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.

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.

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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.

Question:  My understanding is that the October change went from using the back of a hand gliding across a person to a different approach.  You might describe that, number one and—well, go ahead and describe that, if you would.

Pistole:  Well, there's—the back of the hand is still used in some aspects.  I would prefer not to go into specific detail in an open hearing, simply because I don't want to give a road map to anybody to say, "OK, here's exactly what the technique is, and so how can we defeat that?"

Sunday, in an interview with NBC, he dodged the question again.

Question: Are there specific guidelines to how these TSA agents are supposed to pat them down or touch these passengers?

Pistole: There are standard operating protocols, which should be adhered to strictly. And we have ensured that each security officer is properly trained and versed in how to go about doing the pat-downs. One of the keys is clear communication with these passengers: Say, "Here's what I'm going to do," and then to work with that person to help them understand not only what is about to happen, but as the pat-down occurs.

In other words, we won't tell you what we're going to do until we're about to do it.

On CNN's State of the Union, Candy Crowley showed Pistole three video clips of TSA officers touching fliers. She asked him whether the kinds of contact shown in the clips were TSA-approved. In each case, Pistole said yes:

Question: This is a hand obviously going inside the pants. That's OK?

Pistole: That's OK around the belt line. …

Question: All those things were fine? You saw a woman whose breasts were being felt. You saw a man whose—you know, had another man's hand in his crotch. What's over the line?

Pistole: I think that's for the public to help inform that discussion.

An amazing statement. Does TSA have guidelines or not? What are they? Instead of answering the question, Pistole dumps it back on the people he's keeping in the dark. Crowley presses him:

Question: You've driven everybody to the TSA website and said, "Look here." But because you don't want to reveal to terrorists what's going to be checked, there's no way for anybody to look at that website and know where they're going to be touched and where it's not allowed to be touched. And so what you seem to be saying is, "You can be touched anywhere."

Pistole: No, no, no, I'm not saying that at all, Candy. There are standard operating procedures for the pat-downs. … I did not advertise this, if you will, and say, "We are going to do this new type of pat-down," because I did not want to provide a blueprint or a road map to the terrorists to say, "Here's our new security procedure, so here's all you have to do ..."

OK, so he won't tell us what the pat-down entails. But at least we know we can avoid it, right? All we have to do is go through the body scanner. That's what Pistole said on Hardball last week: "If you want to go through the [scanner] or walk-through metal detector and there is no alarms, no alerts, then there's no pat-down."

Except—oops!—apparently that isn't what happened to Sen. Mike Johanns. At last week's hearing, Johanns, a Nebraska Republican, asked Pistole why he'd recently been scanned and patted down at an airport. Pistole assured him: "In almost all instances, you would not be subject to a pat-down. There is a very, very small percentage that is done at random … so it can be unpredictable to the terrorists."

Ah, unpredictability. Go through the scanner, and we won't grope you, unless we will.

We get it, TSA. To keep terrorists uncertain and anxious, you're going to keep the rest of us uncertain and anxious. You're going to touch us in new ways, but you won't tell us where or how. So stop talking about "educating," "communicating," and "partnering" with us. You aren't communicating. You're concealing. You want to surprise us. In return, you can expect us to react the way you'd react to an unexpected groping.

I understand your objectives. You want to be unpredictable. And sometimes, you need to pat people down. But combining these two things, in the form of surprise molestation, is a really bad idea. It's a recipe for trauma and confrontation.

Tell us what you're going to do so we can brace ourselves for it. Or maybe we'll choose not to fly. We can't make an informed decision unless you level with us. You owe us that much. This is America.

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