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Drastic Changes in Airport Security After 9/11 Stir Controversy

September 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Correspondent Tom Bearden reports on the profound changes in aviation security and air travel after the 9/11 attacks. Critics say some of the new measures are excessive and infringe on the rights of travelers, pointing to more invasive searches and examples of passengers being detained.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, our continuing look at the impact of 9/11 a decade later.

Tonight, we focus on how it’s affected air travel.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports.

TOM BEARDEN: This is where the greatest number of Americans have been affected in the post-9/11 world, the nation’s commercial airports.

Passengers have been walking through metal detectors and had their carry-on bags X-rayed since the late ’60s, but aviation security changed dramatically after September 2001.

Prior to the attacks, passenger screening was done by private companies who were supervised by the Federal Aviation Administration. After 9/11, the government created the Transportation Security Administration, which was the largest single federal startup since World War II.

Terry Crosby went to work for the TSA almost from the beginning. He signed up eight years ago because the attacks made him want to serve his country. He rotates through several different jobs during his shift, from running the X-ray machine for carry-on baggage…

TERRY CROSBY, Transportation Security Administration: He decided to leave his liquids in there.

TOM BEARDEN: … to hand-searching for suspect items, to physically searching passengers.

TERRY CROSBY: Yes, all right, I’m going to go inside your collar here. All righty.

TOM BEARDEN: It’s not his favorite job, but a job he says needs to be done.

TERRY CROSBY: A lot of Americans don’t feel that they should be patted down, that it’s not necessary to be patted down. But when you have things come in that don’t belong or try to take things on the plane that don’t belong, then it is necessary.

TOM BEARDEN: Some Americans believe those enhanced pat-downs, which started within the last year, violate their constitutional rights. They’re just one part of a raging debate over how far the TSA should be allowed to go.

Since 9/11, security procedures have steadily escalated after a series of failed terrorist attacks. After 2001, passengers had to walk through security in their stocking feet after Richard Reid tried to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes.

In 2006, people started having to carry liquids in small containers inside a plastic bag after a plot to detonate liquid explosives was uncovered. And when Umar Abdulmutallab tried to set off plastic explosives hidden in his underwear in 2009, the government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to speed up deployment of advanced imaging technology machines that can peer beneath clothing.

Some accuse the agency of simply going too far. Take the case of Nick George. In August of 2009, he went through security in Philadelphia on his way back to college in California. He was taking an Arabic language course and was carrying a stack of homemade flash cards.

NICK GEORGE, airline passenger: There were about 200 of them, and most — the vast majority of them are just vocab words from a textbook, things like, to graduate, to smile, the color purple, these sort of, you know, things that anyone learning any kind of foreign language would be learning.

There were about 10 of the flash cards that said things like bomb or terrorist. I had been recently trying to read more of Arabic news media. And these are words that, you know, come up.

TOM BEARDEN: George says he was detained for more than four hours, half of it in handcuffs, and intensively questioned by the TSA and the FBI. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit on George’s behalf, claiming his constitutional rights were violated.

NICK GEORGE: If you open the door to say evidence of committing terrorism is that I’m learning Arabic, that’s really, really dangerous grounds.

TOM BEARDEN: Ben Wizner is the litigation director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. He represents George.

BEN WIZNER, ACLU: We have seen abusive and intrusive searches that go far beyond any legitimate security rationale. We have seen extreme individual cases where travelers have been arrested for reasons that have nothing to do with legitimate security.

TOM BEARDEN: Wizner is particularly troubled about another post-9/11 aviation security measure, the government’s no-fly list. The list is a subset of the terrorist screening database maintained by the FBI. Its purpose is to keep terrorists off commercial aircraft.

BEN WIZNER: American citizens can find themselves on a no-fly list, with no meaningful opportunity to get off, without being told the reason why they can’t be able to fly, without having a chance to have a hearing to get themselves removed.

I think what we have seen over the last 10 years is a massive overreaction to the last threat in a way that has violated rights, without making us much more secure.

ABE MASHAL, on no-fly List: You go faster. You pedal, pedal, pedal.

TOM BEARDEN: Abe Mashal is apparently on that list. Mashal is Muslim, a Marine Corps veteran and is now a professional dog trainer.

ABE MASHAL: Sit.

TOM BEARDEN: He lives in a Chicago suburb. His troubles started last year when he tried to fly out of Chicago’s Midway Airport.

ABE MASHAL: When I attempted to check in, the lady took my license and went in the backroom, and several minutes later, she came out. When I turned around, I was surrounded by TSA agents, who notified me that the FBI was on their way to the building to talk to me, as, apparently, I was on the no-fly list.

TOM BEARDEN: Mashal tried using the online redress process. Seven months later, he got a letter from Homeland Security saying there was no change in his status. But he says they won’t tell him what his status actually is.

The FBI website says the agency cannot reveal whether a particular person is in the database because terrorists could circumvent the list by knowing which of their members might be detained.

BEN WIZNER: I think that there is a logical hole right at the center of it. If the government really believed that these people were terrorists, it shouldn’t be turning them away from airports. It should be arresting them and putting them on trial.

TOM BEARDEN: Mashal suspects, but cannot prove, that he was put on the list for a reason. After he was turned away from the airport, he was invited to meet with two FBI agents in a local hotel.

ABE MASHAL: They told me that they would get me off of the no-fly list if I became undercover informant for them and went undercover at various mosques and told them about certain people that they wanted me to find out information for.

TOM BEARDEN: Mashal is part of a class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the no-fly list.

An FBI spokesman told the NewsHour the agency could not comment on Mashal’s allegations because of that pending litigation.

TSA Administrator John Pistole says Americans should look at these kinds of incidents in a broader context.

JOHN PISTOLE, Transportation Security Administration: Each day, TSA screens approximately 1.8 million people, 12.5 million a week, over 50 million a month, and over 625 million a year. So it’s a significant challenge to make sure that each and every person doesn’t pose a threat to aviation security.

TOM BEARDEN: But the Internet is full of anger and frustration over other cases involving physical searches of people who fail the scan or refuse to take it, from the 6-year-old patted down, despite her mother’s objections, to the 96-year-old woman who allegedly was forced to remove her adult diaper because it was wet and couldn’t be checked.

A Japanese comedy show was inspired to satire.

(LAUGHTER)

TOM BEARDEN: Even President Obama joked about it while promoting high-speed railroads.

PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATE BARACK OBAMA: For some trips, it will be faster than flying, without the pat-down.

(LAUGHTER)

TOM BEARDEN: But for Yukari Miyame, this is no laughing matter. She’s a professional translator and an independent community radio host who was commuting from her home in Northern Colorado to a job in Phoenix.

On the way home in July, she says she asked to go through a metal detection portal rather than a body scanner because she is afraid the radiation emitted by the machine would harm her health. She also says she has an uncontrollable aversion to being touched because she was briefly abducted as a child.

She says she was told she would have to submit to an enhanced pat-down if she wouldn’t go through the scanner.

YUKARI MIYAME, radio host: I thought, I’m going to get that horrible pat-down again. And, so, anyway, she said, “Let me show you how it’s going to be done.” And so I just — I think I was like this with my — like, so — and then, accidentally, that was her breast.

TOM BEARDEN: The TSA agent told a different story. She claimed Miyame twisted her breast. Miyame was arrested for sexual abuse and spent the night in jail.

A Maricopa County court released her the next morning, saying there was no evidence of a sexual crime. She could still face a misdemeanor charge. Her case has become something of a cause celebre. The “Acquit Yukari Miyame” page on Facebook has been liked by nearly 5,000 people.

TSA Administrator Pistole told us the agency investigates these cases thoroughly.

JOHN PISTOLE: And the first thing we want to do is get all the facts that we can, and that may include the closed-circuit TV coverage of the checkpoint, if there is — if that’s available, obviously, interviewing the passenger who is making the allegations, interviewing the security officers who were working around that situation.

So part of it is just trying to get the facts. I will say it seems like, at least in my slightly over a year as head of TSA, much of the time when there is an allegation of something, that the first instance that is reported is not actually what happened as we get — generate the — or get the facts all fleshed out.

TOM BEARDEN: The ACLU’s Ben Wizner:

BEN WIZNER: Americans have a lot of experience in times of threat with reducing civil rights and civil liberties, but then coming to our senses when the threat has passed. The danger this time is that we have defined a war against terrorism which literally takes place everywhere and may last forever.

TOM BEARDEN: TSA management frequently points to several public opinion polls that indicate an overwhelming percentage of Americans don’t object to the scanners, although a fairly large percentage do object to the pat-downs.

Security officer Terry Crosby says a few people complain about it, some pretty vocally.

TERRY CROSBY: To see grown adults having temper tantrums, you generally don’t think that you would have people doing stuff like that, but it does happen.

TOM BEARDEN: But he says many people actually thank him for his service.

Pistole says the agency is listening to the public. They have modified the pat-down policy for children, and have installed new software in the scanners to address complaints that the machines reveal too much about people’s bodies.

Is this a permanent part of American life? Will this ever go away?

JOHN PISTOLE: It’s a good question.

I think, for the foreseeable future, we will have this. I think terrorists will look to exploit any weaknesses or vulnerabilities. And so I think for the foreseeable future, we will have clearly some type of layered defense, which has manifested itself at the checkpoint.

TOM BEARDEN: Looking to the future, Pistole hopes to consolidate all of the various security sensors into one tunnel-like installation that might function a bit like the one Arnold Schwarzenegger went through in the sci-fi movie “Total Recall.”

ACTOR: Cut him off that way!

TOM BEARDEN: TSA is also rolling out a trusted traveler program to simplify security for frequent travelers.

And over the next 10 years, Pistole plans to use behavioral profiling techniques to identify problem passengers quickly and move away from the one-size-fits-all philosophy to make aviation security both more effective and less of a hassle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tomorrow night, from Cairo, Margaret Warner traces the Egyptian roots of the radical Islamic movement.