November 23rd, 2010
12:06 PM ET

TSA complaints: Warranted outrage? Or all bark, no bite?

In recent weeks there has been growing vocal anger regarding the Transportation Security Administration's procedures relating to pat downs and the use of full-body scanners. But amid all of the noise, what are the real complaints, and how much of the outrage is simply that - a growing chorus of bandwagon anger.

There certainly has been no shortage of horror stories - a shirtless boy receiving a pat down,  a flier had to show her prosthetic breast, a bladder cancer survivor whose urine bag broke during a pat down - and countless other stories of uncomfortable encounters with the TSA.

The coverage of the isolated incidents being reported raises the question of whether they paint a picture that isn't the reality for the vast majority of travelers.

The concerns: Fact vs. fiction

Polls have found a majority of Americans support the scans, though they aren't as supportive of the TSA pat downs.

A CBS News survey showed 81 percent of people polled approve of the use of full-body X-ray machines. A Washington Post/ABC News survey found 64 percent of people supported the use of the machines, while 32 percent were opposed. When it comes to the use of pat downs, respondents were practically split down the middle.  However, 37 percent of all Americans said they "feel strongly" that the pat downs are overly intrusive. Still 70 percent of Americans questioned in the Washington Post/ABC News poll said the new TSA rules made no difference in their decision to fly.

Our partners at Time.com, who are taking a look at the TSA procedures, report that the head of the agency John Pistole has said the outcry has partially been fueled by media-fed misperceptions.  He said that only a “very small percentage” of the 34 million Americans who have flown since the new procedures took effect have been subjected to the pat downs.

Politico: Go ahead, touch my junk

The TSA even released a list of "myths and facts" about pat downs and other security measures.

No doubt passengers still have some concerns. What about their 4th amendment rights? Are the scanners safe? Do they even work? Can they actually stop terror attacks? How far is too far when it comes to a pat down? What are the medical implications of the procedures? And who exactly should be getting the pat downs?

For some, it’s a question of  pat down or blown up?

BusinessInsider.com: Sorry, Folks, We'd Rather Be Body-Scanned Than Blown Up In Mid-Air

"It wouldn't be a total oversimplification to boil the issue down to a single question: would you rather get screened or blown up," Time.com's Sora Song wrote. "The new TSA whole-body scanning machines are designed to catch potentially deadly threats — like, say, explosive chemicals in underwear — that metal detectors miss. The end result should be a safer flight. It's a no-brainer."

For all those complaining about the security check hassles, CNN contributor Bob Greene asks, would you rather have no security at all?

"You can walk into any airport, with or without a ticket, and wander unimpeded right up to a boarding gate. You don't have to surreptitiously slip past a security checkpoint, because there are no security checkpoints, " he said. ""If you are carrying a loaded gun in your pocket or underneath your jacket, no one will know. In fact, if you do have a valid ticket, there will be nothing to prevent you from boarding a flight while armed to the teeth with concealed weaponry."

"Would you feel safe? Would you want to live in such a country?," he adds.

"You did, if you were a citizen of the United States before the 1970s."

Why all the hoopla?

The firestorm has only grown as close-up photos of the pat downs grace newspaper and website front pages, while the mockery has only grown on late night talk shows, "Saturday Night Live" and YouTube.

And let's not leave the press out of it. Howard Kurtz, writing for the Daily Beast, agrees in part with Pistole that the media are certainly part of the blame.

"From network newscasts to local TV, from newspaper front pages to a blur of web headlines, it seems untold numbers of women are having their breasts touched and untold numbers of men are feeling the intrusive hands of government guards near their packages," he writes. "Actually, that’s far from true."

And when it comes down to it, Kurtz said, part of the media attention is due to how easy the story is to tell - and that it has all the makings of the perfect press story.

"The narrative combines a number of elements: Hassled airline passengers (who can’t relate to that?); terrorism concerns; invasion of privacy, and a hint of sexual naughtiness," he said. "But the key here is that every local news outlet in America could send a reporter or a crew to a nearby airport and grab a piece of the action."

Then there's the whole "National Opt-Out Day" issue. It could either, as some organizations suggest, delay flights or completely fizzle out. As Time.com points out, it might just turn into a "More Like Opting Out Of Making Your Flight" scenario?

In reality, we ask: Will this idea turn out to be of "Get Betty White on 'SNL'" Facebook campaign success? Or will people who have likely paid a chunk of money to go visit their families take the time to engage in an act of civil disobedience and disrupt air travel?
Perhaps, it's just (pun-intended) all up in the air for now.
soundoff (1,704 Responses)
  1. Tamas Veszi

    It is interesting that the U.S trust technology so much. In Israel they are still going with the old school Question and answer system. It works. The Scanners seem safe until something will happen that went around it.
    TSA still doesn't get it.

    November 23, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Chris

    Fine, pat me down, scan me, whatever, but wouldja please stop making my luggage unusable? For the third time, we got home with a large bag that had been checked (and searched) and I cannot operate the zipper because the tab that one holds onto is no longer there. I gave up on the "TSA approved locks" years ago after they broke those off, but why ruin the zipper?

    November 23, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Report abuse |
  3. JRH

    I also find it hilarious that the very same people who advocate essentially abolishing the Federal Government (you whackos know who you are) are the ones defending this charade. Well folks, this *is* your Federal Government. You want them out of your personal affairs, right? How much more "in" your personal affairs are the going to get than this?

    Only if we all stand up and "just say no" is this going to change. Please write to your congressional representatives and senators. They can get this changed.

    November 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      You, sir are wrong. Shrinking the size of Governament means getting the TSA's hand off my crotch.

      November 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mike

    The terrorists have won...

    November 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  5. DAN

    THIS IS ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF THE US MEDIA PICKING A SUBJECT AND BLOWING IT ENTIRELY OUT OF PROPORTION TO CREATE STORY LINES AND IMPROVE VIEWERSHIP.....I FLY EVERY SINGLE WEEK OF THE YEAR, HAVE BEEN SCANNED ONE TIME AND HAVE NOT BEEN PATTED DOWN. ITS A LOT OF HOT AIR ABOUT NOTHING...ANOTHER DISTRACTION TO WHATS REALLY IMPORTANT IN OUR LIVES.

    November 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Secular1

      Dan – it doesn't seem like you've been walking with your eyes open. Maybe a diagnostic check might help. just a thought.

      November 23, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Sharon

    The attention given recently to TSA screening policies and practices is unprecedented. Perhaps the real reason behind the public outcry is the apparent lack of effectiveness of increasingly intrusive measures that yield very little in terms of real security and prevention of terrorist attacks. We have yet to see evidence where these enhanced TSA passenger screening methods have actually yielded tangible reduction in risk. Bruce Schneier, an American cryptographer and computer security specialist coined the term for this: “Security Theater” rather than security!

    What the TSA is doing is not scalable and will not be able to address a rapidly changing threat landscape. The TSA is focusing on the specific threats, like people hiding explosives in shoes or underwear, instead of addressing the real airport security vulnerabilities. I can’t fathom what security measures the TSA is going to have to come up with next time a terrorist boards a flight with plastic explosives hidden in their rectum!

    There clearly needs to be a better, more scalable and more effective screening techniques to achieve real and meaningful protection that Americans need.

    Why isn’t El Al, Israel’s largest airline or Ben Gurion Airport security implementing full-body scanners and enhanced pat-down procedures? If anyone in this world should be scared of innovative terrorists, isn’t it the Israelis?

    Yet what you find is the opposite. With increasing threats, their security apparatus is proving to be scalable, more effective and more secure than anything the TSA has been able to come up with.

    Everyone in US Homeland Security would tell you that what El Al is doing is not scalable in the US or anywhere else. That it would cost too much money and resources to put in place. But aren’t all these new security measures the TSA implementing equally as expensive, and yet not at all scalable or appropriate to an ever increasing and sophisticated terrorist threat possibilities? Are we really focusing and spending our resources and efforts where we get maximum security return? Or is it really just security theater and we are all just a vulnerable as we have always been?

    November 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  7. asdf

    we just have to be honest about who/how/why we are being targeted. Surely, a bus, train, or plane will blow up one day, but all of the pat downs in the world aren't going to stop that from happening.

    Let's get out of these foreign countries. drop bombs on them if and when any plot originates from a country, but otherwise our presence only seems to hurt matters. We are not the worlds police or problem solvers. It's time for the world to find that out and time for us to focus on US.

    No more nation building, no more police state pat downs, no more "allies" leading us into trouble.

    November 23, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
  8. reshal malik

    What I have experinced with TSA is completely racist. I'm brown, and asap they see that they make me go through more things. I think being racistly profiled is not good, and the us gov should do something about it.

    November 23, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ben Dover

      Yes, there appears a certain degree of racism within the TSA ranks. In an odd twist to your statement, I did notice TSA racism in the Austin airport during a recent travel stint in June ... but in that case the racism was against Caucasians. I stood in line watching the TSA employees profile and pull over only white people.

      I guess that is what happens when improper employee screening results in the TSA hiring of angry, racially charged individuals. (Not all TSA, employees, mind you, but some.)

      November 23, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jack Brent Lawless

    If you do not want to be patted or scaned, take a bus or someother means, simply don't fly. Let the rest of us fly safely.

    November 23, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Erin

      Jack Brent,

      How do you suggest I travel across the ocean? An expensive 6-day cruise? I don't have the money or time for that. How do you suggest I quickly visit a dying relative? It's not just a choice between a bus or a plane then; it's a choice between seeing your loved one's last hours and having a nude photo or crotch-grab or missing their last hours and keeping the dignity they've taught you to keep all your life.

      Some people might be fine with having their privates touched, but please respect the feelings of those of us who are sickened and disgusted by the thought of this invasion. Don't carelessly dismiss us without thinking of these complexities!

      November 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Melissa

    Oh good god. Don't like the pat downs? Use the scanner. Don't like the scanner? Use the pat-downs.

    Better than blown up and overreacting like a child.

    November 23, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • remfpog

      But you can get scanned AND patted down AND still get blown up. So why not implement more effective methods?

      November 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  11. docliptz

    Doctor Liptsvitch never wears underwear, as it is a capitalist pig-dog plot to make all people the same. I refuse to wear them while travel, so when your TSA strip searches me, they get surprise of Bulgarian d0ng.

    November 23, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Daw Dolf

    @Thomas, all of these people who are against the new scanners propably have never been on a plane and arent planning on flying ever. It's propably a bunch of high school dropouts...Seriously!I say protect our citizens by all means necessary.

    November 23, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Chris

    not gonna hope some white person gets stones and helps thwart a bomber. they didn't last time so search 'em anyway there is...

    November 23, 2010 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Aaron

    i think that pat downs are a waste of time look at the picture of the old lady sure nothing obvious found on her body but how do we not know that the necklace it really c4 colored gold or here earings is that a ral pearl or c4

    November 23, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  15. PeteInSeattle

    The kicker is this – you can't prove a negative. If the TSA's measures are successful, there will be less or no successful terrorist acts on planes flying within or exiting the USA, perhaps because those measures discouraged terrorists from even trying, not because they are caught in the act. Since we can never know with certainty how many would try otherwise, we can't measure success. Personally, I don't think that is an argument against the screenings, but you may disagree and we cannot prove who is right. It's not unlike arguments around Federal government economic measures adopted to alleviate the economic slowdown. Things are bad, but perhaps they would have been much worse without the bailouts, etc. We can't know, so we turn to our own belief systems or ideologies as a basis for arguing for or against different measures. It's a conundrum. I doubt anyone wants to try announcing that we going to put a moratorium on all passenger screenings for a year so we can establish a baseline and start gathering some metrics to help us measure success in the future...

    November 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
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