Checkpoint Gnarly

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AirportBefore my recent flight home to Buffalo, N.Y., there was a rude surprise at the airport gate. I’d lingered too long at the candy counter, as usual, so I arrived late – the last passenger to board. Except I couldn’t. A security guard blocking my path in the gangway said I’d been selected for a random pat down.

I’d already passed the airport’s security checkpoint. Why the last-minute frisking? The guard, who turned out to be a Transportation Security Administration officer, wouldn’t explain – she simply said that if I refused, I couldn’t board the plane. Pat down? It was more like an erotic massage administered by a professional wrestler.

It was so rough that halfway through, I asked her to stop and agreed to cancel my flight. No go. She snatched my suitcase and said I’d have to accompany her to security. Yikes! Feeling trapped, I agreed to finish the frisk; she insisted on starting over from the beginning.

Turns out I’m not the only passenger to endure the gangway grapple. TSA spokesperson Laura Uselding says that while my experience wasn’t an example of good customer service, random gate pat downs have been standard procedure since early this year. “It’s all about creating unpredictable layers of security,” she says. Indeed, there’s a lot more TSA surveillance going on at the airport (and beyond) than you’d expect – and it’s growing fast.

There is some good news here. Thanks to a billion-dollar stimulus grant, the TSA is speeding the introduction of better X-rays, streamlined baggage systems and liquid-bottle scanners that should make life easier for travelers. In coming years high-technology advancements may eliminate the onerous screening ritual and liquids restrictions entirely; we could race through the airport with giant bottles of shampoo. The agency is also training thousands more officers, bomb experts and canine teams to patrol airports, train stations, even ferries.

But  some of its efforts might sound a little creepy to privacy enthusiasts. This year the TSA assumed the job of checking our travel plans against FBI watch lists and started requiring passengers to provide their birth date when booking flights. The agency is also employing 2,400 “behavioral detection officers” who wander the airport looking for folks who seem scared or stressed out. Act suspicious and they might take you aside – I got questioned in the Newark, N.J., airport just for writing in a notebook.

Congress is already considering limits on recently deployed screening machines that let officers see through our clothes. And new devices being tested would remotely monitor your pulse, temperature, respiration and expressions to reveal signs of “harmful intent.” Yes, you could literally be stopped for breathing wrong.

It’s not like we’ve seen evidence these techniques are reeling in terrorists. Behavior-detection officers have referred 213,000 people to secondary screenings – but the TSA won’t say whether this has foiled any terrorist plots. The air-blasting, explosives-detecting “puffer” machines are being retired because they kept breaking down and generating false alarms.

Perhaps the agency’s ever-growing budget could better be spent on basics. This spring the TSA told Congress it won’t meet the deadline for screening cargo on passenger flights, that thanks to a convoluted review process, it has spent just 12.5 percent of the $1.5 billion allocated to bus and train security, and despite the 2007 discovery of a gun-smuggling ring run by airline employees, the agency still doesn’t screen all airport workers. Then there’s the dismaying fact that in test after test TSA screeners fail to spot explosives squirreled through security.

At least the agency responds to complaints. A few days after reporting my zealous pat down, I got a call from a TSA security director, who told me he sent one of his deputies to test the officer who frisked me. He was surprised to learn that the ensuing pat down literally knocked the deputy off her feet. My nemesis, he said, will be retrained. Yes, it’s safe to go back to the airport.

 

Source: The New York Times Syndicate