LOS ANGELES (AP) — How did an agency created to protect the public become the target of so much public scorn?

After nine years of funneling travelers into ever longer lines with orders to have shoes off, sippy cups empty and laptops out for inspection, the most surprising thing about increasingly heated frustration with the federal Transportation Security Administration may be that it took so long to boil over.

Passengers Discuss TSA Pat-downs, KNX 1070’s Ed Mertz Reports

Even Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is not subjected to security pat-downs when she travels, understands the public’s irritation. She, for one, wouldn’t want to go through such scrutiny.

“Not if I could avoid it. No. I mean, who would?” Clinton told CBS’ “Face the Nation” in an interview broadcast Sunday.

The agency, a marvel of nearly instant government when it was launched in the fearful months following the 9/11 terror attacks, started out with a strong measure of public goodwill. Americans wanted the assurance of safety when they boarded planes and entrusted the government with the responsibility.

But in episode after episode since then, the TSA has demonstrated a knack for ignoring the basics of customer relations, while struggling with what experts say is an all but impossible task. It must stand as the last line against unknown terror, yet somehow do so without treating everyone from frequent business travelers to the family heading home to visit grandma as a potential terrorist.

The TSA “is not a flier-centered system. It’s a terrorist-centered system and the travelers get caught in it,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University who has tracked the agency’s effectiveness since it’s creation.

That built-in conflict is at the heart of a growing backlash against the TSA for ordering travelers to step before a full-body scanner that sees through their clothing, undergo a potentially invasive pat-down or not fly at all.

“After 9/11 people were scared and when people are scared they’ll do anything for someone who will make them less scared,” said Bruce Schneier, a Minneapolis security technology expert who has long been critical of the TSA. “But … this is particularly invasive. It’s strip-searching. It’s body groping. As abhorrent goes, this pegs it.”

A traveler in San Diego, John Tyner, has become an Internet hero after resisting both the scan and the pat-down, telling a TSA screener: “If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested.” That has helped ignite a campaign urging people to refuse such searches on Nov. 24, which immediately precedes Thanksgiving and is one of the year’s busiest travel days.

The outcry, though, “is symptomatic of a bigger issue,” said Geoff Freeman, executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, an industry group that says it has received nearly 1,000 calls and e-mails from consumers about the new policy in the last week.

“It’s almost as if it’s a tipping point,” Freeman said. “What we’ve heard from travelers time and again is that there must be a better way.”

Indeed, TSA has a history of stirring public irritation. There was the time in 2004 when Sen. Ted Kennedy complained after being stopped five times while trying to board planes because a name similar to his appeared on the agency’s no-fly list. And the time in 2006 when a Maine woman went public with her tale of being ordered by a TSA agent to dump the gel packs she was using to cool bags of breast milk. And the time in 2007, when a Washington, D.C. woman charged that another TSA agent threatened to have her arrested for spilling water out of her child’s sippy cup.

TSA denied the last, releasing security camera footage to try and prove its point. But that did little to offset the agency’s longtime struggle to explain itself and win traveler cooperation.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After Congress approved creation of the agency in late 2001, the TSA grew quickly from just 13 employees in January 2002 to 65,000 a year later. In the first year, agency workers confiscated more than 4.8 million firearms, knives and other prohibited items, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

But even as the new agency mushroomed, officials at the top, pressured by airlines worried that tighter security would discourage people from flying, looked to the business world for lessons on systems, efficiency and service.

TSA set up “go teams” pairing government employees with executives from companies including Marriott International Inc., The Walt Disney Co., and Intel Corp., to figure out how to move lines of people through checkpoints efficiently and how to deal with angry travelers.

But the agency was working under what Freeman calls “an unachievable mandate.” Congress demanded an agency that eliminated risk. But the risks are always changing, as terrorists devise new methods and government parries. That has led to an agency that is always in crisis mode, constantly adding new policies designed to respond to the last terror plot.

President Barack Obama says he has pushed the TSA to make sure that it is always reviewing screening processes with actual people in mind. “You have to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety,” Obama said Saturday. “And you also have to think through, are there ways of doing it that are less intrusive.”

Clinton, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said Sunday she thought “everyone, including our security experts, are looking for ways to diminish the impact on the traveling public.”

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” TSA chief John Pistole insisted that the current threat level is too high to lessen the use of full body scans and intimate pat-downs. “No, we’re not changing the policies,” he said.

Hours later, however, Pistole issued a statement saying the agency would work to make screening methods “as minimally invasive as possible.” He gave no indication that screening changes were imminent but said that “there is a continual process of refinement and adjustment to ensure that best practices are applied.”

TSA operates on the belief that a key to foiling terrorists is to keep them guessing, agency watchers say. But it has never really explained that to a flying public that sees never-ending changes in policies covering carry-on liquids, shoes, and printer cartridges as maddening and pointless inconsistency.

“If you ask what its procedures are, how you screen people, its ‘I can’t tell you that because if the bad guys find out they’ll be able to work around the system’,” said Christopher Elliott, an Orlando, Fla.-based consumer advocate specializing in travel. “That’s why a lot of what they’ve done has not really gone over well with air travelers. They perceive it as being heavy-handed and often the screeners come across as being very authoritarian.”

Over time, TSA has settled into a pattern of issuing directives with little explanation and expecting they be followed. But increasingly fed-up travelers don’t understand the agency’s sense of urgency and aren’t buying it.

“I don’t think the law enforcement approach is going to work with the American public. You’ve got to explain yourself and reassure people. And they’re not doing it,” Light said.

That goes beyond public relations, experts say. As more and more layers are added to air travel security efforts, it creates difficult and potentially unpopular choices. But the TSA has been unwilling to openly discuss how it arrives at policies or to justify the trade-offs, highlighted by its insistence over the need for the scanners.

“They’re very expensive and what they (TSA officials) should be able to do is answer if it does reduce the risk, how much does it reduce the risk and is it worth it?” said John Mueller, a professor of political science at Ohio State, who has researched the way society reacts to terrorism.

The pushback against the body scanners and pat-downs shows the agency at its worst, Elliott said, issuing a policy that wasn’t properly vetted or explained, but determined to defend it.

Growing dissatisfaction with TSA has even led some airports to consider replacing the agency with private screeners. Such a change is allowed by law, but contractor must follow all the security procedures mandated by the TSA, including body scans and pat-downs.

But frustration with the TSA was building even before the latest furor. In a December 2007 Associated Press-Ipsos poll asking Americans to rank government agencies, it was as unpopular as the Internal Revenue Service. Even so, a poll earlier this month by CBS News found 81 percent of Americans support the TSA’s use of full-body scanners at airports. The poll, conducted Nov. 7-10, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Elliott said that better communication would probably win the TSA more cooperation. But the pushback suggests that a growing number of consumers, particularly frequent travelers, are questioning the premise at the heart of the agency’s existence.

“I think at some point Americans said to themselves, maybe in their collective subconscious…there’s a line here where it’s not just worth it anymore,” he said. “There’s a growing sense that that line has been crossed.”

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (20)
  1. Alice Ramirez says:

    From now on when I must fly, I shall do so on a Canadian carrier out of a Canadian airport where there are no Janet Incompetano’s TSA stormtroopers! I am especially horrified by the humiliations inflicted upon medically-compromised people as well as the pat down-molestations of children and adult women. The Obama Regime clearly wants it known that our bodies are not our own anymore, that we are the property of the State, for the state to do whatever it wishes to our bodies, and the TSA is sending a clear message to this effect. If we choose not to submit, Napolitano and the petty tyrants under this toad-like TSA fuherer, will heavily fine us ($11,000) We have GOT to get RID of these people! 2012 CANNOT come too soon!

    1. JB says:

      Oh you didn’t see the article a few months back saying that 2012 is postponed? Sorry but that might not be happening.

  2. payforward says:

    If all Congressmembers or Pistole were compelled to walk through one of these scanners or have a TSA agent grope them on their way to the office, how long would this remain the TSA policy..!? The most powerful message can be sent by simply not flying. All of this is about engineering the perception of safety (especially around the busiest flying season of the year) and thus keep the subsidized and bailed-out airline industry flying in spite of so many of its shortcomings. We need leadership in planning and implementing a national transportation strategy that reduces the need for airlines and autos, employs sustainable alternatives and improves our ability to get around.
    TSA, the airline industry, homeland security etc. all believe you can’t stop terrorists from downing aircraft, but, if you do nothing, the public will not fly out of fear, so… they manufacture the perception of security by spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars on invasive and truly unproven technology. It’s been a part of scientific fact since the early 1970’s when peer-reviewed research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association detailed there is no safe minimal threshold from cellular damage induced by radiation exposure, (no matter how small the dosage). Support H.R. 6416: The American Traveler Dignity Act. Introduced by Congressman Ron Paul – Nov 17,2010. Get your Congressman behind this bill now!

    1. Smoke says:

      Well said,I agree……..but this is only the beginning,the next step is to do extensive backround and credit checks on passengers.And if you do not meet their criteria,you will not be allowed to fly.

      1. payfoward says:

        The TSA will tell you they cannot discuss their technology and abilities with you cause its proprietary and they don’t want their enemies to know what they’ve got. This certainly makes sense. But they could tell us that they know you by the facial recognition software, (FRS) that connects to your electronic dossier. The FRS on my computer is capable of doing this. As you wrote, Smoke, this is already pretty much in place. It’s the ones that aren’t in the database that should be suspect.

  3. mister s says:

    Im extremely curious to know what you previous 3 posters think should be done to curb terrorist acts? If they ceased current measures and reverted back to pre-9/11 standards, then another plane went down….. what would you say? “Well at least the dead folks privacy wasnt violated”? I’ll agree that doing such comprehensive pat downs of a 3 year old are not necessary, provided the scanner didn’t show anything, but thats about all I will concede. Its better to be safe than wait till after an incident occurs then start placing blame on those that let it happen. I’ll bet ifany of you lost a loved one in an attack, you wouldbe first in line to sue the government and/or airlines. Since profiling will never be allowed, and wouldn’t necessarily be effective anyhow…… what solutions to terror do you complainers offer?

    1. Di says:

      Please! think about this more, give it more thought. This kind of handling of fellow Americans in our country,really? Your just being warmed up for things to come! When we surrendor to mishandling its no big deal anymore because we accept it and then whats next? I dont know, maybe ask the many communities out there that HAVE been cattled and abused by our own or speak with an organization for Domestic Abuse, Abused and Exploited Children! Just for example or etc. etc etc. Our Military are over THERE fighting and protecting OUR Democracy, I think all of us have a job to do by seeing this through on this side!

    2. payfoward says:

      Radiating me and my family isn’t one! Groping me and my family isn’t another. As for the rest, isn’t that what the experts are supposed to be doing on out tax dollars, smart guy? I don’t buy your argument that it’s my place to solve this problem, however, I would appreciate being included, wouldn’t you?

  4. cMon says:

    My thoughts are simple, if you have nothing to hide then don’t worry about it. It’s amazing how quickly people forget, in particular American people. 9-11 changed everything. I went to Jamaica earlier this year and I had no problems at all. Customs, and TSA Agents were just doing their job. When something happens, then everyone is gonna cry and ask why there wasn’t more security!

  5. Al says:

    I have a stupid question: What do the Israelis do? I can’t think of a hijacking originating out of Israel since the Entebbe incident in the 1970’s . . . Or is that because Israel’s response to that incident was basically to send in a military SWAT team to rescue the victims and kill the hijackers? Perhaps, a couple of lessons to learn there, rather than all this TSA dog-and-pony show . . .

    1. questioneverything says:

      …that’s because the Israeli’s “PROFIEL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

  6. Jack kelly says:

    The Tsa pat down is a sham….Every prison guard knows that most contraband is smuggled in by body cavities. So the pat downs are nothing more the show and tell.
    Do you think that the terrorists have all ready figuared this out…If the idea of a complete pat down is to make us feel safe to fly then that is just plain childish…
    Stop the stupidity, everyone gets screened or we dont fly. Other then that everyone gets a strip search but quit feeding us baloney re: pat downs..

  7. Barbara Kellem says:

    I had 22 treatments of X-Ray on my face when I was a teen and ended up with Thyroid Cancer. I remember when Buster Brown Shoes had X-Ray to check the sizes. All of this including having the teeth X-Rayed causes Cancer if a person receives to many dosages. A frequent flyer including the Sky Marshall’s will be in danger of getting Cancer down the road, not to say the TSA workers. The reports say that there is a low dosage each person receives from these machines. That would depend on each person’s previous dosage from some other form also, and an immune system that has be jeopardized. This scanner situation should be reconsidered. I for one would rather have a pat-down. I don’t want anymore cancer.

    1. Jeanne says:

      Well said Barbara. I was overdosed with radiation as a baby, have been fighting cancers for 56 years, had a total thyroidectomy, and consequently get enough Xrays for follow up checks each year. I don’t need that added to by airport machines each time I fly. This country sucks.

  8. J. Findley says:

    Radiate me. Grope me. Touch my privates. I don’t care, as long as you and your fellow passengers can be assured that I am not carrying a weapon or explosive of any kind.
    I fly every week for my business, and I only wish TSA security was even more secure, and if necessary more invasive.
    My children can thank TSA when their dad comes home every Friday.

    1. Walter Mitty says:

      You may be coming home safe, but it’s more likely your children will be victims of a drunk driver like 16,500 other people last year. Terrorists have killed only 20% of that in the US since the whole war on Terror began. As Americans, our priorities are completely messed up.

  9. Noone says:

    If they keep up the searches and somehow they figure a way to take down another plane then what strip search time. We always over think a problem. We as people want straight answers not guess work. They say they can’t give you straight answers or they will figure out the plan and find a different way to take down a plane. Hello there already doing that do you remember the phones with explosives they found in planes a few months back. So what now. It’s doesn’t work that way no matter what you do they hate you and they want you and yours to die. We lost. It’s over johnny. The fat lady sung. If America keeps up it’s ways we can’t win. I know what your thinking. Bull sh!! It’s America f!!! Them. That’s the problem with our thinking. No I’m not saying let them win. I don’t know the answer but I think neither does anybody, us, them, you . When japan was at the end do you remember stores of commocozzies.(I know I spelt it wrong). They killed themselves for what, a king. Their country. Now you have others but their doing it for their god. Their religion. Their faith. Good luck winning this one. Maybe I’m wrong but I think were on a path that leads us one step behind. We need to be one step ahead. We can keep checking people for explosives until one get through and another plane goes down. We can keep killing in the name of war and make others that don’t hate us, hate us. (if you came into my country and killed my parents,sister,brother,family members by accident I would hate you too). Casualties of war.
    So keep checking aunt Mays pants and bra for explosives. Keep killing in the name of war. Keep people flying. Keep the 67000 TSA employees employed. Keep bowing down to your elected representatives. Keep voting for the best worst person to put in office at least your side won.

  10. Clopez says:

    You are more likely to die from a car accident then a terrorist hijacking a plane. You are more likely to die from a gang member’s bullet then a terrorist so all you people worried about Al Queda, well I’m worried about all you people who can not drive and the gang member that lives down the street so I want the government to give the DMV the power to violate our 4th amendment rights and I want the government to allow the police to stop everyone for no reason and strip search everyone because I’m not sure if the guy walking down the street is carrying a gun. TSA is just a dog and pony show so all of you that believe they are keeping us safe from terrorist then your just the pawn on the chessboard and Al Queda is claiming checkmate

  11. Mike says:

    TSA does a lot of things that don’t make sense to me but the one area where I do give them my 110% support is the use of the body scanners. People can keep whining about radiation, privacy etc but we need to get with the times and understand that our good old metal detector CANNOT detect explosive material on a persons body. Body scanners CAN detect explosive material. This is a very simple concept to understand. One hand full of explosive material placed in someone’s crotch is enough to make a hole on the side of a plane and bring it down. Something horrible always has to happen in order for change to take place. I applaud TSA for installing these scanners before something like this happens. People who opt out of them should continue get a full body pat-down for the mere fact that they are a total stranger to TSA.

    And when a person buys an airline ticket in the United States the buyer (knowingly or not) is giving IMPLIED CONSENT to have TSA screen their person/property. In other words, when you give implied consent you are giving up that 4th amendment right that so many people keep quoting over and over again. This is why everytime someone tries to sue TSA regarding the screening of their person/property the lawsuit is always dismissed due to implied consent. Point being, the next time you buy an airline ticket remember that you are (knowingly or not) giving up your 4th amendment right through implied consent. In other words, if you don’t like TSA protocols don’t fly. TSA is not going away. Even if every airport would operate under a private screening company by law they have to follow the same TSA protocols. And I don’t work for TSA. I’m a California Lawyer.

  12. Amy says:

    Totally agree with MIke. As an Army vet I know for a fact that a handful of explosive material like C4 can be molded like play-doe on any part of the body and bring a plane down. Metal detectors are a thing of the past people! These $100K body scanners are here to stay. Time will tell that TSA will slowly remove all of their metal detectors. This will eliminate people from crying out “why did that person go through the metal detector and I get a body scan”…LOL. GO TSA! YOUR DOING A GREAT JOB!

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