How to survive an “enhanced” TSA pat-down

How to survive an “enhanced” TSA pat-down
By | February 26th, 2011

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

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.

Related story:   The bare facts about "Opt-In" Day and a media-fabricated crisis that fizzled

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. )