Is the TSA punishing us?

Steven deForest is an experienced air traveler, but he says nothing could have prepared him for the confrontation he recently had with a TSA screener in Las Vegas.

“I chose to opt out of the backscatter X-ray and submit to a physical search,” he says.

DeForest was ushered into a glass holding box until a screener could be found to conduct the search.

“A bulky young TSA agent came over to pat me down,” he remembers. “He told me to turn around. He was using his command voice, barking orders. I told him that I wasn’t comfortable turning away from my luggage, which had already been screened, and wanted to keep it in my sight.”

The agent issued more orders — “Stay there, I didn’t tell you to move!” and “Empty your pockets!” — and deForest says the federal screener seemed irritated that he didn’t obey him without hesitation.

And that’s when deForest says he was punished. The agent knelt in front of him to conduct a pat-down.

“As he raised his hands he was looking at me,” he says. “Then he gave a quick flick and smacked me in one of my testicles.”

The TSA says its full-body scanners are optional and that it trains its agents to treat “opt-outs” like deForest with respect. But during the last few weeks, a different picture has emerged from within the TSA’s own ranks.

Passengers are complaining that TSA agents are punishing them for failure to comply quickly to their orders, or simply for opting out, an allegation that TSA insiders admit is true.

The most troubling is the case of former TSA agent John Irwin, who admitted to stealing $520 from a passenger because the passenger wasn’t deferential enough to him.

The scenario was virtually identical to deForest’s. Last November, a passenger asked to opt out of the full body scanner, and when he complained at being led into a private screening area, Irwin removed $520 in cash that had been screened and hid it in a TSA supervisor’s drawer.

And who can forget the woman who missed her flight last month because of her bad “attitude”? It might be difficult to believe a TSA agent would prevent her from making her flight, except that the incident was captured on video and posted to YouTube.

The latest wave of complaints about TSA agents punishing passengers isn’t new. Back in 2010, when the TSA began using full-body scanners, I spoke with passengers who said the pat-downs were retaliatory. But this is one of those rare times when TSA agents essentially agree that their actions at the screening area are intended to punish rather than protect airline passengers.

Of course, some passengers understand that airport screening is a game, and they seem ready to turn the tables. When this woman was told she couldn’t bring her vodka through a checkpoint last week, she retaliated by drinking it. At 7:30 a.m.

Imbibing distilled spirits before being screened is totally legal, by the way — but I wouldn’t recommend it.

But most passengers probably feel a lot like deForest, the passenger whose genitals were rapped in Las Vegas: upset, but ultimately powerless to stop it from happening.

“I can’t over-emphasize the feeling of humiliation, rage, and frustration,” he told me. “I believe I have a better idea of what a woman feels when she is groped, or worse. I was deliberately assaulted by someone who knew that he could get away with it.”

He’s right. Unless an agent comes forward to confess that he or she intentionally roughed up a passenger, or stole money from him, or made her miss her flight, it’s hard to prove anything.

A delay in screening a passenger can seem like punishment, but who knows, the screening area might be short staffed? Valuables can go missing from a tray, but how can you be sure another passenger didn’t accidentally take it?

And a pat-down can look proper, but it can feel like rape.

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 Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Grueny

    I took a trip to Kansas City from Chicago’s O’Hare. I carry an Epi-Pen, which the manufacturer says to have hand inspected because the effects of X-Rays on the medication haven’t been fully tested. (Life saving medication, sounds good to me!). At O’hare they tried telling me several tiems to just X-Ray it, before a 4th screener finally took it and looked it over (without a problem) and put it the rest of my stuff post-x-ray. On return, at Kansas City airport, I was told if I wanted my EpiPen hand inspected, then they would have to hand inspect my person and ALL my carry on luggage (which was all my luggage). What am I suppose to say at that point? Ya know, this life saving medication isn’t worth having you inspect my belongings? That would sound even stranger if I passed at that point (to me anyway). So they took me aside and went through ALL my property. To the screeners’ credit, including the one that did a FULL pat down, they were all VERY professional and explained every step of what they were doing. But it was a definate, if you’re going to make us look at something, we’re going to inconvenience you. Good thing my plane was VERY late, and I didn’t hae ANYTHING else to do, so I didn’t really care.

  • Gary Arndt

    This has nothing to do with security or terrorism. This has everything to do with Wal-Mart level security people using their position to make themselves feel like a big deal.

    It is little different than Eric Cartman yelling at people to “respect my authority!”

  • Citizentraveller

    In four recent experiences of airport security in China I observed no full-body scanners but body scanning was done manually mostly by young female officers, regardless of whether the passenger was male or female. It was a thorough, close scan with a portable scanner but included no physical contact unless accidental. Males mostly supervised the metal detector arch and baggage x-ray scanning.

    Perhaps the psychologists said that most males would not complain if examined by a young female!

  • Jeff Shelby

    The most disturbing thing to me is how they announce it to everyone in line for screening when someone opts out. I’ve seen it in three different airports in last six months. Someone opts out and the agents immediately begin shouting for an additional screener, that someone has opted out, etc., letting everyone in the vicinity know that someone is refusing the scanner and it seems solely intended to embarrass the person asking and to discourage anyone else in line from asking to do the same. The language and handling was almost identical in each case, so it would be hard to convince me that the agents aren’t being instructed to handle opt-outs in exactly that manner.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    MCI (Kansas City) security is not TSA. The private security people there are very aloof and very professional. They don’t wish you good morning, they don’t smile and they look at everything and I do mean everything. I try to arrive darn early at the gate when I fly out of MCI.

  • SoBeSparky

    Who knows? Based on a story of two or three anecdotes, of the many 10,000s of screenings each day, how is a reader to conclude that TSA is or is not punishing passengers?

    These isolated stories may be well reported, as who is going to report, “I had a quick professional screening!”

    In fact, in the last two weeks I went through expedited screening twice for high-traveling AA elite customers. Couldn’t ask for a better experience. They even told me, don’t remove your shoes and belt, don’t take off your suit coat.

    In any event, I went through screening from line entry to exiting process in less than 60 seconds. There’s another anecdote for you.

  • Raven_Altosk

    My sister teaches school in South Carolina. Imagine her shock when a young lady she taught–who was Special Ed and who couldn’t even pass the minimal skills test to receive a diploma–was the TSA agent matching names to IDs.

    This poor girl is (according to sis) a functional illiterate with mild mental retardation. She’s a sweet thing, for sure, but can’t read much at all. And yet, she is employed by the TSA!

    Feel safer now, dontcha?

  • MarkieA

    I’d love to hear the logical explanation for that one. Just because we have to hand-inspect one piece of luggage, we HAVE to hand-inspect it all? Really? Reeks of retaliation and punishment.. I guess an argument could be made that, as you point out, if you had deferred on the Epi-pen hand inspection at that point – presumably, in order to avoid hand-inspection on everything else – that would cast suspicion on the rest of your luggage. But once you allowed hand-inspection on everything else… Who knows these days?

    I’m waiting for the rash of passenger arrests as they “accidentally” retaliate against this type of stuff. You know, “I’m sorry officer. He was kneeling in front of me and then he smacked my genitals really hard. It was just a knee-jerk reaction – literally – when my knee shot out and caught him in the nose.”

  • ToriBlue

    Maybe it’s time we start punishing the screeners….if you can, get their names…publicly post them and shame them….that is, if they have any shame.

  • Annapolis2

    Are you implying that, as long as it doesn’t happen too often, it’s okay for a few passengers to be intentionally harmed by deliberate blows to the testicles? Not very many women have had foreign objects inserted into their bodies by these screeners, but I have been raped in this manner by the TSA, so really, I should just be glad it didn’t happen to *every* woman. After all, hurting, assaulting, and raping people is fine as long as it’s less than, say, what, 10%, or 1% of people screened? I really don’t understand your argument here. It’s like saying that police can senselessly beat and kick suspects, as long as they make sure not to beat more than, say, 1 out of every 50 suspects. It’s all a numbers game, right?

  • Rose Arnold

    Are you kidding me? You “went through expedited screening twice for high-traveling AA elite
    customers” and had a great experience. And just how is that supposed to translate to the rest of us ordinary peons?

  • aels2012

    You obviously have not been groped, delayed, made to dump baby food, breast milk, barked at, or herded like cattle…. Does that give you the authority to say that the rest of us are lying? Reducing the reports to the level of “anecdotes” is a disrespect. Believe me, if you are not part of the solution, you are definitely part of the problem!

  • Miami510

    Gee… I wish the 2% who voted no would offer some defense of their vote.

  • Poley King

    Its about time we fight back in self defense

  • cjr001

    Not only that, but announcing it in such a manner gives a greater opportunity for others to pilfer or walk off with your carry-ons.

  • backprop

    I’ve said it before on Christopher’s blog, and it comes into play again here.

    When the TSA was formed out of thin air, we still had a fair economy with low unemployment. The ranks of the TSA had to be staffed with tens of thousands of people, primarily those who, shall we say, managed to avoid employment during the preceding several years.

    As a result, the TSA didn’t wind up with experts in the tops of their fields. They wound up with overwhelmingly shiftless, simple-minded, low-skilled, socially inept dregs of society.

    These folks now perceived themselves in a position of power. Like apes sensing weakness or vulnerability among their species, it’s unavoidable that some would find a way to abuse this power, projecting it onto what are often more materially successful people: those who are traveling on business, those who are taking vacations and doing normal things with their families, essentially anyone who is not acting as a trained chimpanzee rifling through people’s stuff.

    This is in no way an attack on TSA screeners; we humans are all effectively apes and all have primal desires for exploiting weakness in others, to different degrees. Rather, it’s an indictment of the TSA who so wrongfully thought that they could assemble an effective, smart, and reasonable force of safety personnel from the bottom of the societal barrel.

  • User921394932

    Get rid of the TSA and save us from gate rape.

  • Chasmosaur

    I have a mild deformity – the few times I’ve actually submitted myself to AIT (usually because late for my flight), it has been picked up and a pat-down ensues.

    So I opt-out. A lot. When they try to badger me – SOP for middle aged women – I simply tell them: I have a deformity under my clothes. Your machines pick it up. I’m trying to speed up the process and not block your machine while the software has a meltdown trying to determine the problem. (A lie, really, I don’t like those machines one freaking bit.)

    Once I started telling them that, the pat-downs got far less aggressive and much more cursory. So don’t tell me it’s not about retaliation – of course it is.

  • cjr001

    Sadly, SoBe’s posts reads of the typical “It hasn’t happened to me, therefore it isn’t a problem”.

  • sweepergrl

    I was traveling with my special needs child from Atlanta to Houston. We were leaving a non-profit with a service dog she has just received and six of us recipients went through the special screening area. We had called ahead and told them that there would be a group of us coming in so they would have it adequately staffed. (Don’t laugh, I’ve waited 15 minutes for an agent to come staff the “disability” line). The agent told us to remove EVERYTHING from the dogs, including all collars/harnesses. I pulled out the information from the TSA website saying that we had to keep control of her at all times and we would never be asked to have her harness/collar removed. The agent batted it away and told me if I didn’t do it they would have to do an enhanced screening on my daughter. So I had my daughter go through the screening first by herself and then I immediately followed through with the service dog still in her harness (I did remove her vest and leash in an effort to appease the agents). It’s not that I expected the dog to misbehave, but I’m also not having her walk around the screening area freely. What if she went to say hi to the screener and they accused me of having her ‘assault’ them? They wouldn’t let me guide my daughter over to a bench to sit down, instead they barked at her to move out of their way. While I was being thoroughly searched (by an agent who certainly groped my breasts, and not with the back of her hands, either) the agent told me “You should have done what you were told and you would be here, would you?” As soon as I got home I talked to the other travelers and they had the same issues. I reported it on the TSA website and was shocked to get a response from the head of the Atlanta airport TSA within 24 hours. She asked for some more information, reviewed the video and assured me that all of the agents would be ‘retrained’ in the proper handling of cases like this. Do I think they were retrained? No. Do I think they were talked to because this could be a significant embarrassment? Yes. If that’s not an admitted case of retaliation against all of us with service dogs, I don’t know what is. The only bonus is that they took it out on me, not my child.

  • lost_in_travel

    The fact that even a few people report abuses, and the abuses are remarkably similar, indicates that there is a problem. These abuses are so difficult to document and can result in either a major time delay or an arrest so the passenger is punished for even making the complaint, certainly acts as a deterrrent. Look at other under-reported crimes – rape, child abuse, bullying – which are perpetrated by people with power against less powerful people and consider the under reporting of crimes. I don’t mean to discount the severity of the abuse to the person receiving it, but the fact that one rarely sees the same TSA agent again also factors into the decision to not report and simply get away as intact as possible. That there are so many reports, given the reasons not to report, indicates to me that the problem is far more widespread.

  • AirlineEmployee

    These people have to go……yesterday at LAX my husband went throught the gauntlet because I ” protested ” by asking what is the point of the sign ? — that he met the exceptions (born 1937 or earlier = no shoes off or removal of outer jacket) and they told him to take off the jacket and shoes anyway and gave him the full pat-down, hand wiping, questioning treatment.
    “Ma’am, he was chosen at random”…….yeah, right – coincidentally at the point I questioned the signage. Not worthy of working at some cheap fast-food place or cleaning toilets. Good thing I questioned them after I went throught the checkpoint, God knows what they would have made me do !

  • Brian Oberquell

    I’ve been lucky so far that my pat-downs haven’t included any chops to the groin, but the first time it happens I’m going to scream and then drop like a stone, giving a performance that will be on par with a professional soccer “dive.”

  • Miami510

    Here’s a task for someone… perhaps this Website.
    If enough people got to the airport earlier enough, and/or left sufficient time between connecting flights, so as not to miss flights, the system would collapse if enough people refused the scanners and opted for physical inspection. TSA would have to change. If the system became clogged or slowed sufficiently, the airlines would protest… and they, unlike the pubic… have lobbyists in Washington.
    A few quotes come to mind:
    When evil men make bad laws, the righteous disobey them.
    Protest beyond the law is not a departure from Democracy; it is absolutely essential to it…. and One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Atlanta is notorious for hiring the lowest common denominators. I swear, if I had a buck for every TSA screener in ATL with a grill, I’d be a rich man. I still can’t figure out how they are allowed to wear those disgusting things to work.

  • TonyA_says

    “These folks now perceived themselves in a position of power. Like apes sensing weakness or vulnerability among their species, it’s unavoidable that some would find a way to abuse this power, projecting it onto what
    are often more materially successful people …”

    Are you also describing bank(st)ers or wall street type folks?

  • TSAisTerrorism

    Not only employed by TSA, but her sole job function as an illiterate is to read the name on a boarding pass and match it to the name she reads on an ID.

    And who says that the whole ID function at the airport is useless?

  • TonyA_says

    I am not sure who else would like (or tolerate) that job – feeling up other people’s private parts or matching IDs.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    The head of security for ATL was a prison matron in her former life. Is it any wonder these things happen? ATL is notorious, and I think Mary Leftridge Byrd likes it that way.

  • TonyA_says

    Message to all males thinking of opting out – wear a cup :-)
    Try the nuttybuddy .

  • TonyA_says

    I am surprised to hear your comment about anecdotal [evidence].
    Youtube has several posts of police beatings, I guess they are anecdotal, too. Never happened, right ?
    Just because a scientific study has not been done does not mean that these nasty things are not happening. Why should victims make these up?
    I am curious, how many more victims should come up with their horror stories before you believe that this phenomenon is statistically significant?

  • Sommer Gentry

    Well, at least this explains why, when a screener is standing there holding two documents that each have the passenger’s name on them, the screener will still ask the passenger to say his name out loud. It’s because they CAN’T READ.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Never trust a woman with two last names.
    –My Dad

  • backprop

    I think it holds true for human behavior across all strata of society, absolutely. In the case of TSA agents, they can affect change through their positions as ‘gatekeepers’ whereas bankers, speculators, etc. take advantage of situations and others on a slightly higher intellectual plane.

    One thing in common and fundamental to both, I think, is their innate aggression.

    I don’t travel quite as often as many on this site, but in the past 10 years, I’ve yet to meet a reserved, humble TSA agent. Don’t get me wrong; some are nice, and some are professional enough. But almost all of them bark orders, make up rules on the spot, and rather seem to enjoy making people do their bidding.

    Now, I know even fewer wall street traders, but I do know some. And this same personality trait is true there, too. They’re assertive, aggressive, and are good at pushing people to get what they want.

    So short answer — yes!

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    My husband is still wincing . . . :) He says that he thinks if he showed up wearing one of those, they’d make him remove it (think prosthetics that have to be removed) and THEN whap! (He’s *still* wincing!)

  • Daisiemae

    I’m amazed they actually allow you to explain that. It’s hard to listen to explanations when you’re barking orders. Have you had any trouble getting them to listen? Other people have reported that screeners would not listen when they tried to explain their situation.

  • Daisiemae

    That wouldn’t help. They’d make you take it off. They’d probably insist on removing it themselves.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    We are now less “safe” when they do not perform their criminal, unwanted touching of sexual parts on everyone. The thousands of terrorists can now use this as an excuse to get through security.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    We are working on next “OPTOUT Week”,

  • Cybrsk8r

    That TSA agent is lucky. If he’d have done that to me, I’d have knee’d him in the face and claimed it a reaction to the sudden pain.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I guess you’ve never been to a Wal-Mart.

  • bodega3

    My post probably will be deleted, but I’ll submit it anyway. The TSA articles on this website are all the same, just like Charlie Leocha’s articles on Consumer Traveler. It has been noted, over and over again and is now becoming a weekly trash the TSA column. We get it. You don’t like the TSA.

  • Christopher Elliott

    You’re sort of right. See

  • KarlaKatz

    Oh, I like this!! Great idea!

  • Lisa Simeone

    Miami510, it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, this country is nowhere near the point where people are willing to engage in mass civil disobedience. It’s going to take years, and more abuse, before that happens.

  • john4868

    @bodega3:disqus to your first comment … As long as you are on topic and staying away from the personal attacks, the comment gets approved. Chris has told all of us that the goal is to keep the discussion going not stifle opinion.

    As long as you disagree without being disagreeable, you should be safe.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    It’s sounds like you’ve just described Mary Leftridge Byrd herself. Tell me you want to meet this woman in a dark alley:

  • Daisiemae

    Chris, please continue your site as is . (Love your justification that it’s your name on the website!). Especially the TSA articles! I never miss one.

    Bodega complains about your TSA columns, but happily censorship is not yet complete in this country. Bodega is free to skip over those articles and not read them if they disturb her. Those of us who are interested and concerned about this topic and who depend on your weekly column for news about TSA are free to read your articles. You are free to write whatever you choose…at least for now.

  • Jennifer Rusch

    It’s all “respect mah authoritah!” with the TSA. Power trip to the max where they all think they are law enforcement officers. Take away the blue cop-type shirts and put them in coveralls or something that denotes their actual job and status.

  • anc1entmar1ner

    Doesn’t bother me in the least. I ALWAYS opt out, and I am proud to do so. As for the pilfering, TSA has recently decreed that keeping my wallet on my person is some sort of a threat to national security, so I have taken to burying it in a certain compartment in my computer case. Also, deForest was entirely within his rights to insist that his possessions remain in his sight at all times.

  • Annapolis2

    I just have to wonder, bodega3. Why should your response to “Every single week an outrageous atrocity is committed by the same agency of our government, from deliberately smacking a man in the testicles, to strip-searching a wheelchair-bound woman, to forcing a mother to publicly pump her breast milk in a dirty bathroom, to stealing electronics from passengers, to helping run drugs through the checkpoint”, be “Stop telling me about it!”

    These people are injuring passengers and endangering your life by being so dishonest as to accept bribes to speed drugs (which could easily be explosives) through the checkpoint, and what you’d really like most of all is to stop having to read stories about it? Why wouldn’t you hear all this and actually want to change it? The good part about fixing this shambles would be that we wouldn’t have to keep reading the ongoing evidence that the TSA is a nightmare come true.

  • anc1entmar1ner

    Excellent idea, Brian! They can’t have you arrested for falling and moaning in pain, can they? And then you get a chance to directly accuse the miscreant TSO who assaulted you.

  • cjr001

    Thank you for ENTIRELY missing the point.

  • TonyA_says

    Actually I have been to the “original” Wal-Marts. My wife’s family is from Arkansas. Her folks lived in a town not to far from Newport where Sam Walton had his first store. He was “run out of town” and he moved to Bentonville (where the current HQ is). The old Wal-Marts are not like the new ones. The old Wal-Marts had signs of “proudly Made in America” in many of their items. The new ones have mostly goods Made in China.

    I miss the old Wal-Mart.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Whoa. I wonder if she was still doing pat-downs in 2009? The incident with my mother happened in June of 2009. I can’t say for sure it was her, but after viewing the photo…it could have been. (Although she wasn’t smiling, that’s for sure.)

  • cjr001

    TSA agent allegedly steals $100 from passenger at LAX

    Nobody could possible imagine why TSA gets all the ‘trash’ they receive, could they!?

  • Chasmosaur

    I haven’t had problems, but I adopt a posture and tone of “been there, done that” on the outside. (On the inside, seething as much as the people who start reciting the 4th Amendment – I’ve been getting pat-downs since 2002.)

    I’m sure some of it has to do with the fact I mostly fly through MSP and DCA. MSP TSA staff exhibit a lot of “Minnesota Nice”; DCA has gotten exponentially more polite over the years – I think they realize being so close to Congress and DHS HQ, they can’t afford to bark. The person they are barking at may have the capability to bite. Hard.

  • Chasmosaur

    Yes. Because I’m the only person on the planet with half a brain that would think up this excuse.

    TSA is reactionary, not proactive or defensive. A determined terrorist can come up with just about any excuse to get through the security theater checkpoint, as long as TSA hasn’t thought of it yet. And there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in TSA philosophy,

    For example, this article from The Atlantic – published almost 4 years ago now – exposed a metric ton of security holes, far larger than a screener taking pity on a woman with a deformity that shows up pretty apparently during a pat-down.

    (I have a breast asymmetry. One that involves multiple cup sizes of difference, which is why it makes the machines go “ping”. Even the most cursory of pat-downs make it obvious, especially since I have to take off the jacket or overshirts I wear to disguise it. And I can tell you from personal experience – they will ask you to remove a prosthesis or padding. In public. Which is why I don’t use them when I fly.)

  • IDoNotBowToCommies

    Why do passengers not rise up enmasse?

    There are plenty of things we as citizens can do. Learn their true identities.Sue them in civil court, maybe it gets dismissed, but they still have to defend against it. If they default, they have to pay up.These are people who live in your neighborhoods…these abusive screeners, could live on your next street over, their wives could be your kid’s teachers.
    They rely on anonymous behaviors to cloak their abuses. They wouldn’t if you could give your lawyer their name and address. That is the counterbalance, but the agency shields their little “Hitlers” well by not stocking them with proper identification, and also I’ve noticed it’s not on their Airport id badges either. You can’t fight them WITHIN THEIR system, but you have to take it to a system owned by the people. The LOCAL judges who are in most states ELECTED by the people.

    If I got testicle thrashed by one…I would spare no expense to find out who he was, and I would make it my life’s mission to own his house, kick his family onto the streets, and see him frogmarched to prison.

  • IDoNotBowToCommies

    I too miss the old wal-marts….I remember one in Eldon Missouri back in the 1970s….

  • IDoNotBowToCommies

    I stood guard over a poor guy’s belongings who was getting this treatment….he was incredibly thankful…and I mades sure to tell EVERYBODY who was passing by what I was doing standing there….

  • IDoNotBowToCommies

    You are also within your rights to film the abusers…but NOW they have started putting signs up stating the SCREENERS can HALT FILMING for ANY REASON…..these signs are official and have the TSA logo on them. Newark Airport 10-12-2012.

  • Frank Ney

    Case will be removed to federal court because it’s part of the freedom fluffer’s scope of employment, and dismissed.