TSA Watch: This is what happens when John Pistole and Janet Napolitano get together for movie night

By | July 9th, 2011

Surgically-implanted explosives? Dangerous hair?

This is what happens when John Pistole and Janet Napolitano get together for movie night.

The clip above is from the critically acclaimed The Dark Knight, a movie that should be in every TSA agent’s library, but that no one should take literally.

It appears they’ve done just that.

Security officials last week warned that militants may try to use a surgically-implanted bomb to blow up a commercial flight, according to reports. In response, the TSA said it would work with other countries to add another layer of security to its vaunted “layered” security approach.

I think the idea that someone will blow up a plane with an implanted bomb is utterly preposterous. It assumes a) the bad guys still want to take down a plane and 2) the militants have surgical techniques that would make this possible. I doubt either is true.

A more cynical view of the implanted bomb controversy is that it’s a smokescreen to pressure Congress into funding even more, and more sophisticated, full-body scanners — and forcing all passengers to walk through them. (By the way, how could a pat-down detect an implant? How, for that matter, could today’s scanners reveal an explosive “inside” job?)

A lot of air travelers have written off the implant episode as government fear-mongering at its worst. And until they catch a guy with C-4 for guts trying to board a flight to New York, I’m inclined to agree.


As to the second film from John and Janet’s movie night, I’m really disappointed. Let’s just say this one isn’t going to make any “10 best” lists.

Related story:   How JetBlue can recover from its tailspin

This is from the 2003 movie Hood Angels. What, you missed that one? Me too.

Here’s the backstory: Seattle passenger Laura Adiele complains that she was pulled out of a security line after having gone through a full-body scan and told she needed a pat-down. The reason? They needed to search her “suspicious” hair.

She believes the search was racially-motivated.

The response from TSA is quite possibly one of the most bizarre blog posts I’ve ever seen. In Screening Procedures for Hair — yep, that’s the actual headline — the agency explains that it has “zero” tolerance for profiling but that it needed to resolve an anomaly before it could let Adiele board her flight.

OK, time for a reality check.

Is hair dangerous? Do passengers fly with surgically-implanted bombs? Only in the movies.

The fact that Congress, which is allocating funds to these serial fabulists, and the flying public, with its “better-safe-than-sorry” attitude, are taking the TSA seriously says more about us than them.

Are we unable to tell the difference between fact and fiction? Have the terrorists really done that to us — or did we have a problem drawing that distinction all along?



  • frostysnowman

    I didn’t vote because both options are ridiculous; I couldn’t pick just one.  All the bad guys have to do is mention something in emails to each other and our TSA completely over-reacts.  We DON’T need more sophisticated full-body scanners.  We need to sit back, consider how real something like this actually is (not very, in my opinion), and react rationally or not at all.  Bin Laden has already gotten us to practically bankrupt ourselves with two wars and funding the TSA.  (Yes, I know other things contribute to the current economic situation but those three things do as well).  Why do we keep playing their game in a way that continues to let them win?

  • It’s all theory and wild guesses until some crazy person decides to bring a few ounces of “stupid stuff” in one of his or her, uh, personal places. People have been smuggling drugs for centuries, so is it that big of a stretch to assume that they won’t try to do the same with the small amount that is required to damage a plane? Heck, they don’t even have to cause a crash. As we saw from the shoe-bomber and the crotch-bomber, the TSA will cheerfully (over) react to even a poorly executed attempt.

  • Clara K. Showalter

    Chris, this isnt that far of a reach. Remember a couple years back that the idea of driving a plane into the Capitol was only a plot device in a Tom Clancy novel. I’m all in favor of TSA going the way of the dinosaur, but in both cases there are some legit security concerns. There are legit security concerns about children being used to deliver explosives. Don’t believe it, check Israel. It does happen. 

    With that said, trying to use technology to catch these things isn’t the best method. The question is, are Americans ready to deal with the reality of profiling to keep the skies safe?

  • Actually, the 1998 novel Executive Orders was inspired by real events: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which I was a witness to. We have no “attempted” implant bombs or dangerous hair incidents on which to base the current warnings.

  • Clare

    Americans ARE ready to deal with the reality of profiling; it’s just Big Sister Napolitano that isn’t! 

    As a former fed officer from Washington, I’m here to tell you all, we used to profile CONSTANTLY, and with good reason–it works.  E.g., there is one foreign country whose nationals used to lie to me/submit fraudulent documentation 100% of the time, no exaggerating.  I occasionally used to ask my colleagues whether they had ever run into someone from that country who was honest; I never, ever found a single case.  Not one!

    So, given these concrete, verifiable statistics, why on earth would we then assume that EVERYBODY we encountered must be a liar?  And at the same time, why on earth would we assume that people from that particular country were telling the truth?  This doesn’t require a background in constitutional law or criminal justice; it’s common sense!  If we could get off the political-correctness high-horse for a nanosecond, we would pull the fraud-puppies aside–yes, we would TARGET them–while letting the German grandmas and young-Swiss- couples-with-a-toddler-in-a-stroller sail right through. 
     
    And we wouldn’t be violating the constitution either, since we would be stopping the targeted people for an easily demonstrable, reasonable cause, while we would NOT be stopping anybody else for an unreasonable one.   

    (PS no, I won’t name the fraud-country here; but if you ask anybody from State or DOJ who’s had extensive experience working with foreign citizens, they can instantly tell you which one it is… and there are plenty of other countries statistically right there behind this one.)   

  • naoma

    Dear Chris:  A friend of mine suggested that “we” may all have to  get mammograms, colonoscopies and pap tests when we go through TSA.

    Those implanted explosives, you know.

  • Sam Varshavchik

    Life imitates art:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvOXPiH03a4

    We’re almost at this point, now.

  • cjr001

    Well, let’s face it, TSA using the whole “implanted” bombs has been expected for awhile now. After all, some of us keep asking when the rectal exams are coming, and an attempting bombing via that particular method is more likely than via a surgically implanted bomb.

    But then, we keep asking about this rectal exams, and those great defenders of the utter stupidity that is TSA never answer whether that would finally cross the line. Apparently nothing else has: giving away all one’s rights, dignity, and shame to get treated just as poorly by the airlines.

    Oh, and as I posted in last week’s article, another TSA agent was arrested for stealing stuff from passengers’ luggage.

    And some of you are so naive to still think that the real threat are terrorists.

  • SoBeSparky

    Forget for a moment the wild extreme methods of potential bombmaking in the story.  Let’s get back to foundation of your argument.  You “doubt” this statement is true, “the bad guys still want to take down a plane.” 

    You show no proof for this dangerous assumption.  You state no qualifications in international intelligence.  You just somehow assume that after Pan Am 103 in 1988, 9/11/01, the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber as recently as 2009, the “bad guys” no longer want to take down a plane or use it as a weapon.  Huh?  Who declared the truce after this 21-year history of bombing or using planes as weapons to kill thousands of innocent people? 

    Second, you assume “the bad guys” are one monolithic body, coordinated and connected in all respects with a clear chain of command.  This has been proven false.  “The bad guys” are somewhat loosely connected, with no monolithic mindset or strategy other than to attack the devil USA, whether in the air, in Times Square or elsewhere.  There are different organizations and individuals who are intent on destroying the devil.  I just don’t recall the terrorism convention where all these terrorists from Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas unanimously passed a joint resolution declaring plane bombings as passe’ and off limits in the future. 

    I am shocked you, as an air travel writer to an audience of millions, would put forward such an assumption when thousands have already lost their lives in the air.  

    Just because two thoughts among many of the TSA may be bordering on the absurd does not disprove the need for prudent and careful security.  Shoe inspection began only after they were proven to be used with the intention to bring down a plane.  Genital patdowns were instigated only after it was proven that an underwear bomb is a true and real threat.  These were not absurd inventions of fabulists but by evil people intent on killing additional thousands of Americans in the air.  TSA did not imagine these methods.  “The bad guys” proved they had the potential to do it. 

    Your blogs and columns used to be about hard facts and opinions based on facts.  Now, I am sorry to see you go off the edge.

  • What I am most incredulous about is Janet taking part in this.  According to her, our borders are safer than they’ve ever been – so much so, there are “no enforcement” orders in the states that border Mexico.

    If we’re so safe, Janet, why are you spending billions of dollars on your own version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to “protect our borders”?

    Good article, Chris.  The hypocrisy oozing from Washington is choking us all. I just wish we had a democracy based government run by and at the behest of the people of the country.  Oh…  wait…

  • Wiseword

    They’re not kidding about the hair. They always plow through mine. I assumed they were looking for silkworms. Wish I had cooties. 

  • Shannon

    I am all for a full body image scan if it will keep strange hands off me. Seriously isn’t the airport stressful enough without the fear of randomly being felt up in public.

  • naoma

    Dear Sam:  I JUST LOVED this.  I am a no religion person and got a hoot out of the “Christians.”  This will go out to my many, many correspondents who feel as I do. ” More truth than…” well, you know the rest.

  • Carver

    Your position puts the TSA in an unfair position.  They’ve been criticized, by you and others, for always fighting the last battle, i.e waiting until something bad happens then reacting.  But now, when they try to be proactive, they are criticized precisely because no one has used this particular method of terror thus they are overreaching.  A classic catch-22 and simply unfair.

    As to whether a particular terror method is science fiction/TSA fear-mongering or  a real threat, why not contact a terror expert, or scientist, or even a surgeon.

    That way there is a context by which we can make an informed decision.  Otherwise this is simply an anti-TSA rant; further red meat for a  certain segment of your readership.

  • Carver

    Clare

    While I agree with you that profiling is the obvious and best solution, its not nearly as clean as you articulate.  Based on your own post, simply being from a certain country brands you a liar and security risk.  That’s hardly acceptable.

    The Constitution requires (at least for American citizens) that in addition to one’s immutable characteristics, i.e. race, religion, gender, that the law enforcement agency must develop a secondary, conduct, based criteria.  For example, ( a real scenario); being a young white male would not be reasonable cause to stop someone.  However, being a young white male,  with preppy attire, in a low income part of town, known to be frequented by young white preppy males seeking illegal drugs, would be reasonable cause for a stop.

    So we have to make sure that our profiling techniques are developed by the appropriately trained persons, and not be the individual anecdotal experienced of field agents.

  • Carver

    Alas, I am forced to agree. 

  • Luz Clara Ramsey

    I’m wondering about the “suspicious hair” incident because I am routinely told to wait as I step out of the porno scanner b/c I need to be patted down. In fact, every single time since December I have walked into the scanner and held up my arms. Then I am told to wait for a pat down, while I watch my carry on and my laptop and my purse w/camera get pushed into a pile-up on the (distant) exit from the possession scanning machine. I have learned (the hard way) that I am not permitted to step over to rescue my stuff, or even to pick up my own laptop after it is flipped off onto the floor in the pile up of stuff. (I did file an incident report w/TSA on this one @ SFO, sobbing the whole time b/c I was on my way to a friend’s funeral).
    The last time it happened I was not feeling cheery b/c I was traveling to look in on my elderly mother. On the verge of tears I asked to speak to the TSA supervisor. She was very polite, and told me that “sometimes” after the porno scanner, passengers need to be rechecked b/c of “an anomaly.” She was not at liberty to tell me what anomaly means (so no suspicious hair on me, it was apparently something around my breasts, they paid a lot of attention to my breasts. I am an overweight woman, a 61 year old Anglo university professor). When I asked how many anomalies there were (b/c I am a walking anomaly, apparently) she said “You’d be surprised.” I’m going to simply volunteer for a pat down next time because I end up getting one anyway. Why expose myself to the porno machine’s rays if I will get patted down anyway? But really, what triggers these anomaly post-scanner pat downs? It’s annoying, and makes the TSA Theater Performance even more personal and accusative. 

  • flutiefan

    i was feeling the same way, and you articulated it much better.
    a travel ombudsman as influential as Chris should not be printing such assumptions.

  • TAPman

    But it doesn’t.  Not sure how much you fly, but if you have anything on you that they can’t identify via the scan, it is off to the Groper for you.

  • Djp

    The mechanism will be the same as drug smugglers where they swallow digs into their system and then crap it out. This time instead of drugs it’s a divide that is triggered by an altitude reader..when you hit 30,000 feet it goes off.

    This is paranoia at it’s best that their will always be a way to beat the system. Just like with drugs in sports…they don’t have tests for certain substances people use.

  • Guest

    You ought to have used this one for your Dark Knight clip, Chris:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2yv8aT0UFc

  • Sammy

    Where’s the none of the above option. Both are ridiculous and only Hollywood or paranoid Pistole/Napolitano  would come up with in order to take away more of our rights.

  • Luz, claiming to spot an anomaly is their all-purpose excuse for a grope.  It’s the magic word, the trigger, for them to do whatever they want.  That’s what it’s like to have absolute power, and the TSA has absolute power.

  • Shannon, you must know by now that going through the scanner doesn’t mean that, therefore, you’ll be spared a grope.  The two aren’t mutually exclusive.  The TSA scopes and gropes thousands of people every day. People have been groped for leaving a tissue in a pocket during a scan. A coin. A ponytail holder. Or just because an agent was in a bad mood and decided to dish out some abuse.

  • Oh, bullshit.  What happens when some bozo tries to light his hair on fire?  Then we all have to get shaved before we board??  How about a bomb going off in the arrivals or departures concourse à la Moscow’s Domodedovo?  Then where are you you gonna grope?  On all the highways leading up to the airport?

    The TSA is reactive and incompetent, not to mention abusive.  You don’t have to take your shoes off in countless European and other airports, nor get your genitals groped.  

    You really have drunk the Kool-Aid.

  • Raven

    If they want to look a real problem with security (beyond the obvious TSA stupidity) they need to look at baggage claim. I saw a guy at IAH taking bags off and putting them back on, switching them with one he was carrying. It was really sketchy and I told one of the “security” folks down there but he didn’t seem to think it was a problem. At the very least, the guy was stealing bags. At most, he could’ve been placing a bomb on the belt.

  • Terrorism in the U.S. is such a tiny, remote, infinitesimally small risk compared to all the others in our lives that no one thinks twice about, that I call B.S. on all the hysteria and hype used to dominate, intimidate, and control innocent Americans.  You’re 300 times more likely to commit suicide, Sparky.  You’re  8 times more likely to be shot to death by a police officer.  Terrorism is far too remote a risk to worry about.  The needle doesn’t move, it just doesn’t even register. 

    There is indeed abundant evidence to show that there’s no terrorist waiting behind every bench and electronic check-in machine at the airport hoping to blow up your plane.  If there were, they’d just bomb the checkpoint, or the mall, or a school, or a concert, or poison the water supply, or take any of an unlimited number of other gambits that could cause mass death that we’re not bothering to guard against.  Since that’s not happening, there just isn’t a vast army of tewwowists out there to hide from.

    We’ve had zero deaths from terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11.  Zero.  In the meantime, we’ve had hundreds of thousands of traffic deaths, many of which the TSA caused by a revolting campaign of ritualistic sexual abuse that pushed would-be flyers onto the roads. Yes, 9/11 was scary, but a decade later you cowards need to stop wetting yourselves in fear and capitulation to a few mangy criminals who live in caves ten thousand miles away.  9/11 can’t happen again, and it’s not the TSA that saves us, it’s reinforced cockpit doors and the changed mindset of hijackees.  Sure, someone could surgically implant a bomb.  But also, you might eat yourself to death.  In fact, since the latter is about a million times more likely than the former, get some math skills, get some exercise, and stop hiding in the closet from fear of imagined boogeymen.

  • The 500 or more thieves and criminals in the TSA’s ranks (and those are just the ones we’ve caught!) invalidate the “security” that TSA pretends to provide.   If you’re a dishonest TSA screener out for money who can sneak things out of passengers’ bags, then you’re a dishonest TSA screener out for money who can sneak things into passengers’ bags. 

    The TSA truly is the biggest danger to the security of aviation, as has already been demonstrated by the TSA screener who took bribes to help drug smugglers avoid security.  How did that TSA criminal know they were drugs and not bombs? Answer: she didn’t, and she’s a far bigger risk to the aircraft than any 95-year-old cancer victim’s diaper.

    Molesting children isn’t going to keep you safe, America.  Keeping the low-wage criminals of the TSA away from your property and your body will make you much, much safer.

  • Forgot to add:  why aren’t we using the naked body scanners on TSA screeners themselves every day when they leave work?  Just look at the numbers: there’s a far greater probability that a screener is a thief than that a passenger is a terrorist.   Let’s turn some of that paranoia around onto the people who are really a threat to our security.

  • I don’t think these ideas are as crazy as you think.  Many a Police Officer has found a weapon in a criminals hair.  Claim your hair is up for religious reasons and maybe they wont inspect it, easy spot for hiding.  As for surgically implanting, much harder, but terrorists have money to do that if they wanted.  I think this is an extremely low probability, but not that off the wall. 

    But the question is, if they found a possible device using a super nudoscope, what are they going to do about it?  There’s an easy solution for the bomber, blow up the check point when things get too weird.  If you’re the TSA, unless you have a legitimate plan for dealing with it, don’t look for it at the risk of people’s civil liberties.

  • Terrorists “might” try to board aircraft carrying explosive Cuban cigars. Terrorists “might” try to embark with gelegnite-filled breast implants. Terrorists “might” try to fly into the U.S. with baby bottles filled with powdered formula that can be turned into liquid explosives with the addition of a little water from the rear restroom. Terrorists “might” try to fly in first class sporting large Rolexes which will remote-detonate explosives in the baggage hold. Terrorists “might” fly with explosives concealed in hollowed-out artificial limbs. Terrorists “might” . . . .
    -LtCol David Boxwell, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD

    http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2011/07/07/world/07security.html?permid=58#comment58

    So let’s come up with every conceivable outlandish scenario we can, and then the TSA can further abuse us “just in case” one of these outlandish scenarios ever comes to pass. After all, it’s a 1 in 10.5 million chance that you’ll be a victim of a terrorist attack. And a 1 in god-knows-how-many-more chance that you’ll be a victim of a terrorist attack that uses a bomb concealed in frizzy hair. Can’t take chances with odds like that!

    (oh, and for the humor-challenged, Boxwell was being sarcastic)

  • cjr001

    “I think this is an extremely low probability”

    And yet, TSA will just ‘add another layer of security’ to something that will likely never happen. I wonder how many more billions that layer will cost?

  • LarryB

    What’s next, explosive fingernail extensions? Artificial hips filled with powdered magnesium and primer? I know, glass eyes filled with plutonium!

  • Vote.  All politics occurs locally, be active in your community.  and of course vote with your wallet.  Live with Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog

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