New TSA regulations: Pat-downs and screenings at airports

Nov 17, 2010

Washington Post staff writer Ashley Halsey III will be online Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss new TSA regulations (pat-downs and full-body scans) for screening airline passengers.

I will be opting for pat-down for my next trip, as I believe that the TSA has not shown the machines to be safe for frequent use. How much additional time should I anticipate and build into my schedule? Personally, I think this is insane. "those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither."

As with almost  anything else regarding airport security, the best answer is "it depends." The pat down itself can't take terribly longs -- there's only so much of you -- but the overall time will depend on how long the regular lines are and on how many people are opting for the pat down.

It's safe to assume that like anything else in passing through airport security, the answer to how much additional a pat down will take is "it depends." If it's a busy time and a number of people op

I am pregnant and am uncomfortable going through the new backscatter machines. I do not feel there is adequate information to assure me of its safety. All airports I've been to recently have allowed me to opt to go through one of the old machines. Are those being phased out? Is my only option now to be subjected to a pat-down?

John S. Pistole, the TSA administrator, has underscored in appearances before Congress yesterday and this morning that his people will be firm but sensitive. Extrapolating on the promise of sensitivity, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if both the new and the old scanner option is avalable, those sensitive folks will let a pregnant woman use the one she's least afraid of.

I am very concerned about TSA officers looking at naked pictures of my four-year-old daughter, or manually probing her genital area. I believe she should be free from these intrusions by adults, and that they border on molestation and child pornography. I have seen the video of the 3-year-old girl screaming "stop touching me!" at the TSA officer. Is there any move whatsoever to start showing some consideration towards small children?

Pistole says children under 12 will not be subjected to  advance pat downs. He also says very few adults will too, unless they opt out of the scanner. When my kids were three years old and very tired they were prone to screaming don't touch me over all kinds of issues, but we didn't distribute video tapes. They've grown up just fine. Your four-year-old will be more affected by the anxiety she senses in you than she will by the airport experience.

Is the new TSA policy more stringent than European screenings? If so, passengers from Europe could fly into the US and transfer to a domestic flight while avoiding TSA screening. What do European countries do to screen passengers and meet the higher terrorism threat?

Europe is far from immune from terrorism, as numerous deadly events have shown. Procedures differ from one foreign country to the next, but particularly when boarding U.S. carriers to fly home you'll find things pretty strict. I went through serious layers of security to board a United  flight home from Australia last year.

Has the TSA shown any data whatsoever that this enhanced screening is effective in catching terrorists? I am at high risk for skin cancer and don't want to be subjected needlessly to X-rays, but if I opt out of the new scan I will have my breasts and genitalia fondled in front of all of the other passengers. Wouldn't it be a more effective use of the billions of dollars spent on this technology to put air marshalls on every flight?

This technology is said to be capable of catching non-metallic destructive devices. Pistole contends the radiation is minimal.

So can you videotape the pat-down and then have TSA contract employee charged with sexual assault and any supervisors charged with conspiracy to commit sexual assault? Then charge Secretary Neapolitano under the RICO statutes?

Sure, have a go if it gets you that riled up, but please let the rest of us know in advance when you're flying so we can choose another flight.

What will happen if huge numbers of flyers (like 75 percent or something) decline to go through the screening machine and opt for the super-invasive pat-down instead? Do you think they'd eventually give up? Considering I live about 500 feet from the World Trade Center, I am usually very understanding about having to give up certain privacies for security. But this seems a bit much even to me.

We can only speculate as to what would happen, so let's. It would be a huge mess and lots of people would miss their flights.  Since 9/11 there have been lots and lots of incursions into privacy in the name of fighting terrorism. This is the latest, and once all the hype dies down the whole process will become routine.

I am wearing ankle braces right now for a very painful foot condition. I can get out of my shoes with the braces, but I would need a chair to take the braces themselves off. They do not contain metal, but they sure don't look like I'm down to my stocking feet. The last time I went through an airport screening, I pointed them out to the TSA agent who had me go through regular screening, then showed me to a bench on the far side, wiped down the outside of the braces with a cloth and had that cloth "sniffed" for explosive residue. It took a little extra time, but was no particular burden and the agent was very cheerful about the whole thing. Is this the standard procedure for an issue of not being able to get down to stocking feet? Should I be prepared to deal with more? I could take them off completely before getting in the security line, but it will leave me with VERY sore ankles for hours afterwards.

It sounds to me like that was a very reasonable resolution, and I suspect you'll encounter that again. The TSA folks I've encountered have generally been accommodating to special needs. I've gone through in a wheelchair, on crutches and using a cane. I've also done the wipe down you described. I've never missed a flight because of that.

I don't mind the scanner. Don't get me wrong, I think it is intrusive and unnecessary, but I dont really care if I have to go in one. However, if they choose me for one of those enhanced pat-downs, I will leave the airport. I am an assualt victim and will NOT let the government force me to be touched in that way by someone I do not know. So, here is the question - is there any truth to the rumor that if they select you for the pat-down and you leave the airport, they will fine you? And if so, how much? And does that put you on the pat down list for life?

Pistole said today before the Senate Commerce Committee that that's untrue.  The talk show hype on this one is drawing millions of listners/viewers, and after a while those spinners run out of facts and begin sharing rumors.

I would like to know if there are exceptions as to who is screened either by full body scanners or pat-down? Are government officials exempt, eg, TSA officials, Congress people, etc.? If so why?

One of the members of the Senate commerce committee said that he'd been patted down.

There is a real possibility of violence when parents protest enhanced pat-downs of their children and grand children and husbands lash out against the pat-downs of their wives. The pat-downs clearly go beyond the limit of reasonable government behavior. In my own case, I will not fly on an airplane if I am required to have a groin area pat down. I will drive to everywhere that I need to go.

There is the option not to fly. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is pushing hard for high-speed rail, which is a great way to travel.

Children aren't going to be patted down, Pistole says.

I'm prone to skin cancer -- my dermatologist has cut out three pre-cancerous bumps and I'm only 47 -- and I've read that these new machines haven't been thoroughly tested on the effects of their radiation. Am I reasonable in being concerned? Would the TSA get huffy if I opted out?

Pistole says the radiation is minimal. If you doubt his assessment, go for the pat-down. In my experience, passengers are a whole heck of a lot more "huffy" prone than the TSA.

Why not run bomb sniffing dogs through the lines. More effective and cheaper. Dogs are more accurate then any scanner. Then just wand folks.

The TSA and other security does use dogs. Though they are perhaps the best trained dogs on the planet, that raises a whole other set of issues.

What about the guy from San Diego (Tyner) who has video of him being threatened with a civil suit for leaving the airport?

Pistole said this morning that they are reviewing the case but that he didn't anticipate taking any action against him. The guy has become a folk hero by acting like a jerk, and the TSA guy's response sounded pretty reasonable by contrast.

"This is the latest, and once all the hype dies down the whole process will become routine." Sadly, I think you're right. One more of these attempts, and we'll be facing cavity searches. And we'll be expected to be grateful if they just put comfortable padding in the stirrups.

It will become routine. My mom, who was a person of insatiable curiousity, passed away in 1984. As I marvel at how the world has changed since then I often think about how stunned she would be by things like passing through airport security -- nearly undressing, having our shoes x-rayed, and now a full body scan. Mom would be amazed!

In yesterday's hearing, Sen. Ensign and Administrator Pistole had an exchange over people who want to "opt out of all screening." The trouble is, those who object to the new procedures don't want no screening, they want appropriate screening. Leaving aside the question of what is "appropriate," why did news stories, including the Post's, not question this absurd distortion of citizens' concerns?

Not sure I follow you. The outcome of that exchange was that Pistole said those who opt out of all screening simply weren't going to be allowed to fly. That, I believe, was the lead of our story

Gizmodo (one of Gawker's blogs) recently posted video of some of the pictures that had been taken from the new imaging machines and kept by the users (I believe it was the US Marshals Service). What's TSA's current explanation for how long the images will be kept and deleted?

They say they're not being kept.

The rest of the world is using a more common sense approach. Why does the government make it sound like this is the only solution and why doesn't the press call them on this untrue statement.

I haven't heard Pistole or any other official say this is the only approach. It's one of hundreds of steps they think prudent in keeping terrorists or their bombs off airplanes.

You seem pretty pro TSA, why should we believe anything you say?

Because they've been so good in the past? My issue with TSA is that they are not consistent nor knowledgeable about their own rules. My issue with the X-ray is that it takes longer, you have to take off many more items of clothing/jewlery, and you are separated from these items while you are waiting for them to read it and waive you through. This is while everyone else who just went through the quick magnatometer (sp?) is now retrieving their items from the belt and pawing past mine sitting unattended.

Somebody suggested I'm pro-TSA, well let me respond to your question by saying that over the years I've experienced wild inconsistency with their people. What's okay in one place is big trouble in another. That's been a frustration, but one I've made peace with because I recognize they are people trying to follow intructions and do their job.

I had the groin check, and it was very fast. I don't even think it was a full second. Is that the typical time? I guess the scanners require periodic calibration and maintenance. But we don't know if that is being done correctly. Does the scanner operator have a meter showing the radiation level? If the level suddenly surges beyond the expected level, is the operator required to notify the passenger that a malfunction occured - and provide a copy of the specs so the passenger can visit his or her doctor for a follow up evaluation?

So, in the war on terrorism we've come to this burning question: what's the typical time for a groin check? Well, Pat, you're our first chatter who has experienced this, so let's just all agree that "less than a full second" is the standard.

Ashley, it seems your response is mostly "comply or it will be very inconvenient for you and everyone else". I don't know that just because we will be an inconvenience we should stop protesting something that seems so wrong. I am sure that China and other repressive countries use the same "do it or be ridiculed" rhetoric to support what we call human rights violations. I mean is the "it will be hard" really a good argument against standing up for your rights? I'm glad people didn't espouse that tactic during the civil rights revolution.

No, you don't have to comply with it. If this is a big human rights issue for you, have at it. You ever wonder what the last moments were like for the passengers before they hit the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and that corn field in Pennsylvania? I have.  We've given up a lot of privacy since that awful day. If these new procedures are too much, then we should get comfortable with  whatever risk comes from doing less.

I'm concerned about people who have been sexually assaulted or molested in the past. Has the TSA considered the impact these aggressive pat-downs may have on this population?

I don't know whether they have, and that's a good question.

The real issue is the boorish behavior of many TSA employees. The public feels unable to talk to a supervisor without a harsh retaliation by the offender. Any chance that TSA will recognize they have bad, intimidating employees?

Are you aware of any harsh retaliation, or do you simply fear it?

Everybody except Caribou Coffee has some bad and intimidating employees, overall, I've found far fewer of them working for the TSA than a whole lot of other places.

"Pistole said today before the Senate Commerce Committee that that's untrue. The talk show hype on this one is drawing millions of listners/viewers, and after a while those spinners run out of facts and begin sharing rumors." Really? What about the video of that libertarian blogger who said he would choose not to fly and would leave the airport instead, and they would not even let him leave? Are you saying we can't believe what we actually heard on the video?

What I heard on the video was a fairly restrained reaction by TSA to a guy who was behaving like a jerk.

Has the FDA looked at this issue? They usually do research and analysis of new x-ray systems before they can be deployed.

That's a good question. I don't know whether they would be involved in this particular scenario.

I wouldn't mind this so much if it meant some other aspect of screening were avoided - like having to take off my shoes and belt. I just went through one of these machines, had to remove shoes and belt (just like before - just more hassle). Then apparently the machine reader was unsure, as my right forearm and left thigh had to be patted down - in front of every one. Seems like the worst of all worlds. But as I say, if the technology allowed me to keep on my shoes and belt and other clothes - and was accurate enough not to require additional (unneeded) patdowns, I would not object. But right now it does not seem worth it! Any chance the technology will be improved soon?

Yes, there was talk at yesterday's Senate committee hearing of a new generation of techology in the works, but there were no details on it. Maybe it will link right into Facebook and Twitter? (Just kidding.)

These machines can't do cavity searches, right? Anyway, there's always going to be something a terrorist can do to cause a disaster. I would feel most safe if there were 2 or 3 armed U.S. marshals on every flight instead of having them operate the scanner machines. We've got cops on the streets, right? Put them in planes! (Or more of them).

Nobody talks much about air marshals, other than to say they're still out there. I always look around at passengers who board the plane late and sit near the front, wondering whether they're marshals. I did notice when booking a flight the other day that all the front row seats were neither booked nor available.

TSA chief defends body scanners, pat-downs

Has any information been published on the actual amount or range of radiation emitted by these machines? The human body accumulates radiation as it is exposed to it. How many times through one of these machines is equivalent to say, a chest X-ray?

Pistole said something about that yesterday. I can't recall his remarks with precision, but I believe he said they were far lower.

I have heard that TSA's background checks for employees prohibit anyone who has a sexually-based offense within the last 10 years from working for TSA. Is that true? What about people who have sexually-based convictions more than 10 years ago -- can they still work for TSA? It seems from what I've read like they could... and given the, um, personal nature of the latest screening techniques, I'm kind of worried about that.

Hmmm, no idea. But I think I'd apply the common-sense standard to that. Do police departments hire sex offenders? Are sex offenders allowed in the ranks of EMTs? Do they get hired as elementary school teachers? Probably not. And I doubt the TSA hires them either. (Although if someone were hyping this issue, that would be a great bit of "rumor" to toss out there.)

I know I'm jumping in late here, but please point out that NOT all these enhanced machines use X-rays. Some machines use "millimeter waves," which have far less energy than X-rays and basically act like radar. Millimeter waves are "non-ionizing" and can't affect living cells the way X-rays can.

Since you know more about them that I do, I'll have you make the point!

I'll let you make that point, thanks.

Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments and questions. This is obviously a sensitive issue. Please let us know of your experiences with the new system.

Ashley Halsey

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Ashley Halsey III
Ashley Halsey III is a staff writer for The Washington Post.
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