The government's secret plan to feel you up at airports.

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 23 2010 8:41 AM

Groping in the Dark

The government's secret plan to feel you up at airports.

Airport security pat down. Click image to expand.
A TSA agent conducts a pat-down at the Denver airport

John Pistole, the head of the Transportation Security Administration, has an important message for you as you embark on your Thanksgiving travels. TSA has new airport "pat-down" procedures and wants your help. "We just ask for the cooperation and the partnership from the traveling public," Pistole said Friday on Good Morning America. "The better prepared you can be to get to a checkpoint in terms of knowing procedures, the better off everybody will be and can have a happy holiday."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

There's just one catch: TSA won't tell you what the new procedures are. If you get a pat-down, you're going to be groped, and your so-called partner and preparer won't say how. It'll be a surprise.

TSA first signaled its new pat-down policy four months ago on its blog. "You may have read about TSA implementing enhanced pat downs as part of our layered approach to security," the post began. It went on for four paragraphs, explaining nothing. Instead, it concluded: "You shouldn't expect to see the same security procedures at every airport. Our security measures are designed to be unpredictable …" Apparently, part of the unpredictability was secrecy.


On Oct. 28, news outlets said the changes had begun. ABC News reported:

TSA officers used to pat down passengers with the backs of their hands, but now they'll use the fronts of their hands to search more than ever before, in some cases touching body parts that once were off limits. A security expert who demonstrated the new procedure on a mannequin for ABC News explained the changes. "You go down the body and up to the breast portion," said Charles Slepian of the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center. "If it's a female passenger, you're going to see if there's anything in the bra."

NBC News added:

The manual search will involve a slide of the hand compared to the traditional pat-down … TSA agents will use the front of their hands in searches, and the new process will include an agent running his or her hand up the inside of a passenger's leg. TSA did not confirm details for security reasons, but did acknowledge a change in procedure.

Despite these explicit reports, TSA refused to spell out its policy. The agency's one-paragraph "Statement on New Pat-down Procedures" explained nothing. Instead, it repeated, "Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers."

By now, TSA's strategy was becoming clear: Keep terrorists off balance by keeping the public confused. On Nov. 11, the agency posted another blog item: "New TSA Pat-down Procedures." The item said fliers would be patted down by officers of the same sex and were entitled to be screened privately and to have a traveling companion on hand. But it said nothing about the content of the pat-down. Commenters mocked TSA's spokesman, "Blogger Bob," for ducking the question. "Hey Bob, What's different about the new pat down procedures?" one reader asked. "You keep forgetting to mention that somehow!" Another pressed: "Let's make it simple. Bob, yes or no: Do the new procedures including the touching of the genitals, through the clothing, with the palm of the hand? Just answer the question." Bob never answered.

Last Wednesday at a Senate hearing, Pistole refused to describe the pat-down policy because the hearing was public.