G.W. SchulzBack to OpinionG.W. Schulz

TSA’s ‘Blogger Bob’ separates myth from fact in pat-downgate

A passenger gets a pat-down at Atlanta's Hartfsield-Jackson International Airport on Nov. 22, 2010. Photo: AP/David Goldman

Transportation security officials insist they came out ahead from a Thanksgiving holiday that at one time looked like it might turn the nation’s airports into endless misery. The organizers of National Opt-Out Day encouraged travelers to resist controversial body scanners by opting for even more controversial pat-down searches. But major news outlets depicted airports operating smoothly.

After Thanksgiving, federal officials are still mostly claiming that Americans generally supported the procedures they put in place to keep terrorists off commercial airliners. To be sure, there have been ugly gaffs for airport security screeners in recent weeks that required follow-up apologies from the Department of Homeland Security.

Airports aren’t the only place to look for angry Americans lashing out, however. Where else might there be resistance? On the Internet, of course. The Transportation Security Administration’s website hosts a fellow nicknamed “Blogger Bob” who’s responsible for debunking perceived myths about airport security circulated by mainstream journalists.

Sometimes Blogger Bob is right, and deadline-conscious reporters haven’t done their homework; other times he seems to muddy the truth even further. Blogger Bob attempted to fact check the press on November 18 with a series of “myths” countered by the TSA’s own “facts.” Readers reacted in the blog’s comments section by the hundreds. Many of these remarks intelligently poked holes in the TSA’s “facts,” or at least demonstrated there was still significant room for public debate.

Elsewhere you had to look beyond colorful language to find reasonable insight, after allowing for the frustration anyone could experience with modern air travel. Some of the reactions we list below are included simply because these people could be our readers for all we know. Let them speak. In each instance, you’ll first see the TSA’s myth v. fact followed by responses that appeared online.

If nothing else, the answers to Blogger Bob illustrate how many people are unnerved by the seemingly endless security tightening at U.S. airports, despite the TSA’s frequent citation of a CBS poll that concluded four out of five travelers support full-body scanners. That claim is attacked by commenters, too.

**********

Blogger Bob:

Myth: The TSA pat-down is invasive.
Fact: Only passengers who alarm a walk-through metal detector or AIT [Advanced Imaging Technology, i.e. body scanner] machine or opt out of the AIT receive a pat-down. For this reason, it is designed to be thorough in order to detect any potential threats and keep the traveling public safe. Pat-downs are performed by same-gender officers and all passengers have the right to a private screening with a travel companion at any time.

Chris Bray:

Blogger Bob, you have a bureaucrat’s gift for changing the substance of a criticism as you pretend to respond to it. You seem to be unable to notice what you’re saying as you say it. Compare the format:

1.) Is the new pat-down invasive? No, it’s only for people who set off a metal detector or refuse AIT.
2.) Are you going to punch me in the face? No, blueberry pancakes.

Only you don’t notice that your non sequiturs are non sequiturs … Even when the TSA has destroyed itself, you’ll all still be hopelessly obtuse about what happened and raging at the ‘myths’ that undid you.

TSA head John Pistole told a Senate committee Nov. 17 after undergoing a pat-down himself that it was “more invasive than I’m used to.”

Anonymous:

The ‘fact’ portion does not even address the invasiveness (which was confirmed in statements by the head of the TSA). It’s a lie to call this a myth when you can’t even disprove it.

Rebecca:

You really didn’t address the ‘myth.’ Even your boss says it’s at least ‘more invasive,’ which certainly indicates it is indeed invasive and uncomfortable.

**********

Blogger Bob:

Myth: There has been an overwhelming public outcry against AIT.
Fact: A recent CBS News poll found that four in five support full-body airport scanners.

Rebecca:

Yes, many of us may indeed support an AIT scan in the case of a SECONDARY screening. But many do not think it should be used for primary screening.

Anonymous:

The CBS poll is junk. It doesn’t offer any details about AIT. If the poll explained that it transmitted a naked image of your body, what do you think the poll would be? Not to mention the fact that polling Americans about airline travel is notoriously unreliable because only 40 percent of Americans report having flown in the last year.

Gallup and USA Today polled just more than 3,000 adults in late November and found that about a quarter of them had flown at least twice in the past year. Of those, according to results released November 23, 71 percent said “any potential loss of personal privacy from the full-body scans and pat-downs is worth it as a means of preventing acts of terrorism.”

The poll contained this additional takeaway: “The majority are not bothered by the use of full-body scans, which most travelers would choose over the full-body pat-downs they tend to find objectionable and less effective at preventing terrorism. Further, in both cases, those who have already undergone such procedures are less likely to have been bothered or angry than those who have not, suggesting that the prospect of such a screening is more upsetting than the reality.” Of course, commenters had other opinions about polling, too.

Anonymous:

Fact: Organizations that rely on one poll to prove a point are in trouble.

**********

Blogger Bob:

Myth: All children receive pat-downs.
Fact: TSA officers are trained to work with parents to ensure a respectful screening process for the entire family, while providing the best possible security for all travelers. Children 12 years old and under who require extra screening will receive a modified pat-down.

Anonymous:

Define the ‘modified pat-down’ for children. No TSA agent is touching, putting pressure on or feeling resistance on my kid’s buttocks or genitals. Nor will they be looking at them naked. And in four years, when my 8 -year-old is 12, there is no way some TSA agent will be feeling resistance against their genitals. Not. Gonna. Happen.

Denise:

Can you provide us with the details of the modified pat-down process for kids 12 and under? Has it been universally implemented? How and where will they be touched? I’d really like to be clear on this before getting to the airport. Thanks!

Anonymous:

The concern is not that *all* children will receive them, it’s that *any* will.

Anonymous:

Hey Bob, why not let your kids get the treatment your crap agency does to our kids? And if the nude-o-scope images are so tame, post them online.

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Blogger Bob:

Myth: TSA officers are sharing AIT images they are taking with their cell phones.
Fact: Our officers are prohibited from bringing electronic devices such as cell phones into the AIT viewing room. This is a fireable offense and no such reports have been substantiated.

Anonymous:

Fact: TSA officers are prohibited from stealing, yet they still do.

It’s true that numerous cases have emerged since September 11 of TSA employees getting caught stealing cash and valuables from travelers. The most we can do here is trust that indeed no reports of image sharing have been substantiated.

Anonymous:

So how is the TSA preventing officers from bringing cell phones and other recording devices into the AIT viewing area? Do they search them or just take their word for it?

**********

Blogger Bob:

Myth: AIT is not safe.
Fact: Backscatter technology is safe for all passengers and has been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, National Institute for Standards and Technology and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. All results confirm that the radiation dose is well below the standard for safety set by the American National Standards Institute. The technology is safe. A person receives more radiation naturally each hour than from one screening with a backscatter unit. In fact, a traveler is exposed to less radiation from one AIT scan than from two minutes of an airline flight.

Anonymous:

Fact: I am a multiple-time skin cancer survivor. My doctor (from Johns Hopkins) said I should never be exposed to a backscatter machine because the amount of radiation the machine gives off may or may not be unsafe.

Anonymous:

Not all scientists agree with you that AIT is safe. For example, four at [the University of California, San Francisco]: http://bit.ly/ci3M7m

The four experts first sent a letter to the White House back in April expressing concern that whole-body imagers could result in the skin sustaining “dangerously high” doses of radiation due to the unique technology being used. They worried that pregnant women and those prone to breast cancer would be especially vulnerable. The letter received relatively little attention at that time compared with the coverage of full-body scanners in recent weeks.

Anonymous:

Why aren’t TSA screeners wearing radiation badges? Almost anyone within the health care profession wears them when in environments that could have X-ray exposure.

Anonymous:

Is it true TSA employees who work with AIT machines are NOT allowed to wear radiation badges like health care workers are required?

Ira Flatow of National Public Radio’s “Science Friday,” a weekly talk show branded under NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” asked the same question back in September. A security screener told him she wanted to wear a radiation badge but it was not permitted.

G.W. Schulz joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008 to launch its ongoing homeland security project. Read the project’s blog, Elevated Risk, here.

 

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/createrculture Gurdjief Steiner

    Excellent article. Thank you so much for just fact checking and putting good ol’ bob in context with his (cough) financial supporters … The RapeyScam implementers themselves.

    Isngt that like going to black water for PR and mythbusting on blackwater?

    Its against their economic and social interests for this guy to be honest. The scanners are a tricky circumvention of our constitutional rights (see amendments 4 and 5 to start)

    Its that simple.

    Who said this best…

    “Those who will trade freedom for security will eventually be left with neither”

    Please dont correct my phrasing. Its a paraphrase and says what I want to say :)

  • Lundy911

    What about the blog showing how one woman was targeted by TSA agents because she filed a complaint about them not following procedures regarding alternate screening for breast milk? The next time she went to the airport she even printed ou…t the info TSA has on their site regarding alternate screening methods, and they refused to look at it. They made her wait over 40 minutes in that “glass box” while sending a police officer to threaten to arrest her if she didn’t follow TSA’s “dog and pony show.” He admitted the TSA was waiting for her. This isn’t just about the Pat Down. TSA blatantly ignored their own policy and harassed this woman http://www.sustainablemothering.com/2010/11/26/just-when-you-thought-it-was-safe-to-travel-with-breast-milk-the-tsa-targets-mothers/

  • K Chesney

    My husband and I flew recently and while he did NOT set off any metal detector, he was ‘randomly’ chosen for the patdown. I watched and was pretty taken aback by the criminal like invasiveness of the pat down. For passengers like businessmen who fly 3-4 times a week, the radiation must be significant.
    If you chose not to be ‘full body’ irradiated, you should not be punished for choosing a less invasive alternative. For example, if you are concerned about exposure due to breast cancer concerns, having someone grope your breasts isnt really a decent alternative.
    I’ve seen less thorough pat downs on COPS.
    While the officer did explain every move he was about to make, it would not have made any difference to me personally for someone to say “now I’m going to run my hand along your groin’ and then do it.
    We are punished enough once we’re on the plane.
    TSA is a disgrace. Like many other agencies, they seem to attract an anti-social type of person who treats you like a criminal.
    My mother has a pacemaker and was advised not to go through a scanner so they manhandled my 65 year old mother like any common thug on the street suspected of carrying drugs.
    A total disgrace.
    I’m sure that somehow, posting this will put me on some list and I will forever be ‘randomly chosen’

  • Concerned Citizen

    Blogger Bob clearly works for TSA. First, a poll of 3,000 adults, most of whom do not travel by air, seems a bit trivial. Also the machines themselves store the photos. Feds have admitted to this. A Florida court is sitting on about 35,000 images. Furthermore, the FDA has not stated who has studied the effects or what the specific result were. I want Americans to know that according to some of the country’s leading scientists, there are health effects that we should be concerned about. Read the attached letter of concern, detailing in part that, “our colleagues at UCSF, dermatologists and cancer experts, raise specific important
    concerns: A) The large population of older travelers, >65 years of age, is particularly at risk from the mutagenic effects of the X-rays based on the known biology of
    melanocyte aging. B) A fraction of the female population is especially sensitive to mutagenesis provoking
    radiation leading to breast cancer. Notably, because these women, who have defects in DNA repair mechanisms, are particularly prone to cancer, X-ray mammograms are not performed on them. The dose to breast tissue
    beneath the skin represents a similar risk. C) Blood (white blood cells) perfusing the skin is also at risk. D) The population of immuno compromised individuals–HIV and cancer patients (see above) is likely to be at risk for cancer induction by the high skin dose. E) The risk of radiation emission to children and adolescents does not appear to
    have been fully evaluated. F) The policy towards pregnant women needs to be defined once the theoretical risks to the fetus are determined. G) Because of the proximity of the testicles to skin, this tissue is at risk for sperm mutagenesis. H) Have the effects of the radiation on the cornea and thymus been determined?” See http://www.npr.org/assets/news/2010/05/17/concern.pdf

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic article! Thanks so much for taking the time to point out the many logical gaps being put out by the TSA and DHS, and then blindly repeated as truth by so many journalists. This is what good journalism looks like!

  • Patrick

    It’s still a violation of the 4th Amendment!