Rich Cooper

Nov 22, 2010

He blinked. There’s no other way to state it.

After what can only be described as an endless barrage of horror stories, TSA Administrator John Pistole has blinked when it comes to the less-than-comfortable pat-downs that the air-traveling public has experienced over the past few weeks. After stating in recent congressional hearings, cable TV interviews and to just about any other available forum that the pat-down procedures were here to stay, Pistole has cried “uncle” and thrown in the towel.

The Sunday, November 21 statement by TSA Administrator John Pistole and his Monday morning appearance on the Today Show seem to indicate that he and the agency charged with passenger safety are easing up on the actions everyone is talking about.

So why now?

Maybe it was the recent unflattering Drudge Report headlines.

Maybe it was the hilarious spoof on Saturday Night Live.

Maybe it was the relentless power of the blogosphere and rantings of outraged congressmen.

Maybe it was the fact that media attention-loving Gloria Allred confessed to enjoying being felt up.

Maybe it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying she’d avoid a pat-down if she could.

Or maybe it was a prevailing sense that there was no way to win a public relations battle when you are in a constant defensive position, and there is no way to take the high ground when you’re conducting searches that even your doctor is not thrilled to make.

When he became administrator, Pistole had to know there would be days like those he’s been experiencing. He was and remains the perfect person for what is truly one of the country’s great thankless jobs, but it’s obvious his challenges go far beyond the position he holds. Whenever you go to take any type of security measure, no matter what it is, there is always the burden of explaining why you have to do something.

Whether it’s showing your ID to gain entrance to an office building (to keep unwanted visitors out); going through a metal detector at a courthouse or federal building (because people with guns might get through); taking off your shoes in the airport (because Richard Reid tried to ignite his explosive-filled tennis shoes); or going through an AIT (because someone might try to light their underpants on fire and take the whole plane out).

All of these things entail the risks that Pistole, his colleagues at TSA, and the rest of the public and private sector members of the homeland security community have to address, but communicating these risks is a burden of proof that a lot of people don’t pay attention to, let alone take the time to appreciate.

As this debate continues to unfold, it plays to the extremes, rather than the real risks and realities that have to be dealt with daily in a dangerous security environment. Pandering to fears about health and privacy certainly makes great politics and great cable news content, but it doesn’t necessarily deal with reality. Our level of respect in the debate seems to be going down hill at a faster rate.

There’s another side to this story. For as humiliating as it may be to be publicly frisked and scanned, there are people whose job it is to do the frisking and watching. Let’s not forget, for every George Clooney and Angelina Jolie out there, there’s a 1000 people of less perfect physical form, and Transportation Security Officers (TSO) have to put their hands and eyes on them just as much as the next flier. Surly there are some passengers out there TSOs would rather not scrutinize, and after weeks of pat-downs, I’d bet the TSOs have some classics of their own about people with poor hygiene and discoveries of items that had no business on planes to begin with.  

We don’t seem to hear about those stories often, and that’s a shame. I think it goes without saying, the TSOs have got a rotten job to do. I can only imagine the cries erupting from training rooms around the country when the TSOs were first briefed on how to conduct pat-downs and view AIT images: “You want me to do what?” “You want me to touch where?” “I’m going to look at what?”

Despite the body odors, the strange objects secreted in strange places and numerous other uncomfortable occurrences they have come across, the TSOs are still out there doing their job, and I’m thankful for them. Unfortunately, in the midst of all of the controversies, they’ve been called just about every name in the book, when they aren’t even the bad guy. That’s the third part to this story.

I don’t have any inside knowledge as to what spurred the increased use of pat-downs other than my own hunch that TSA and others are reacting to threat stream information regarding attempts to take out U.S. planes. For as much as critics may complain about what TSA is doing, the agency was not chartered to grab your junk or look at dirty pictures of you. It was created to protect us all in the face of a determined enemy with an affinity for cowardly attacks on the aviation sector. The next time you search for a choice insult to hurl at the man or woman guiding you through the checkpoint security process, remember they are only conducting those searches because terrorists are bent on our demise, as with 9/11. As with the Underwear Bomber. And the Fort Hood Shooter. And the Times Square Bomber. And dozens of attempted and successful attacks throughout the world for over a decade.

There will always be vociferous arguments about security measures, whatever and wherever they are applied. Those happened immediately after 9/11 with nearly 3,000 dead because of our own failure of imagination and ignorance to the threats that were in our midst. The fact that we continue to debate these issues is a good thing, as the rights and liberties that were hard fought and won generations ago still remain important.  

To blindly accept any government measure is a greater threat to liberty than probably anything else out there, but as we await the public relations aspects of TSA’s new procedures and use a little extra deodorant before our flight, let’s also keep in mind who is really driving these difficult security measures and who wants to blow your junk out of the sky.

This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.


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