TSA Watch: Napolitano tries to frighten travelers, but lawmakers tighten her leash

It’s been a wild week, TSA Watchers. There’s so much we could talk about, from baby pat-downs to food hysteria and grounded imams.

But let’s start where we left off last Saturday, with an agency leveraging Osama Bin Laden’s long-overdue demise to freak out the American traveling public.

Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano decided to make it official this week by giving outgoing CBS News anchor Katie Couric an exclusive interview in which she said absolutely nothing but amped up her rhetoric.

A sample soundbite:

The baseline has gone up. You know, when the color coded system was invented, the baseline was still, it was a pre-9/11 baseline. But terrorism threats continue to grow, they continue to evolve and so the actual baseline is elevated.

I’m not really sure what that means, but it sounded so good against the backdrop of the gleaming Transportation Security Operations Center, with its macabre memorial made of a World Trade Center girder, Pentagon stone, and a fragment from the wreckage of Flight 93.

And the TSA was clearly proud of spinning the story that it even posted something on its blog about the interview with the failed news anchor.

Here’s “Blogger Bob” at his best, describing the so-called “Freedom Center.”

I’m guessing some of you might want to know a little more about it. I know it piques my interest when I see an operations center full of computers and giant displays. It makes me want to push buttons and stuff.

Did he just say “push buttons and stuff?” He sure did.

There are at least two reasons why Napolitano and the likes of Blogger Bob were out pounding the pavement this week. One is that in the face of no apparent threat against America’s transportation systems, it justifies the $56 billion-a-year agency’s existence. And two, our elected representatives have taken some important steps toward curbing Napolitano’s federal security apparatus.

Earlier this week, House Republicans trimmed $76 million from the 2012 Homeland Security budget that was supposed to fund the purchase of 275 full-body scanners. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) suggested the scanners were “unnecessary and wasteful,” and that the government had a responsibility to rein in the TSA.

But that’s the least of the agency’s problems. This week, the Texas legislature passed a law that would make it a criminal act for security personnel to touch a person’s private areas without probable cause as a condition of travel or as a condition of entry into a public place. At least eight other states, including Alaska, Washington, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, also have legislation pending to protect travelers’ from groping TSA agents.

Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview), the bill’s author, said the law would restore dignity to air travel.

Groping innocent citizens does little to enhance security but it does much to reduce our freedom and dignity. I am very thankful that members of both parties have joined together to defend our citizens’ dignity against the TSA’s egregious screening methods.

It’s an interesting piece of legislation, although I’m a little troubled that it fails to adequately define “probable cause.” But it certainly sends a message to the feds: Keep your hands off us.

They need to hear that. (Update: They heard it, but they plan to ignore it.)

All in all, it’s been a pretty awful week for our federal screeners — even if you discount the lawmaking troubles. On Monday, they had that whole unpleasantness with the baby pat-down. Then a dust-up over baby food (yes, baby food). And, of course, the imams kicked off their flights. (Although the latter wasn’t a TSA issue per se, it couldn’t have happened without the paranoid influence of the agency on the traveling public.)

Look, at the end of the day, we’re all playing for the same team. We don’t want another plane blown up, and we certainly don’t want a train or a bridge to be incinerated by a terrorist bomb. But here’s where reasonable people differ: Many feel that security can be achieved without trampling on our civil rights and dignity.

I have colleagues, some of whom I respect a great deal, who say we should just suck it up and comply with the TSA. After all, we’re at war.

But they are wrong.

It is precisely during a war that our character matters the most. Do we torture, grope, and scan — or do we find a way to achieve our security objectives in a way that shows we are better than the terrorists?

I think we can do better. I think we deserve better.

(Photo: SS &SS/Flickr Creative Commons)

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 the new forum.

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  • rich

     Like the rest of the grotesque security establishment TSA does nothing more than scaremonger for cash and destroy your freedoms. Unlike the rest of the security establishment they are ‘in your face’ about it. It’s time to bring some sanity back into travel. Thank you for doing your part.

  • Aven

     I’m not entirely sure how passing state laws to rein in an out of control federal department helps the country as a whole.  I suppose citizens must use the systems available to them to regain their dignity, but how sad that the federal level finds that abusing its own citizens is a viable and reasonable defence against threats to its citizens.  As American perpetrates indignity to American, the world and terrorists watch.

  • Clare

    Chris, a beautiful piece of writing, thank you!  Especially valid is your point near the end, that we’re all supposed to be in this together.  I’m sick of having my own govt regard ME as the enemy, esp. since I have done absolutely nothing to deserve it.  (That’s what “probable cause” is all about, Big Sister Janet.  Write it down!  Oh, wait–our legislators already did, long ago…)   

  • Bob Burns


    You should have seen me when I toured the Johnson Space Center. I really got to push a lot of buttons. And stuff…

    Blogger Bob

  • Setd43

    Your comments are getting increasingly emotional , leaving you open to disregard becuse of some “over the top” phrasing.  And why use such a mean description of Couric?  She is a reporter and was just getting an interview .

  • frostysnowman

    The more Napolitano can keep people afraid, the more they will tolerate to “feel safe”.  I can’t believe so many people fall for her tricks.  Unfortunately, I don’t think she can truly be reigned in until it’s done at the federal level.  But kudos to the states that are trying!   

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    There’s nothing “mean” about “outgoing CBS News anchor Katie Couric.”  It’s simply accurate. As for getting emotional, that charge applies to all the people who are afraid A Terrorist is hiding around every corner.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    The amping-up of the already hyped-up state of fear was predictable.  Our security overlords know what their priorities are — keeping the sheeple in line.  Or, as the Bard of Baltimore once put it:

    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

  • James

    One should note a difference between the front-line security theater, which does more harm than good, and the back line efforts, which may or may not be effective.  

  • http://oussamastake.blogspot.com/ Oussama

    The imams incident was not the TSA’s doing just for the record. There is cause for more vigilance after OBL’s demise, having said that I don’t know what more the TSA can inflict on the travelling public. As for the security alert level, it has been the same for almost a decade. Whether the TSA prevented a terrorist act or not is debatable, security measures could have deterred a few people, terrorist or deranged, from committing an act, we will never know. There is a need for security and we are all in this together and the TSA has to remember that they are a public service and should take the public’s sensitivities and rights into consideration, hopefully sooner than later.

  • bodega

    Chris you say:
    Many feel that security can be achieved without trampling on our civil rights and dignity.

    I think we can do better. I think we deserve better.

    So what would you do differently?

  • cjr001

    The fact is, 9/11 has been used to justify everything and anything in the last ten years. Our government has taken whole pages out of the Terrorists’ Handbook to use themselves against us.

    Political campaigns have been run on fear. TSA and DHS are run on fear.

    We are long past ‘enough is enough’.

  • Leeannewrites

    Bravo!  One of your best columns.  The sad part is, the sheeple who read this still won’t get it.  They will still think that the TSA is making them safer…in spite of the fact that, after blowing hundreds of billions of our tax dollars on flawed and potentially dangerous equipment (body scanners), failed testing techniques (explosives testing), unproven junk-science programs (Behavior Detection Officers) and thousands of unskilled, uneducated Walmart-reject workers (your average TSO), they haven’t caught ONE single terrorist.

    What they HAVE accomplished is to sexually molest and physically assault innumerable innocent travelers, traumatize untold numbers of elderly, disabled and children, steal uncountable amounts of valuable personal belongings, cost unknown numbers of travelers huge amounts of money by unreasonably denying them access to their flights, and generally make air travel in this nation a miserable experience.

    While I applaud efforts such as the Texas Legislature’s bill, sadly it won’t do anything to stop this wasteful federal program because it’s at the state level.  We need some federal legislation to stop the abuse.  But at least it’s bringing to light the absurdities of allowing unskilled, ill-trained government goons to have total dominion over our bodies and belongings any time we want to board a plane.

    Keep up the pressure, Christopher.  We have to believe that it’s doing some good.

  • Amy Alkon

     Great post, Chris. My need to travel on business does not count as probable cause. 

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    “The imams incident was not the TSA’s doing just for the record.”

    True.  It was the doing of a credulous and paranoid populace, not to mention pilot, who apparently think that every swarthy person, every “Arab-looking” person, every “Muslim-looking” person is a threat.  We interned Japanese-Americans during WWII, people, remember that??

    “There is cause for more vigilance after OBL’s demise”

    Oh, please.  While he was alive we were told we had to be more vigilant.  Now that he’s dead we’re told we have to be more vigilant.  No matter what happens, no matter how many wars we’re involved in, no matter who the U.S. erects at the next Most Dangerous Person In The World, we’ll be told we have to be more vigilant.  If that’s not the definition of fear-mongering, I don’t know what is.  Have people really not absorbed anything from 1984 or Brave New World? 

  • http://oussamastake.blogspot.com/ Oussama

     Whether this is a credible threat or not remains to be seen but it cannot be discounted. How we react to it is what matters. I agree the TSA’s public response seems to be targeting the traveling public more than terrorists.

  • Eric

    Is it just me, or does that little girl in the background of the photo look scared to death?  Because she knows she’s about to get molested by that TSO.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    That’s a topic for another time. 

  • Guest

    The minute you step outside the door you take a risk.  Should you stop driving because there’s a chance you might get into a fatal accident?  Should you stop flying because there’s a chance you might be a victim of a terrorist attack, an attack that is less likely to happen to you than getting struck by lightning?

    You know what terrorists do?  They terrorize.  They want to make you so afraid that you won’t even get on a plane unless draconian policies are enacted to the point where even our anuses aren’t safe from prying TSA eyes.  They can’t get to you physically, so they’ll get to you psychologically.

    I’m embarrassed that a nation borne out of courage and valor and fighting on the front lines against advancing British troops now cowers in fear of splintered terrorist cells, so much that we have to resort to security theater flagrantly violating the same constitutional rights that our ancestors once fought to death for.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    @Linc4Justice:disqus my thoughts exactly. 

  • Guest

    I never thought I’d say this, but good for Texas!!!

  • Ian C

     I am a US Citizen that has since fled and moved to the USSR… I mean, Russia.  I am also a commercial pilot.  This is not necessary.  Flee from the USSAmerika

  • Bill Shaper

    As Chris just stated this is a great topic for another article. That said I’ll throw out some common sense ideas that are both legal and cheaper then the backscatter scanners. Trained explosive sniffing dogs and behavioral profiling. Ironically these methods are already used by an agency under homeland security, Customs and immigration.

  • frostysnowman

    And they get to us financially.  Look how much money we’ve spent on our two wars and the TSA.  We are bankrupting ourselves on top of losing our liberties.  An article in last week’s Washington Post talked about how that was part of OBL’s plan. 

  • sb10

     Bravo!  People want a 100% fail-safe world and that’s just not going to happen.  Even if I stayed in bed with the sheets pulled up over my head I’m not safe. 

    The best way to ensure our liberty is eternal vigilance. 

  • john4868

    @bill have you ever done the math on the number of dogs required to staff every checkpoint in the US? I have. In short, it exceeds the capability of the AF unit tasked with providing all working dogs for DOD and the federal government for years to come. The current working dogs the TSA does have access to actually split time with other agencies.

    Profiling does work and is used by the TSA but the program would greatly increase costs, both training and retention.

    Actually the cost of maintaining just the profilers at one checkpoint
    greatly exceeds the cost of the scanners and we have started to deal with the cost of your working dogs and their handlers.

  • Bill Shaper

    Yes I have done the math on this and it’s less then the current backscatter machines which have already costs the taxpayers over 400 million and counting. Dogs costs around 15k to train where as these machines costs over 100k. I would be very interested in your numbers to justify how profiling costs more then machines (remember that 400k figure). Dogs aren’t cheap but they will costs less then the machines and far more critically be better able to detect explosives without violating passengers rights.

  • Annapolis2

    I commend Texas lawmakers for doing the right thing and speaking out against sexually abusive patdown “procedures”.  The word “procedure” has begun to nauseate me, as it is parroted by TSA and TSA’s terrified proponents as a euphemism for rubbing, squeezing, and invading the genitals of unwilling and innocent people.  My body is my own!  Keep your filthy hands to yourself, TSA.  And while we’re at it, stop selecting children and model-gorgeous women to be photographed naked for private viewings in your secret pornobooths.  Texans are all my heroes today!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DLLRFLTILUE3KLHQGM6WPK6VJU Brat!

    As a Canadian, the US is my second favourite place to be, other than in my own home. Over the past 50 years I have taken at least 80% of my vacations in the US, therefore about 80% of my tourism dollars have been spent there. Because of the insanity at airports, and at border crossings (strip and cavity searches being conducted on women), my last visit to the US was in 2008, and I will not be back until DHS/TSA is abolished.

    Every lunatic story that I receive regarding DHS/TSA is being forwarded to family and friends around the world, and they are passing them along to their family and friends. I have received confirmation from a minimum of 500 people, so far, who will NOT give the US another penny of their vacation dollars until DHS is abolished along with all of its sub agencies.

    You would think that a country that is supposedly on the verge of financial collapse would see the light when it comes to the tyrannical, abusive and invasive searches being used against millions of vacationers every year. These tactics will only serve to hurt the country even further, and contribute to an escalating financial decline.

  • cjr001

    Here’s another wonderful example of how TSA is ‘keeping us safe’: A friend of mine flew back for the weekend from St. Louis, where he’s currently living for work. One of his recent projects was to make some home brewed beer.

    He brought some of that home brewed beer back in individual bottles, each of which he put in bubble wrap in his checked luggage, so they would not get damaged.

    They all survived… except one. The one that was missing but with the bubble wrap left behind and the little TSA card saying that they had physically checked his luggage.

    Somebody at St. Louis’ airport STOLE from my friend’s checked luggage.

    Or is this simply a case of ‘don’t like it (when TSA steals from you), don’t fly’?

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    We’ve actually talked about dogs quite a bit on this blog.  One of the problems is that they need to go out and play every half-hour.  This is no joke.  They need to take a break and go out and play every half-hour.  This fact, combined with the sheer number you’d need at every airport around the country, makes dogs impractical.

    The bottom line — again — is to live our lives as free citizens, not cowering, terrified sheep.  It’s more dangerous to do virtually everything else we normally do on an ordinary day than it is to get on a plane, checkpoints or no checkpoints.  Terrorists aren’t hiding around every corner!

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    I was waiting for Chris to chime in first.  We’ve discussed this on this blog many, many times.  In a nutshell:  intelligence, police work.  The same things that prevent other crimes.  Responsible intelligence, responsible police work.  Responsible profiling, responsible behavioral observation, responsible questioning — not “here, you’re swarthy, lemme pull you over for abuse,” or “oh, you’re wearing a turban, you must be a terrorist.”  (Not, in other words, the ignorant racist crap that so many Americans would be just fine with, because they think that the few actual terrorists who exist are too stupid to figure out how to exploit Americans’ racism and recruit “non-Muslim-looking” attackers.)

    Bruce Schneier, Stephen Lord, Richard Roth, Gavin de Becker, Rafi Sela, to name a few — actual security experts who’ve spent their lives assessing risk, evaluating threats, and protecting people — all have been outspoken in their criticism of these strip-search scanners and gropefests.



    “And the TSA was clearly proud of spinning the story that it even posted something on its blog about the interview with the failed news anchor. ”

    I wasn’t aware that ‘failed’ as journalist includes people who’ve won an Emmy for local work, winning the 2008 & 2009 Edward R Murrow Award for best newscast on the “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.” as well as the Emmy Governor’s Award for her overall broadcasting career.

    Given her career spans nearly 30 years– to call her a failed news anchor– seems to be at minimum misplaced and minimizes her accomplishments..

    I agree with the premise of the article.. but I think that as one journalist writing about (or mentioning as she wasn’t the focus of the article) a fellow journalist and calling her “failed”… unless the writer is using their own sets of accomplishments as the ‘bar’ to measure… is a cheap shot at minimum.

  • Chris

     I think more than anything, the flying public has kept our flights safer than any TSA agent or agency.  That was most definitely shown this week as well considering there were almost as many stories about passengers tackling out of control crazies as there was examples of TSA blunders, i.e., the lunatic who tried to get into the cockpit was subdued by his fellow travelers.  KEEP YOUR HANDS OF OF ME, tsa!

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    @e2b1e1f8a4dc4db0201d76af74f6540a:disqus This is a little off-topic, but if you’d like to argue that Katie Couric was a “successful” anchor, be my guest. Her last day is May 19. 


     I did send her well wishes… I wish you the same longevity and journalistic awards….

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    @e2b1e1f8a4dc4db0201d76af74f6540a:disqus  I wish her all the best with her new daytime talk show, too. This isn’t really about Couric, and I’m sorry if my comment offended you. This is about a heavy-handed government agency (which, by the way, won’t give me access to any of its managers — zero!) scoring an interview with the number-three evening newscast’s outgoing anchor and then acting as if Walter Cronkite himself had returned to bless Janet Napolitano’s work. It’s pure spin. I kind of admire it, but it is spin, nonetheless.

  • http://silverfang77.tumblr.com/ Silver Fang

    I hope the TSA is abolished. People should have the right to fly with their property and dignity intact.

  • BrianCPVD

    I’m not a TSA apologist by any means, but there is a huge challenge in measuring a agency’s performance when the chief goal is to measure what has NOT happened.  From the agency’s standpoint, the fact that nothing has happened shows that what they are doing works.

    From the other perspective, the event rate is so incredibly low that it may be (and hopefully will be) decades before the next major event, and we can’t draw any conclusions on efficacy until the next one happens.

    A concrete example–let’s take fatal car crashes.  We have years of data on numbers of fatal crashes, when they happen, and contributing causes.  Let’s say state troopers start issuing tickets for those who don’t wear seatbelts.  The rates of fatal crashes go down, and we can at least partly attribute that to the increased enforcement of seat belt laws.  For rare events like hijackings, going from 1 major event per decade to 0 per decade may (or may not) be called a real change.

  • http://silverfang77.tumblr.com/ Silver Fang

     And laugh.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Exactly, frosty.  It was a plan that OBL explicitly stated more than once, if only people were paying attention instead of cowering behind their shampoo and water bottles.  He said repeatedly that he hoped to make Americans terrorize themselves, that he hoped to bankrupt the country by having us continually spend more and more and more on never-ending, ever-escalating “security.”  As I’ve said so often about this, Mission Accomplished.

  • Eric

    Exactly, Chris.  No weapon, from a nail file to an Uzi, will let a terrorist take over a plane.  The passengers will fight back just like they did on Flight 93.  Explosives, yes, that’s a danger but there are non-invasive ways to screen for residue on people and their clothing.

  • Bill Shaper

    Yes of course the dogs will have to be rotated throughout the work day. As I stated earlier custom’s and immigration already utilizes dogs on all international airports so the infrastructure and procedures are in place. it would not be impractical as you suggest to ramp up those existing programs within the TSA. We as a country have already wasted millions on these illegal (fourth amendment) machines, the TSA can spend a few million more to fix their own mistake. After taking responsibility for such poor decision making and fire those those responsible.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Why was everyone re-screened??  One person makes a “threatening”
    (yeah, right) comment, and everyone has to be re-screened?  What, they
    needed to get a few more gropes in?  Didn’t have enough fun the first
    time around?

    Associated Press

    WARWICK, R.I. — A flight from T.F. Green Airport in
    Rhode Island to New York City was delayed after a woman made what
    authorities called a “threatening comment.”

    Transportation Security Administration officials tell WPRI-TV that.
    Mesaba Airlines flight 4686 out of the Warwick airport bound for
    LaGuardia Airport returned to the gate at about 7:15 p.m. Sunday as a
    precaution after the woman made the comment on board.

    Authorities did not reveal the specifics of the comment or the woman’s name.

    The passenger was escorted off the flight by police, the other
    passengers were rescreened and nothing suspicious was found on board.

    Mesaba Airlines operates as Delta Connection.


    Information from: WPRI-TV, http://www.wpri.com

    —Copyright 2011 Associated Press

  • Setd43

     The word “mean” wasn’t referring to Couric!  I sense an unnecessary defensiveness in the reply.  I agrree with the blogger who pointed out her awards.  If you don’t like her personally, that opinion should not intrude into such a serious discussion.  I usually read at least one of Chris’ items each time I get an email. I also recommend this newsletter to amny people. This is the first time I have responded to the use of language.  Highly emotional language usually isn’t effective in supporting a position. 

  • traveler

    Has anyone read the TSA blog post?

    They say that the Texas House of Representatives is voting to “ban” the TSA pat down.  While I wish that was the case, the Texas HOR is only making TSA’s unwanted groping illegal.

    I’m more concerned that the TSA’s omission of information wasn’t just a mistake, but a signal to their belief that their pat down’s would be rendered ineffective without groping passengers.

    Also, did anyone read the FAQ at the end?  And for anyone who did, did anyone notice that the Facts had little relevance to the Myths that they “busted”?

  • cjr001

    The TSABlog is nothing more than government propaganda.

    I can’t imagine the willpower it takes for whomever is behind the entries (it certainly isn’t somebody named Bob) to type that stuff up and not break down in hysterical laughter.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Yes, I read the TSA blog post (and posted a comment using my real name, three days ago, which still hasn’t shown up on their “moderated” site).

    The gropes are intended to punish and humiliate.  That’s the point.  This was revealed a year ago by TSA’s own admission.  Chris reported on it. So did Charlie Leocha at Consumer Traveler:

    However, when meeting with privacy officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and TSA later that month, I was told unofficially that there were two standards of pat-downs. One for the normal situation where passengers are going through metal detectors and a different pat-down for those who refuse to go through the whole-body scanners.

    With this latest announcement, TSA admits that it has been clandestinely punishing passengers for refusing to go through the invasive whole-body scans with an even more intrusive aggressive pat-down and that soon those more invasive pat-down will creep from airport to airport.

    So did Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic:

    I asked him if he was looking forward to conducting the full-on pat-downs. “Nobody’s going to do it,” he said, “once they find out that we’re going to do.” 

    In other words, people, when faced with a choice, will inevitably choose the Dick-Measuring Device over molestation? “That’s what we’re hoping for. We’re trying to get everyone into the machine.” He called over a colleague. “Tell him what you call the back-scatter,” he said. “The Dick-Measuring Device,” I said. “That’s the truth,” the other officer responded.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    MAY 18, 2011 4:00 AM PDT
    Blogger Bob–TSA’s Internet mouthpiece (Q&A)


  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    More incompetence by our security overlords — our tax dollars at work!

    Police evacuate airport and seize ‘terrorist’ with fake bomb… pity TSA forgot to tell them it was just a drill

  • Gslukich

    As far as I’m concerned, the TSA is one step above wearing that “White Paper Hat,” asking…. “Do you want to Super Size thar order?”