WASHINGTON — Michele Bachmann won’t go through the full-body scanners at airports anymore, she said, because she’s concerned that “naked pictures” of herself will wind up on the Internet.
It wasn’t a response to a question I or another reporter asked, rather airport security was on the mind of one Iowan at a coffee shop in Des Moines, as Bachmann began her first swing through her home state as a presidential aspirant.
“Thank you for asking that question,” Bachmann concluded. “It’s one on everybody’s mind.”
Indeed it is. Former Gov. Jesse Ventura filed a lawsuit against the Transportation Safety Administration’s “warrantless, non-suspicion-based offensive touching, gripping and rubbing of the genital and other sensitive areas of the body,” as he put it in the suit.
And citing numerous complaints about customer service, including reaction to those pat-downs, several major airports — Minneapolis-St. Paul, Charlotte, Orlando International, Washington Reagan, Washington Dulles and Orlando Sanford among them — announced they’d begin investigating a change — replacing federal TSA agents with private screeners.
Those investigations varied in intensity — MSP’s was just informal staff research at this point, while Orlando Sanford had already committed to a switch and expected to have private screeners in place later this year.
All of those reform efforts are on hold now, however, as TSA officials said they’ll block any airport’s request to remove the federal screeners until the agency can be satisfied that private screeners are better than its own.
In the law that formed the TSA, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, an opt-out clause was inserted. Essentially, it allows airports who had TSA screeners to replace them with private contractors who are paid for and overseen by TSA.
Sixteen airports, including San Francisco and Kansas City, have opted out so far and the small Springfield-Branson airport in Missouri asked to be number 17. In a letter late Friday, that request was denied. It was followed by a memo to all TSA employees stating that the agency would not be approving any more opt-out applications.
“Shortly after beginning as TSA Administrator, I directed a full review of TSA policies with the goal of helping the agency evolve into a more agile, high-performing organization that can meet the security threats of today and the future,” TSA Administrator John Pistole said.
“As part of that review, I examined the contractor screening program and decided not to expand the program beyond the current 16 airports as I do not see any clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time. The airports that currently use contractor screening will continue to be regulated by TSA and required to meet our high security standards.”
The American Federation of Government Employees — the union that represents many of the TSA’s tens of thousands of screeners — hailed the move. “The nation is secure in the sense that the safety of our skies will not be left in the hands of the lowest-bidder contractor, as it was before 9/11,” said AFGE President John Gage.
Florida Republican Rep. John Mica, who replaced Jim Oberstar as head of the House Transportation Committee, blasted the decision and said he’d hold hearings into the decision.
“It’s unimaginable that TSA would suspend the most successfully performing passenger screening program we’ve had over the last decade,” Mica said in a blistering statement. “The agency should concentrate on cutting some of the more than 3,700 administrative personnel in Washington who concocted this decision, and reduce the army of TSA employees that has ballooned to more than 62,000.”
Mica initiated many of the airport reviews himself last year; sending a letter to the nation’s largest airports (including MSP) advising them that they could opt-out.
House Republicans say privately that part of the reasoning behind Pistole’s decision is an effort to keep unionized TSA officers employed. Most private contractors in airport security are non-union workers. TSA officials and opt-out opponents quietly note that Mica received more than $80,000 in the last campaign cycle in contributions from the companies that hope to provide private contractors to those airports.
However, if the House brings the issue up, some members will be agitating for more than just a simple enforcement of the opt-out provision.
Bachmann says she’d prefer U.S. airport security mimic Israeli airport security, which includes multiple face-to-face interviews with airport security and passengers and a form of profiling with extra attention paid to those whose behavior suggests they’re not just at the airport to catch a flight. Critics of that system say it’s a short slide down the slippery slope to racial profiling.
Rep. Collin Peterson, a licensed pilot, has called for changes to the TSA. In an interview last year, Peterson told me that much of what the TSA does is “for show.”
“It’s almost like we’re harassing passengers so they feel better,” he said.
Last session, the Democratic-led House passed a bill calling for advanced imaging scanners to not be used for primary screenings. It was supported by a majority of the Minnesota delegation.
However, it’s uncertain how the House’s new makeup would affect any similar legislation.
Privacy concerns linger
Key to Mica’s hearings will be concerns noted about customer service, especially allegations of inappropriate behavior and their subsequent disciplinary proceedings. Indeed, half the argument behind private contractors is that they can be fired and replaced with ease if they’re not acting appropriately at the security line.
But even private security screeners have to follow TSA guidelines, which means those full-body scanners would stay in use under private management. That’s why Bachmann and others are intent on full-scale reform.
TSA officials maintain that the crux of Bachmann’s complaint is impossible. “Naked pictures” of anyone couldn’t find their way online, because all file transfer abilities are disabled in their advanced imaging machines, including the ones at MSP.
However, her concerns that someone could be less than professional with sensitive scanning equipment have been echoed by several people who have filed complaints or lawsuits against TSA for inappropriate behavior in the screening area.
In December, former “Baywatch” star and Playboy model Donna D’Errico said she was picked to go through a body imaging scanner at Los Angeles International Airport so, she suspects, TSA agents could have a peek at her body (and not for security reasons).
D’Errico said the male agent who pulled her out of line “was smiling and whispering with two other agents and glancing at me.”
“This could, and I’m sure does, happen to other women,” D’Errico told the London Daily Mail. “It isn’t right to hide behind the veil of security and safety in order to take advantage of women, or even men for that matter, so that you can see them naked.”
A college student in Texas sued the TSA after a Corpus Christi airport officer pulled her blouse down during an enhanced pat-down search, exposing her breasts.
According to the suit, a copy of which was obtained by the Amarillo Globe-News, TSA agents laughed at the situation while the woman, humiliated, left the security area. After being consoled by a friend, returned to attempt once again to make her flight.
Then, according to her suit, “one male TSA employee expressed to the plaintiff that he wished he would have been there when she came through the first time and that ‘he would just have to watch the video.'”
And if Ventura has his way, Mica won’t have to worry about legislation to reverse TSA’s decision, because a court would throw most of the agency’s policies and procedures out the window as violations of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.
A TSA spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.