Taking Liberties: The TSA — “A Little Temporary Safety”

Written by Current Events

Popdose’s Revival House columnist Jeff Johnson tells of his recent run-in with the TSA, in which he was told he couldn’t take pictures even though it specifies on TSA’s website that photography is permitted.

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” —Benjamin Franklin

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” —the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the final fucking word on the matter

It was Saturday, January 8, 2011, at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) at the security checkpoint for Terminal 1, Concourse C. My wife and I were returning home to San Francisco from one of the best vacations we’d ever taken — a six-day Caribbean cruise on a ship filled with the funnest people ever.

We were flying Virgin America and we’d decided to upgrade our flight for the return home, not to First Class, but to “Main Cabin Select,” which basically means free booze and movies on the plane, plus a little more leg room. Considering that we each got one free bag checked in with our upgrade, we weren’t paying all that much more.

Heading down the escalator, I happened upon Wil Wheaton, one of the entertainers on our cruise, and was able to tell him how much I loved his writing. He told me that meant a lot to him. I could tell he genuinely meant it — and that felt really great. It seemed to be a perfect ending to our trip.

I had previously decided that if I had to go through the body scanner that I was just going to do it and not opt-out. I had done some reading about the radiation levels and wasn’t too concerned based on what little I’d read. Of course to really study the effects of this kind of radiation over a long term, you really need a long term to reach any conclusion. In other words, no matter how many talking heads say either “It’s perfectly fine,” or “It’s not safe at all,” we’ll never really know the long term effects until 20 or 30 years from now — if ever.

It had occurred to me though to opt-out in order to make a statement. I had been somewhat inspired listening to Brian Brushwood on This Week in Tech, a podcast with Leo Laporte. In this particular episode, Brushwood claimed that he always opted-out: “If I have to choose between the peep show and getting felt up I always choose being felt up. It’s awkward and they are ashamed to do it and that’s the way an invasion of privacy should be.”

Our “Main Cabin Select” upgrade meant that we got to go through the First Class line at security — which, as it turned out, lead to the exact same place that everyone else went through. So great … the first time in my life I get to go through the First Class line at security and I end up exactly where I would have been without the upgrade. I don’t even get a breath mint at the end.

At our particular security checkpoint, it appeared as though everyone had to go through the body scanner. So I just complied and went through the thing. I was gathering my stuff at the end of the X-ray machine when I heard someone call out “Female opt-out!” My wife Stacey, who had been right behind me in line, had chosen to opt-out due to the potential radiation. Probably a smart move in the long run. I mean why chance it, right?

I had started gathering Stacey’s belongings from the X-ray machine when I was confronted by the TSA agent who was about to perform the pat-down on my wife. I did not get her name, but for the purposes of this account, let’s call her “Tanya.” She asked me to hand those two items back to her, so I did. I then sat down approximately 10 feet from the screening area where I thought I would attempt to discreetly take some pictures with my camera phone. I had read an account of someone attempting to take photographs of the new body scanners but was informed by the TSA officials that he wasn’t permitted to take pictures, even though it specifies on TSA’s own website that taking photographs are permitted.

“TSA does not prohibit the public, passengers or press from photographing, videotaping or filming at security checkpoints, as long as the screening process is not interfered with or slowed down. We do ask you to not film or take pictures of the monitors. While the TSA does not prohibit photographs at screening locations, local laws, state statutes, or local ordinances might.”

I was about to take out my phone when Stacey said to me from the screening area, “Please take pictures of this.” I nodded, hoping that the TSA agent hadn’t heard this.

The agent “Tanya” approached the screening area and I was able to get one shot. It would be the only picture I would get. As Tanya began the pat-down process, I could no longer see Stacey’s face from where I was sitting, so I moved to another chair nearby to get a better angle. It was then that I was noticed by the agent.

She said “Sir, you can’t take any video,” or words to that effect. (Please note that the quotes herein are not direct quotes since I did not record any audio of the account.)

I said, “I’m not taking video, just stills,” as if that would matter.

“You can’t take pictures of any kind. I need you to turn that off.”

I exited my phone’s camera application and showed her. “It’s off.”

She informed her supervisor, a woman named Segreto who was standing about 10 feet behind me, that I was taking video.

Segreto approached me, in what felt like a very confrontational manner, telling me that I couldn’t do that.

I said, “Actually I’m pretty sure I can.”

Again, very confrontational, she said “No you can’t because it’s disruptive to our work.”

I’m pretty sure that’s the word she used, “disruptive,” which I figure means that as long as she says that someone is being disruptive, she can pretty much get away with not allowing anyone to take photographs — remember the language of TSA’s policy specifies that taking pictures is allowed “as long as the screening process is not interfered with or slowed down.”

Of course I was not in any way being disruptive, nor was I in any way interfering with the screening process. I was sitting down, well out of the way of the screening area, when I was attempting to take the pictures.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“You don’t think it’s disruptive? I assure you that it is.”

“No, I mean I’m pretty sure it’s not illegal for me to take pictures.”

“Well, it is. You can look it up.”

One thing you have to know about me is that, while generally easygoing, I do have a bit of a temper when it comes to stupidity. I have a particular problem dealing with authority figures when I haven’t done anything wrong.

The thing is, we had gotten to the airport really early, so I literally had all day before my flight and part of me really wanted to take this to the next level. It look every ounce of fiber in my being to not tell this lady to go fuck herself, to tell her I’ve decided now to videotape the whole thing and issue the “What the fuck are you going to do about it?” challenge. Probably not the best idea, I surmised. Because what she can do about it is pretty much have me put in some kind of back room all day and make me miss my flight. I’d had such a great time on my cruise that all I really wanted to do was go sit quietly at my gate and read the Twitter streams of all the new friends I had made. I decided not to push it. So I just tried to remain as civil as possible.

“Indeed I will,” I said while I looked at her name tag. “Your name is Segreto?”

“That’s right. And you are?”

“Jeff,” I said. “Jeff Johnson.”

She offered her hand for me to shake (which I did) and it was the only humanity this person showed me. But somehow the tone of it still felt a little dicky — as if she was really doing it because she was annoyed I was taking down her name.

In the meantime, my lovely wife, who is the most compassionate person I know, was being patted-down by Tanya. Here is the one picture I managed to take before the pat-down process began, which shows Stacey in the screening area and “Tanya” in the center of the frame.

After searching Stacey, the agent scanned her gloves with some device and informed my wife, “The gloves beeped, so you need to be screened further in a private room.”

“What do you mean ‘beeped’? What are you testing for?”

“Explosives,” she said.

“What did you find?”

“We found traces of nitrogen.”

“Did you use those gloves on somebody else before you got to me?” Stacey asked.

“No, we change them for every new person.”

Tanya lead Stacey to a nearby room, while instructing me to sit and wait on a bench just outside. After a few minutes, Stacey emerged and we were free to go. We took a few steps away and I could see tears were welling up in her eyes. We hugged and Stacey told me that a different TSA agent had done another pat-down in the room. Again, we didn’t get her name but I’ll call her “Dolores.” Stacey said that Dolores had been especially rough with her and had used the front of her gloved hands — not the back of her hands like Tanya had done. After this second pat-down, Dolores simply removed her gloves and said “You’re free to go.” No other testing — that was it. So they find traces of nitrogen on someone and all they do is have someone do a more aggressive pat-down, with no additional glove-scanning?

Whatever, TSA. What they really seem to be saying here is, “This is what happens when you opt-out. We’re going to make it as miserable for you as we possibly can.”

In fairness, Stacey told me that Tanya (the TSA agent who had first told me not to take any pictures) had been very polite and civil during her part of the process.

So this is what it’s come down to in our country, to be subjected to aggressive pat-downs or potentially harmful full-body scans, with the only “probable cause” being that we are traveling by airplane. Those in charge of implementing these searches are over-exerting their authority to the point of preventing legal photo documentation from taking place. And all of this is going down under the watch of President Obama.

I was very critical of the Bush administration for their not-so-subtle attacks on our civil liberties, such as using Guantanamo Bay as an excuse to lock away suspected terrorists without proper due process of law, and for the Patriot Act. So turnabout is fair play. When a president threatens our constitutional rights, even if it’s a president like Obama who I voted for and admire, I must speak up. Some right-wing conspiracy websites ran this story, which alleged that there was a memo circulating between the TSA and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano which labeled those opting-out of the body scanners in protest as “domestic extremists.” I do not know whether this memo really exists, but if it does, our President and his administration need to be assured, just like the blunders of the previous administration, that history will not look favorably upon any of this. To dismiss our very appropriate concerns that our fourth amendment rights are being violated is beyond insulting.

Oh, one last word about these body scanners. The two companies that supply the scanners to the TSA, L-3 Communications and Rapiscan Systems, each significantly increased the amount of money they’ve spent on lobbying over the past five years. And then there’s the fact that former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff worked briefly in 2009 as a consultant for Rapiscan (though a statement from Rapiscan reported that the consulting work was “unrelated to aviation security.”)

The kicker? As reported by MythBusters’ Adam Savage at the May 7, 2010, Seattle w00tstock, the machines don’t even work.[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/q3yaqq9Jjb4" width="600" height="344" allowfullscreen="true" fvars="fs=1" /]