies or doesn’t and that you’ll need different or additional identification in order to board a plane. Of course I still see people who either don’t know or try to circumvent the long-established rules for what’s allowed in carry-ons . . . only now I view it from the PreCheck Lane.

  • hearsetrax

    the TSA is living proof that the terrorists have already won the PSYOPS war

  • KarlaKatz

    Baaaaaaaaaaaaaa, Baaaaaaaaaaa, Baaaaaaaaaaaa (or, Moo… people, sheep, cattle… all herd animals these days)

  • KarlaKatz

    What an A$$-h01e, Mr. Wheelchair is! Take off your shoes, and put on some disposable booties… they’re available online, and very inexpensive.

    Opting out is still very easy, if one is truly not able to comply: “I cannot raise my arms” is all I have to say. I’ve had no problems at all, and have been treated very kindly by the gals (and guys) in the TSA at CMH, PHX, PDX, DFW.

  • Skeptic

    Most German gentiles also blamed the Jews for being “different.”

  • Skeptic

    We’ve really hit rock bottom post Citizens United if free-range capitalism vetoes human rights.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    This article is already out of date. DHS has — just as Edward Hasbrouck predicted — come out with a statement saying basically that their ID rule is for the birds and it won’t be implemented until 2018 (if then).

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    But lots of people haven’t been treated kindly.

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    It sounds like you’ve traveled to Israel. So have I. The security process is incredibly invasive and potentially abusive. I’ve seen people roughly hurried into back rooms. And I read enough to know what goes on there.

  • Nor sure what your comment means Skeptic. However, if one were purely analytic, one would realize that free-range capitalism is the purest exercise of human rights.

    Also, I believe you are referring to Constitutional Rights, not human rights. Human rights have only the force of morality, while Constitutional Rights have the force of US law.

    To be direct, we do need screening. However, the TSA is comprehensively inept from top to bottom. I am never a fan of government providing an activity which it also regulates. At least with policing (locally), you elect either the mayor or sheriff, and hold them accountable.

    The TSA/Sec’y of Homeland Security is too far removed from accountability for my comfort. I would rather see it privatized.

  • Actually, BLOCKING a threat CAN be proved. That would connote that the TSA was the last line of defense.

    Now, DETERRING a threat is more amorphous. However, saying that the TSA should take credit for those more amorphous aspects is equally difficult. Was it the local LEO presence? Was it the neighbor who caused a twinge of moral correctness? It’s a labyrinth of possibilities the farther one gets away from the contact point of the TSA.

    The point: It is true the TSA has not blocked a single threat. Your latter point about deterrence is so much harder to prove – for either side – that for you to ascribe it as a defense of TSA is laughable.

    And while you cite UN conventions, let me drop some Constitution on you:

    Reid v. Covert.

    Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled that the Constitution supersedes international
    treaties ratified by the United States Senate. According to the decision, “this Court has regularly and uniformly recognized the supremacy of the Constitution over a treaty.

    So, Treaties don’t mean a damn to me. The Constitution does.

  • Sai

    1. You realize that lots of states have outlawed REAL-ID Act compliance, right? People in those states can’t opt in.
    2. How very condescending of you. I’m sure your mother is so pwoud of you! All gwon up and in PweCheck so you can wook down at aww the little people.

  • Sai

    Do you have sources online for your class or others you refer to? (E.g. syllabus, videos, etc.)

  • Sai

    Exactly this. Plus that TSA has no law enforcement authority. They’re not allowed to attempt to do some sort of arrest-lite screening. And if the government has enough information on someone to arrest them, *they should bloody well arrest the person*, not just deny them boarding on a flight. Either the person is a criminal and can be arrested, or there is no reason not to let them fly if you know they have no weapons.

  • NotThatBrooklynGuy

    He said, several times, he was both unwilling and unable.
    It’s a big gray mushy line between hostile and really unhappy about his treatment. I thought he was being ‘difficult’ but if someone thought he appeared ‘hostile’, I wouldn’t argue too much about it.

  • NotThatBrooklynGuy

    Good to see you show up. In the future, assume the TSA agents cannot parse complex sentences like “I’m neither willing nor able to stand up in the scanner” and use the simpler “No, I can’t stand up in the scanner”.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    Mark, all good information. I even referenced the last US domestic attack which brought down a plane with a non-metallic bomb.

    But the fundamental point is the extension of passenger screening to scanners and criminal touching pat downs, and whether the millions of hours of wasted time and criminal touching for a portion of all passengers is worth it. The risk profile says no.

    And, no one is saying to not screen cargo or luggage, or to ignore metallic bombs.

    Even after scanners were introduced, planes still flew commercial packages on passenger planes and those packages were not 100% x-rayed/searched until mid-late 2014. So, that was 4 years plus of abusing passengers while cargo was unscreened on domestic passenger flights.

    When the TSA fails 95% of the time in detecting purposeful passenger intent in its testing as recently as mid-late 2015, that shows one what you know already – there is no perfect system. When you combine failed passenger screening with the airport worker risks, and the real life record of attempts, it doesn’t really make sense to throw away our American values.

    Consider that we have not suffered a Domodedovo bombing in a US airport…something that could easily occur…EXCEPT the risk is so low that terrorist attacks are not the big bogeyman portrayed by US media and promulgated by politicians.

  • Sai

    It’s interesting how people seem to think it’s relevant how *nice* on is to people who are abusing a governmental position of authority. Even if I were rude — which I don’t agree with — do rude people lose their Constitutional rights?

    I find TSA’s act5ions far more rude. Cf. https://s.ai/copcards/manifesto

  • Sai

    Let me clarify: do you have materials available online for free? ;-)

  • Sai

    I think he understood me perfectly well. He just refused to believe me, because (like, it seems, some commenters) he had fundamental beliefs that (a) you can be disabled *xor* unwilling — not both; (b) he was in an position to judge my abilities; (c) he had a right to refuse to let me travel due to some perceived rudeness; (d) he had a right to interrogate me about the details of my medical condition.

    He’s wrong on all four. But we’ll see what the First Circuit has to say about it. I wasn’t bluffing in the least when I said I’d report this to them; I did so immediately. (It goes to prove my standing; TSA argued I shouldn’t be allowed to sue them because I couldn’t prove I would be targeted by a selection rule that they refuse to disclose.)

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    Agree. But then why did you say in an earlier comment that Sai was acting like an “@sshole” (which segment of your comment I see the moderators have now removed)?

    http://elliott.org/blog/an-important-update-to-that-tsa-story/#comment-2451096465

  • Sai

    mjclaxden FYI, here’s a post about the TSA’s program for privatized screening. No comment on the views expressed, except to say that as far as I know the factual claims made are accurate.

    http://securitydebrief.com/2016/01/14/security-theater-of-the-absurd-tsa-and-the-screening-partnership-program/

  • fireforeffect

    You can tell that the TSA are basically doing a Eric Cartman “Respect mah authoritah” thing because even though the passenger said he was unable to lift his hands, and only able to stand with sticks (which would make lifting his hands impossible even if he could otherwise do it), the fact that he also said he was unwilling was what tripped their trigger.

  • Sai

    Exactly this. Though he also didn’t seen to comprehend the simple logic of “stand with sticks ≠ stand with hands up” that you did. ><

  • lcpossum

    The last time I flew out of SAV I told one of the TSA people that I’m unable to raise my left arm that high. He started shouting “opt out” and it was a full 45 minutes before some sweet boy arrived to fondle my groin; I suppose you could say that he was treating me very kindly. Oh, yeah, and while I was waiting to be searched the monkeys at the carryon scanner bashed my laptop so badly that one of the ports was unusable. Claim denied!

  • Mundane Lustrator

    The screeners on 9/11/01 didn’t fail. Box cutters weren’t banned items on flights.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    How does one drive to Juneau, Alaska? Or Hawaii? Or Europe? How does one make a meeting tomorrow when one lives 3000 miles away from the meeting site? How does one sail to Denver, CO?

  • Mundane Lustrator

    But why are those fools tolerated and promoted by the TSA?

  • Mundane Lustrator

    A long list of American senior citizens and American children traveling in the US who committed terrorist acts?