Investigations

TSA Myth or Fact: 'Blogger Bob' Provokes a Stream of Comments From Pat-Down Protesters

Colorful comments on the TSA website reveal how many people are unnerved by the seemingly endless tightening of security at airports in the United States.

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.

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. Federal officials are still mostly claiming post-Thanksgiving that Americans generally supported the procedures they put in place to keep terrorists off of commercial airliners.

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 Web site 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 the TSA doesn’t help itself by appearing to muddy the truth even further. Blogger Bob attempted to fact-check the press on Nov. 18 with a series of “myths” countered by the TSA’s own “facts.” Readers reacted in the blog’s comments section by the hundreds. These remarks on many occasions 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 sometimes find reasonable insight, after allowing for the frustration any self-respecting American 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.

The answers to Blogger Blog if nothing else illustrate how many people are unnerved by the seemingly endless tightening of security at airports in the United States, despite the TSA frequently pointing to a CBS poll that concluded four out of five travelers support full-body scanners. That claim is attacked by commenters, too.

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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.

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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 over 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 Nov. 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.

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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 eight-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 Sept. 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?

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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 Intitute. 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 may be especially vulnerable. The letter received relatively little attention at that time compared to the amount of coverage aimed at full-body scanners in recent weeks.

Anonymous:

Why aren’t TSA screeners wearing radiation badges? Almost anyone within the healthcare 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, a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting, has been covering homeland security issues since 2008.