What’s the problem with the TSA’s pat-downs?

Michelle Dunaj, the terminally ill passenger who claims TSA agents in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport botched her pat-down, drew a visceral reaction from travelers with the humiliating details of her screening.

Readers were outraged that agents at Sea-Tac, an airport where TSA employees have a reputation for being difficult, would subject a dying passenger to such indignities. (And if you don’t believe me, read these comments from the wire story that ran on the Huffington Post.)

But largely missing from the discussion is this question: Do these pat-downs accomplish anything?

Absolutely not, says Robert Yamin. And he ought to know. He’s a retired Baltimore cop, an expert witness, and he knows how to frisk a suspect.

The pat-downs done by TSA agents, says Yamin, are fake.

“To really search you must basically but gently grab the testicles and feel if there is something hidden there,” he said after reading last week’s column about the passenger who says an agent whacked him in the groin after he asked to opt out of a screening. “I have been through TSA security about 40 times since 9/11. I have only been properly searched once.”

Yamin says the bad guys — at least the smart ones — would exploit this vulnerability if they wanted to commit an act of airborne terrorism. Specifically, they would carry a gun or knife strapped to their upper thigh or under their testicles. Then they would opt out of the full body scanner and allow the poorly-trained TSA agents to give them a pass.

“An agent would never notice or feel [the hidden weapons],” he says.

The TSA says its pat-downs are an effective part of its vaunted 20 layers of security, and when asked to prove it, the agency points to its week in review page on its blog, in which it shows off all of the contraband it confiscated from passengers.

But critics say the same results could be achieved by setting up random checkpoints anywhere in America with the rent-a-cops the TSA agents replaced after 9/11. They say a more effective measure would be the number of terrorists caught after being frisked.

That number is still zero.

I’m a skeptic. I’ve experienced several “enhanced” pat-downs, most recently yesterday in Washington. It was thorough but I probably could have hidden a six-shooter in my shorts and the agent wouldn’t have found it. He didn’t want to make contact with my testicles — euphemistically referred to as “resistance” in TSA lingo — any more than I did.

Maybe the Dunaj story provoked the right discussion at the wrong time. Yes, we should be talking about how we treat a terminally ill passenger who poses no threat to anyone, particularly at a time when the TSA’s own leadership is distancing itself from a one-size-fits all-screening.

But this is no time to be falling down a rabbit hole, even one this important. Rather, since we are just days from a presidential election, we should be discussing the bigger issue: Why are American citizens who have done nothing wrong being frisked like prisoners in the first place?

I asked Yamin.

He said it’s all for show. “It’s like a circus,” he told me.

And the criminals and terrorists know it, they know how to exploit it, and the only thing the ineffective pat-downs do is make some people feel safer.

The Dunaj episode points us to a greater truth about pat-downs, say experts like Yamin. Most of the layers of security are little more than illusions reinforced by a government agency that feeds off the paranoia and fear of the masses. Doing away with them would make America’s transportation systems no less safe.

The TSA claims Dunaj was screened correctly and implied she’s just a complainer. My colleague Steven Frischling even made a brave effort to contact the TSA supervisor in Seattle who oversaw her screening. Here’s his post, in which he says he debunks her account (warning — the comments contain some salty language).

It’s a real he said/she said, isn’t it?

So who do you believe — the claims of a career bureaucrat demanding anonymity or the assertions of a terminally ill passenger with nothing to lose?

I don’t know. That’s a tough one.

We shouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place. Dunaj should have been allowed to fly without being hassled, or without feeling as if she was hassled.

So should the rest of us.

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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  • BillCCC

    I voted no based on what I have read but I really have no idea since I have never been patted down at a TSA checkpoint.

  • MarkieA

    I refuse to go through the scanners whenever I fly; I always “opt out”. So far, no TSA agent has done anything that I feel is improper while patting me down. However, I also believe that TSOs target the vulnerable; women traveling alone, the elderly, foreigners. People who, they think will put up the least resistance. I’ve never been accused of looking like someone who would easily submit. On point, though, the pat-downs appear to me – and I’ve never been “professionally” patted down, thankfully – to be lackadaisical, at best. I’ll have to pay more attention next time.

  • EdB

    “Yes, we should be talking about how we treat a terminally ill passenger who poses no threat to anyone”

    Okay, this comment will probably draw a lot of negative reactions, but wouldn’t a terminally ill passenger more likely be a “suicide” bomber than a health person? Because they know they are going to die, what do they have to lose by controlling when they die? (By the way, how would the TSA agent know she was terminally ill in the first place?)

    I think everyone going through screening should be treated the same – with dignity and respect, some the current TSA “officers” do not do. It shouldn’t matter if the person is terminally ill, in a wheel chair, or a healthy walking person. If we give certain conditions special treatment, and don’t verify the condition, then that gives the bad guys one more avenue to exploit by faking the condition and using it to their advantage.

    What it gets down to for me is the current TSA is an ineffective joke on stopping terrorism. The only thing they are efficient at is wasting money and abusing passengers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    I suppose the million-dollar question is “Did the screeners who patted you down handle your penis and testicles through your clothing?” (I’m assuming you are male.) I have to ask because there are certainly many people who have stated that “no TSA agent has done anything that I feel is improper” even though the screeners violated their genitalia. I can’t imagine not feeling that it’s “improper” for strangers to be rubbing my sex organs, but clearly other people are less sensitive than me. So – were your genitals probed in your patdowns?

  • Thomas Ralph

    The problem here is that if people get so antsy about pat-downs, the US government will just do what the UK has done and Australia is about to do, and say “no scan, no fly”.

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

    Are the gropes effective? At cowing the public, yes. At compelling obedience, yes. At conditioning people to accept whatever comes down the pike, yes.

    At security? No. Reality and facts dictate no. In all the years of aviation before the gropes were implemented, in all the decades before October 30, 2010, planes weren’t being blown out of the sky left and right.

    But we all know how far that’ll get you. People like their fantasies. Reality and facts just get in the way.

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

    Thomas, that appears to be changing in the UK. Hubby just flew back from Heathrow; he saw no scanners anywhere. But who knows what’s going on over there. Maybe they just removed the old scanners and are blowing money on new ones yet to be delivered.

  • mbods

    It’s not a “tough one” really, this harassment simply needs to stop! Anyone who thinks the TSA is needed is just falling for the hype. Wake up America!

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    What Chris’s friend Yamin tells us is that any competent patdown is sexually violating. The TSA has tried to lie by omission with its childish euphemisms about resistance and the place where your inner thigh meets your torso. The American public must acknowledge this simple fact – “patdown” means “a stranger’s hand will be exploring the feel of your sex organs”. Only then can we start to have the conversation about whether it is reasonable to force innocent people, not suspected of any wrongdoing, including minor children, to endure strangers rubbing and manipulating their sex organs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/franklin.bruner.7 Franklin Bruner

    These clowns don’t have a clue. But it must be a power-full experience to paw whoever you want to. Does it make the airways safer– — no, but it must be an empowering job to have especilly after a lifetime of fastfood jobs.

  • cjr001

    TSA = 20 layers of failure

    And if TSA truly did insinuate that Dunaj is a complainer, well, there’s nothing like adding insult to being terminally ill, is there?

    Oh, and just as a reminder: TSA’s ONLY job is to stop terrorists, NOT to find ‘contraband’.

  • frostysnowman

    Pat downs are not effective in stopping terrorism. As I’ve commented before, the most effective way to prevent terrorist acts at the airport is to catch the perpetrators during the planning process, before they even get to the airport. That is where we are having the most success, and that is the best way to measure our success.

    We are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in this country. Every accused is treated that way in a court of law. Yet at the airport, we are guilty until proven innocent by invasive scanners and pat downs (I’ve had more than one of the enhanced variety, and had to watch my younger daughter, 3 at the time, have one) that don’t do anything constructive.

  • SoBeSparky

    Faulty logic.

    How do random checkpoints by rent-a-cops equal the take of contraband? “But critics say the same results could be achieved by setting up random checkpoints anywhere in America with the rent-a-cops the TSA agents replaced after 9/11.” Logic says that a one-out-of-five “random checkpoint” means only 20% of contraband seized. Lots of luck with hundreds of lethal weapons on board each year . Perhaps the random checkpoints would have allowed 24 loaded guns on board last week.

    The result of no terrorists being caught after frisking ignores the proverbial elephant in this story–there haven’t been terrorists with contraband on board. Isn’t that the purpose?

    There are no exceptions. Any acknowledged exception issues a clear set of directions for those who would bring down our nation. Why not just say, be a grandmother or have bandage appendages to pass through without a search. Absurd. (The lack of a private search is inexcusable, of course.)

    Lastly, what is wrong with making the American public feel safer? The TSA results have brought leisure travel back. Go back and read the reactions of discretionary travelers after 9/11. The airline industry, and all travel jobs in general (including travel columnists), would be very diminished today were it not for the safety in the skies.

    How soon memories fade and emotions overtake logic.

    The Patriot Act and the entire TSA search and seizure scenario bother me greatly, but not for the reasons cited here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Gianavel Steven Koch

    TSA’s real purpose isn’t security – it’s a fearmonger designed to teach the American citizen how to say, “Baa” when the government wants them to.

  • Miami510

    Many years ago I met a young man who, while he was 28, had a baby face, hardly shaved, and looked like a 15 year old. He was an undercover agent for a Federal law enforcement agency targeting illegal drug dealers. While undercover, posing as a drug dealer, he was often searched for wires (wiretapping equipment) and for weapons, before he was admitted to speak with the top drug dealers.
    .
    His backup team was nearby, but only for raiding after he left the negotiations.
    He described to me a coccys holster which held a .45 caliber Derringer, a small pistol that would fit in the palm of the hand. This holster held the weapon just behind his testicals and close to his anus, hidden in the cheeks of his buttocks.
    .
    I mention this here, because such a holster would is commonly known to the police and underworld, and would pass any physical (pat-down) inspection. On occasions when, for reasons unknown, I failed the scatter X-ray machine, I was pulled aside and pattend down and (and this is the important part) swept with the hand-held electric wand for any metal. Only that would have caught something like the hidden pistol. Without the wand, a very invasive pat-down would have been necessary. So the way it’s being done now is just theater.
    .
    What should be done is more use of the wand and forego the pat-down that causes such public anger.

  • MarkieA

    The only way your premise is valid is if you assume that a terminally ill passenger has somehow decided to not only end his/her life, but the lives of many others, too. That’s where you lose me.

  • MarkieA

    Nope, not yet. No cupping, No “touching my junk”. That’s why I say that the pat-downs have been, to date, lackadaisical. Not sure how I would react if I got a “proper” pat-down. 50-50 chance of me doing something that would get me detained. I have visions of me moaning and writhing, and whipping out a dollar as a tip.Or, just as likely, “accidentally” kneeing someone in the face.

  • naoma

    Recently I flew from Phoenix to San Francisco. Being of a “certain age” one does not have to remove shoes (?) I had to go through the x-ray (is that what it is?)
    and then HAVE a patdown — full body including some stuff put on my hands and checked.

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

    “How soon memories fade and emotions overtake logic.”

    Indeed. As your post proves.

  • frostysnowman

    There’s nothing wrong with making Americans feel safer. The problem comes in when it’s done in such a way that it makes us feel like we’re doing something wrong just because we choose to or need to fly, when it violates our rights. It’s useless Kabuki theatre that may make some people “feel safer”, but it doesn’t actually make us safer. That’s what is wrong with the way the TSA does it.

  • EdB

    The premise is if a healthy person is capable of ending their own life and that of others, even though they have a long life ahead, a terminally ill person would be just as, if not more, willing because they know they are going to die soon. This is not to say that all terminally ill people, just as not all healthy people, would do it. It just means that everyone should be screened the same regardless of physical health.

  • Daisiemae

    Exactly!

  • Daisiemae

    And since they have never found a terrorist in ten years of existence,they have failed miserably at their job!

  • Daisiemae

    What is wrong with making the American public “feel” safer? The price is too high to pay for a feeling that is completely out of touch with reality.

    Eight billion dollars a year is too high a price tag to pay for a misplaced feeling.

    The sacrifice of precious freedoms that generations of Americans have paid for with their blood is too high a price to pay for a misplaced feeling.

    Paying the salaries of illiterate, untrained, criminals and social misfits is too high a price tag to pay for a misplaced feeling.

    Paying those same criminals and social misfits to sexually assault our innocent law abiding citizens is too high a price tag to pay for a misplaced feeling.

    Paying those same criminals and social misfits to compromise the health and the very lived of our disabled and ill citizens is too high a price tag for a misplaced feeling.

    Compromising our safety and security by channeling all our precious resources into this abusive dog and pony show is too high a price tag for a misplaced feeling.

    That is what’s wrong with making Americans “feel” safer. The price tag is too high for a feeling…especially when that feeling is completely groundless.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    But it is impossible to screen everyone the same, because people are different. For instance, some children can’t walk without their metal leg braces, so we can’t screen them with a metal detector. Or, we could do what the TSA does and force the child to crawl hand over hand humiliatingly through the metal detector portal after depriving the child of his assistive device. Some people have prosthetic breasts or mastectomy scars or externally protruding hernias or abnormal genitalia, so they can’t be cleared by the nude body scanner machines. Some people wear prosthetic limbs or implanted medical devices that can’t be removed at the checkpoint, and there is in fact no way for the TSA to actually verify what those items are, but they hassle prosthetic-wearers anyway. Because of these and other completely non-terroristic differences between people’s bodies, the TSA has arbitrarily sentenced some travelers to mandatory sexually invasive patdowns every single time they fly – which is certainly not “screening everyone the same”.

    But I certainly agree with you that TSA is an ineffective joke that accomplishes nothing more than abusing people and wasting money.

  • BobChi

    The only people who can stop it are the Congress, an organization which is cowed and dysfunctional.

  • BobChi

    And you could add the opportunity cost of doing something real to protect us with the $8 billion instead of this nonsense.

  • EdB

    I said screened the same, not the same way. What I mean by that is if you are going to check the shoes of one person, check the shoes of everyone. Don’t give someone a pass on a shoe check just because they have a certain condition. (This is just an example item)

    What the TSA is currently doing is far from what I am talking about too. In order to accomplish what I am talking about, you need real trained professionals the understand the differences/problems/conditions and have been trained how to properly screen them. The pizza box officers certainly don’t fit that catagory.

  • http://www.balivillaholidays.com/ Bali Villa Holidays

    The technology have a lot of capabilities to make this pat downs so unnecessary. Instead of paying for these security personnel’s wages, why not just install an efficient machine to do all these checking.

  • Raven_Altosk

    See my comment made on Saturday while at the airport. I fly all the time and usually don’t have a problem. But on Saturday, because we were carrying infant formula, we had an issue, even though by TSA’s own rules we shouldn’t have.

    Bottom line: I’d like to introduce Agent Nikki to a the business end of my Walther.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    What Chris’s friend Yamin tells us is that any competent patdown is sexually violating. The TSA has tried to lie by omission with its childish euphemisms about resistance and the place where your inner thigh meets your torso. The American public must acknowledge this simple fact – “patdown” means “a stranger’s hand will be exploring the feel of your sex organs”. Only then can we start to have the conversation about whether it is reasonable to force innocent people, not suspected of any wrongdoing, including minor children, to endure strangers rubbing and manipulating their sex organs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    Alright, if you disagree with my comment, please post your rebuttal below. Trying to censor my speech by marking my perfectly straightforward and on-topic post as spam only underlines my point that TSA apologists are enemies of American values.

    What Chris’s friend Yamin tells us is that any competent patdown is
    sexually violating. The TSA has tried to lie by omission with its
    childish euphemisms about resistance and the place where your inner
    thigh meets your torso. The American public must acknowledge this simple
    fact – “patdown” means “a stranger’s hand will be exploring the feel of
    your sex organs”. Only then can we start to have the conversation about
    whether it is reasonable to force innocent people, not suspected of any
    wrongdoing, including minor children, to endure strangers rubbing and
    manipulating their sex organs.

  • Joe Farrell

    I selected the pat down – got my swiss army knife through every time. Plus I don’t like radiation of unknown frequency, dose or type where the person scanning me refuses to tell me what they are scanning me with . . .