Homeland Security…at the Cost of Personal Liberty?

I used to love to travel. Flying never scared me. I vaguely recall the good old days when airport fears included lost passports, arrival at the wrong terminal, and running out of fuel over the Atlantic Ocean.

Since that infamous day–September 11, 2001–air travel, and the fears associated with it, have radically changed.

A new breed of concerns and escalated suspicions have emerged. I make flight plans more carefully these days, avoiding air travel if at all possible.

My shifted focus is neither on terrorism nor undetected box cutters, though. It is on the security forces created to protect travelers from such perceived threats; namely, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The TSA is a branch of the United States Department of Homeland Security, created in 2002. The administration of former president George W. Bush spearheaded the department in response to the 9/11 attacks.

The federal government claims that the TSA’s objective is to promote increased security of American citizens, particularly against potential acts terrorism and aircraft hijacking.

On paper, this reads like a reasonable step in safe air travel.

However, in practice, that security has been imposed, under the guise of benevolent protection from evil foreigners determined to destroy the American way of life, in exchange for personal privacy and civil liberties.

Since its incipience, the TSA has:

• Reserved the right to open and search any passenger’s luggage, in the name of security screening. Such invasive procedures often involve breaking, cutting open or destroying locks; displacement and occasional theft of personal belongings; perusal of all packed items.

• Imposed strict sanctions of carry-on luggage, most notably containers containing more than 3.4 ounces of liquid or gel. Passengers at security checkpoints are regularly stripped of shampoo and conditioner, body lotion, cosmetics, perfume, beer, wine and other alcohol, peanut butter, drinking water and scores of other mundane fluids which used to be integral to any carry-on luggage.

• Enforced the pre-screening removal of belts, jewelry, and since the ‘shoe bomber’ incident in December 2001, footwear.

• Added new screening procedures November 2010, in response to the ‘underwear bomber’ who smuggled plastic explosives onto an airplane in Amsterdam in December 2009. The enhanced screening subjects passengers either to backscatter X-rays and millimeter wave scans, or full-body pat-downs. The former displays nude images of passengers’ bodies to TSA officers. The latter allows agents to touch all body parts of clothed passengers.

According to Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “We’re getting closer and closer to a required strip-search to board an airplane.”

The ACLU, a national non-profit organization which promotes the Constitutional rights of Americans, received over 900 passenger complaints about the TSA enhanced screening within the first month of mandatory pat-downs.

One of the most high-profile cases is that of Susie Castillo, crowned Miss USA in 2003. Castillo was traveling from Rio de Janeiro to Los Angeles, in April 2011. While changing planes in Dallas, Texas, Castillo objected to the electronic scanner and underwent the required pat-down.

In a self-made iPhone video, now posted on YouTube, Castillo tearfully describes her experience immediately after the pat-down. “[The TSA screener] actually felt, touched my vagina,” she says. “They’re making me choose to either be molested, because that’s what I feel like, or go through this machine that’s completely unhealthy and dangerous.”

In response, the TSA claimed that agents were simply doing their jobs. “We have reviewed this passenger’s screening experience and found that the officer followed proper procedures,” TSA spokeswoman Kristin Lee said.

Lee may be right. Individual TSA agents, for the most part, are obeying orders and following security protocol. The problem therein lies with the federal government imposing these measures. If employees accept such orders as business as usual, then the burden of defending personal rights and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution lies with the people who are demanded by their government to relinquish privacy and comfort.

Acquiescence comes in the form of payment, as well as action. For the fiscal year of 2011, the TSA has a budget of over $8 billion USD. The government is using tax dollars–and a lot of them–to pay agents to invade the privacy of tax payers.

However, a backlash movement is growing more powerful with increased malcontent among travelers. In May 2011 a bill was unanimously passed in the Texas senate that challenges enhanced security measures enforced by Homeland Security.
The bill prohibits “anyone conducting searches to touch the anus, sexual organ, buttocks, or breast of another person” including through clothing [. . .] and searches “that would be offensive to a reasonable person.”

In turn, the Department of Justice notified Texas legislators that the anti-groping bill violates federal law and “could cause the Transportation Security Administration to cancel any flight or series of flights for which it could not ensure the safety of passengers and crew.”

The concern for protection against terrorism is understandable. However, Homeland Security is busy insisting on experimental body scans and invasive groping of anyone from small children and their teddy bears to rape victims to the elderly and disabled. Meanwhile, potential terrorists may find newer, more high tech ways to slip by undetected.

And I don’t feel any more protected than I did before; just more violated as my rights as an American are stripped, even if my clothing is not…yet.

The TSA may claim to be protecting passengers from terrorists, bombs, hijacking, more than three ounces of shampoo and other such threats to Homeland Security.

But, who is going to protect us from the TSA?

(This article originally appeared in the June 27, 2011 issue of The Politico magazine: http://the-politico.com/international/astrid-lium/homeland-security-at-the-cost-of-personal-liberty/)

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