By Nathan L. Walls

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  • Encased/Raleigh
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  • Completed Snow Angel/Raleigh

Articles tagged “tsa”

Regarding the TSA: An open letter to my representatives

I am writing this as a public post. However, I am specifically sending this message to my senators and my congressman. I encourage you to express your frustration with the TSA by writing a physical letter to your representatives as well.

Dear (Senator Burr|Senator Hagan|Congressman Miller),

I am writing to express my disgust and frustration with the Transportation Security Agency’s recent adoption of backscatter screening machines (also known as Advanced Imaging Technology). While I have not directly experienced the backscatter machines or the TSA’s alternate and invasive body pat-down, I have significant qualms about both procedures and how they are applied to screening passengers.

First, the backscatter screening machines are based on a faulty premise: If only we saw more of people we might prevent a bomb, knife or other weapon from getting onto a plane. Unfortunately, we already know Al Qaeda is completely comfortable hiding bombs in the rectums of suicide bombers. The backscatter machines will not find objects hidden inside someone’s body.

Second: While cleared for use by the FDA, there are significant doubts about the long-term safety of increased radiation exposure.

Third: The alternate, enhanced pat-downs are invasive and the TSA seems to be relying on that invasiveness to humiliate passengers who request alternate screening. Neither option is acceptable.

Fourth: The TSA assures us images from the backscatter machines are going to be handled professionally. Assurances have been provided that no images will be stored. However, under separate use, the U.S. Marshalls have admitted to storing several thousand images from backscatter machines. So, we know the machines have the capability to store images. Absent significant, persistent and independent oversight, I have no confidence that at some place, one or more TSA agents will not abuse their position and keep compromising, intimate images of passengers. I am further convinced of this when seeing reports of TSA screeners preferentially steering passengers to backscatter screening based on apparent attractiveness.

Given the issues with both, I believe the enhanced pat-down screenings and backscatter machine screenings can constitute sexual harassment under the guise of government sanction. Whether or not these incidents are widespread, they are disturbing, unacceptable actions in excess of authority and common decency. They have no acceptable place in the United States.

I am requesting that you, as my representative in Washington, express your disgust with these ineffectual, invasive, insulting and potentially dangerous screening methods. While terrorism is abhorrant and reasonable measures should be taken to prevent bad actors, the general population should not be treated in a debasing fashion and told it is in the name of our safety. It is not.

Encourage the TSA to adopt screening practices based on behavioral science and focused on keeping bad individuals from flying. Please encourage your colleagues with oversight of the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA to hold public hearings on the adoption of the backscatter machines, the enhanced pat-down procedure and the general state of screening passengers for flight.

Encourage your colleagues with oversight over the Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA to hold public hearings exploring the safety of the backscatter machines against X-Ray usage or magnetometer / metal detector.

Demand the restoration of our Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search.


Nathan L. Walls
Raleigh, North Carolina

TSA, watch lists and screening

This was written before a Nigerian man became ill on the Dec. 27, 2009 Flight 253, triggering another turnout of police/TSA

I’ve been seeing a bit of reaction on Twitter and on blogs about the TSA failing to keep Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab off of Northwest Flight 253.

Andrew Sullivan’s reaction is typical:

Who was the government official who was warned? Why was this loon allowed on a flight to the US? Here’s a simple test for the Obama administration: find the people responsible for this negligence and fire them.

Other commenters on Twitter talk about TSA failing to screen adequately. I’m not sure if they mean physical screening or passenger manifest screening, but let’s look at both.

First, TSA is reliant on other airports and countries to screen passengers from physically getting on planes. Abdulmutallab should have had to have been screened twice. Once in Lagos, his initial departure and again in Amsterdam. There are at least two possibilities here. First, he had the explosive underwear on the entire time and both physical screenings failed to find anything. Second, the syringe/detonator-laden tighty-whities were salted on the plane by someone else.

Either seems plausible.

From sheer volume of passengers, it seems probable that someone will make it through security with contraband. It also seems possible that with the enhanced focus on passenger screening that someone might focus on getting contraband onto a plane in a different fashion. Could be someone with flight-line clearance. Could be someone who just jumps a fence and walks onto a plane. Something like that wouldn’t have to take place in Amsterdam.

But what about the watch list screening? His dad spoke up and warned the U.S. embassy in Nigeria. Unlike Cat Stevens, Abdulmutallab was cleared to land in the U.S. Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano indicated there wasn’t enough information to put him on the no-fly list:

Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” she replied that placing him on the no-fly list “required specific derogatory information that was not available to the law enforcement community.” Questioned again about the body check, she said her department was “ going backward” and reviewing what was and was not done in his case.

When there have been upwards of 1,000,000 people1 — some duplicated — on a watch list, how many resources is it worth devoting to looking at each and every person on it? What are the criteria for identifying people that would be of more interest than others? I don’t know. Remember, while passenger awareness of what was going on saved Flight 253, “See Something, Say Something” generates a lot of noise that has to be sorted through. It’s very possible for that noise to be hidden in. Still, Marc Ambinder asks a relevant question:

If watch list folks are on flights inbound for the U.S., the TSA is supposed to figure this out and notify the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center. That’s the procedure, and it’s been used successfully to prevent a number of nefarious chaps from entering the U.S.

So – if secondary screening in Amsterdam and a validated watch list hit can’t keep someone from trying to blow up an airplane, what can?

Except the “watch list” and the “no-fly list” are not, strictly speaking, the same thing. There is the big consolidated list that has the big number. Then, there are the no-fly and selectee lists the TSA uses which are much smaller, but still around 16,000 people. Interpreting Napolitano’s statement and other data, Abdulmutallab was on the larger list, but not on either the two smaller lists. It seems, from TSA’s information, that they would not see a hit from the larger list against a passenger manifest.

  1. The TSA disputes the 1,000,000 people figure. In particular, they state the ACLU is equating database entries with unique people, where instead, the list can have multiple entries, perhaps for different aliases, for the same person.

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