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Senate Hearing with TSA Chief: “Have You Experienced the Law Enforcement-Style Pat-Down?”

Head of TSA, John Pistole, goes before a Senate Committee to discuss new changes to airport security, asserts that he will listen to concerns but nothing will likely change.

Head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), John Pistole, went before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, to deliver a statement and answer questions on new security initiatives–the full-body scanners (“porno-scanners”) and pat-downs (“grope-a-dopes”). The Committee, which is responsible for oversight of the TSA, attempted to address criticism from civil liberties groups, pilot and flight attendant unions, and passengers.

The hearing with Pistole opened with a statement from the Chairman of the Committee, Sen. Jay D. Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), who has in his career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), received nearly half a million dollars in campaign donations from the air transport industry. He attempted to talk about balancing the need to protect the public with citizens’ rights to privacy but talked very little about whether the new procedures violated the Fourth Amendment or not.

Instead, Sen. Rockefeller mostly expressed his conviction that the “threats are very real and extremely ongoing and evolving every day and something hasn’t happened because the intelligence has been so good and that won’t always be the case. So, we’ve had kind of a lucky run here.” This meant normal Fourth Amendment protections might not be able to be afforded. And, why the U.S. could not expect intelligence to always be good was not explained. This seemed to be Sen. Rockefeller’s way of scaring anyone in the “traveling public” that dared to doubt the decisions behind adding the new procedures.

Sen. Rockefeller expressed great frustration, as he seemed to urge Pistole to have TSA be more totalitarian in their security.

“I don’t like going out to Dulles Airport, walking onto an airplane. Not a pat-down, they don’t even look at me,” remarked Sen. Rockefeller.

Surely, each senator or congressman could probably get themselves a personal TSA agent to meet them at the gate every time they fly out. Like at a gentleman’s club, they probably could get a favorite girl (or guy depending on whether the senator or congressman is suppressing homosexuality or not). They could run their hand up and down in a non-threatening but authoritative fashion and make sure the senators have peace of mind when traveling to their destination. If that’s what Sen. Rockefeller would like to see happen, the Ministry of Love, I mean, Department of Homeland Security could probably do that.

A round of opening statements took place after Rockefeller completed his statement in defense of government violating your civil liberties (he even slipped in a jab at Democrats who didn’t like “the FISA” because they said it violated privacy).

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was particularly interesting because she used her opening statement to treat the many outraged constituents who have been calling her as petulant, unreasonable and unrealistic people:

“I want to say a few words on passenger screening at my own risk given the calls that have been coming into my office on these screenings. I appreciate the steps forward that you made. I have been a fan of the AIT [Advanced Imaging Technology]. I think it’s going to show things that you didn’t know about before.”

She seemed to suggest that perhaps dangerous objects or non-metallic explosives have gotten through prior to now and the escalation would now ensure those objects and explosives didn’t get through. That just sounded like more conjuring of fear with no basis in reality at all. Plus, in March, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report that said, “It remains unclear whether the AIT would have detected the weapon used in the December 2009 incident based on the preliminary information GAO has received.”

The most awkward and revealing exchange took place when Sen. Byron Dorgan, who in his career, according to CRP, has received over $300,000 from the air transport industry, asked Pistole to explain the pat-down checks:

SEN. BYRON DORGAN: Pat-down checks. There’s reason for people to be concerned and to express that concern publicly. You explain precisely why it is necessary for us to have Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT). Have you been subjected to the law enforcement-style pat-down implemented nationally?

JOHN PISTOLE: I insisted that I receive that pat-down before I ordered that it be deployed nationwide. Also, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Loot, and other senior members of Homeland Security received that pat-down to see–not see, experience–so they would know what that involved before we rolled that out.

DORGAN: And your impression?

PISTOLE: It was thorough.

DORGAN: I understand. But, your impression beyond the fact that it was thorough?

PISTOLE: Well, the whole purpose is…

DORGAN: Did it make you uncomfortable? I mean, what was your impression personally?

PISTOLE: Yeah, yeah. It was more invasive than what I was used to. Of course, what is in my mind from almost 27 years with the FBI and all my counterterrorism work since 9/11 is what are the plot that are out there? And, how are we informed by the latest intelligence? And what do we have to do to assure the American people that we are being thorough? So, the answer is it is clearly more invasive. The purpose of that is to obviously detect those types of devices that we had not seen before, for example, last Christmas. I am very sensitive and concerned about people’s privacy concerns. And, I want to work through that as best we can. The bottom line is, we need to provide for the best possible security. [emphasis added]

Again, in March the GAO indicated they were uncertain “porno-scanners” would have detected the condom bomb the underwear bomber set off. But, more importantly, the premise of this exchange is frightening because of what it attempts to establish. Sen. Dorgan, no matter his intention, is somehow under the impression if the top officials in Homeland Security understood what the new procedures feel like to passengers then passengers would be less angry. They’d be more willing to accept the procedures and not criticize them as violations of privacy.

One might remember how news personalities like Mancow or writers like Christopher Hitchens elected to be waterboarded to see if it was “torture.” Political leaders were telling political leaders that didn’t believe waterboarding was torture to go get waterboarded. News personality Rick Sanchez had someone test a taser on him. The reactions somehow were meant to illuminate whether society was reasonable or not to react the way it was reacting to waterboarding or tasers. The public has cooled down overwhelmingly when it comes to tasers and waterboarding remains justifiable to many. And now, in this case, senators, representatives and top ranking Homeland Security officials are testing the demeaning procedure known as a “pat-down” on their selves to prove they can take it and the assumption is, if they can handle it, the public can too.

What this all seems to suggest is if people cannot get in line and get with the program and cooperate, they’re overreacting and, in some cases, may need to be dealt with for obstructing law and order (e.g. John Tyner whom TSA threatened with a civil suit and an $11,000 fine). It suggests that in some cases the people who have the most influence on public debate can decide whether the Fourth Amendment matters or doesn’t matter.

But, perhaps, the final part of Dorgan’s questioning is what said the most about the unfolding conflict between the public and the TSA:

DORGAN: And my understanding is that the October change went from using the back of a hand gliding across a person to a different approach. You might describe that–

PISTOLE: The back of the hand is still used in some aspects. I would prefer not to go into, um, specific details of in an open hearing simply because I don’t want to give a road map to say that’s exactly what the technique is and so how can we defeat that. We’ve just seen the ingenuity, creativity of al Qaeda particularly in the Arabian Peninsula with these last three attacks. I’d be happy to go into great detail in a private hearing. Honestly, any member who has not experienced that pat-down who would like to do that–I wouldn’t offer it but an experienced qualified security officer would be glad to do that.

Initially upon watching this exchange, it would seem that Pistole turned bashful when asked this question and didn’t like that the details he was being asked to provide might sound obscene (after all, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic reported from a Baltimore Airport TSA informed him the new procedure requires searching up and down a person’s thigh and between their legs until they meet “resistance”). Describing the nature of the pat-down would likely sound like sexual assault. Of course, in this case the senators understood the context of the sexual assault was security so, if meant to keep Americans safe, it could ultimately be acceptable.

Really, Pistole did what every authoritarian does when he or she is confronted with the bizarre notion that he or she must explain or justify the reasons for certain actions, policies, procedures, etc: Pistole suggested that information must remain classified.

Had this been a casual conversation perhaps in a café or bar setting, someone would have looked Pistole in the face and called him out for being fucking ridiculous. The “road map” he alluded to is no secret. It is engraved in every American’s mind that has just experienced this procedure for the first time in the past month. It has been described multiple times on blogs and in the news so if terrorists could really memorize how a TSA agent was going to grope them and develop a strategy to outsmart the agent so he or she could get through the security checkpoint the reality is this country would have probably been attacked by now. If the terrorist is part of a far-reaching network of individuals that hates us for our freedom, the moment the transition to new procedures began he or she would have hit America.

The content of the hearing only affirmed what Goldberg pointed out: “The pat-down, while more effective than previous pat-downs, will not stop dedicated and clever terrorists from smuggling on board small weapons or explosives.” Why? Because if TSA, in the pat-down, does not plan to cavity search all assholes and vaginas there will still be a risk posed to air travel.

And, if the aim of TSA is to humiliate passengers so that they use the porno-scanners, as Goldberg also suggested, then the public really has to be concerned about being conditioned to accept going through a machine that will likely pose risks because of radiation. Frequent travelers will surely begin to come down with cancer.

Cancer might be worth it to some who are not just afraid of flying but also flying and dying in midair or flying and dying as one collides into the ground or a building. But, shouldn’t one get to know exactly what Homeland Security is doing and whether the machines actually can prevent incidents like the one that touched off this escalation in security? I mean, if you’re going to get cancer to keep the greatest country on the third rock from the sun safe, doesn’t one get to know that this isn’t all just part of some government kickback to people like Michael Chertoff, who allegedly was looking for a contract for some scanning machines and exploited the shock of an incident in order to get a contract and do some profiteering?

No, because Pistole and others don’t want the terrorists to be able to use their creativity and ingenuity to get around the machines. That in authoritarian speak means the public doesn’t have a right to know because the agency in charge doesn’t want the public to know what it knows because the public might further question the agency about its knowledge. (Donald Rumsfeld might say here, “Known knowns will remain known unknowns to a public that just doesn’t have to know the knowns that we know are not unknown unknowns.”)

That means until WikiLeaks leaks a bunch of TSA reports on homeland security Americans will be expected to trust that giving up one’s Fourth Amendment rights is required in order to survive in this post-9/11 world of terror. They will be expected to submit to a security regiment that really just gives off the illusion of security because, in reality, nothing can ever be 100% safe.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."