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Imperial Bush
A closer look at the Bush record -- from the war in Iraq to the war on the environment

2004 Campaign
Will Americans take the exit ramp off the Bush presidency in November?

Behind Colin Powell's Legend
Colin Powell's sterling reputation in Washington hides his life-long role as water-carrier for conservative ideologues.

The 2000 Campaign
Recounting the controversial presidential campaign

Media Crisis
Is the national media a danger to democracy?

The Clinton Scandals
The story behind President Clinton's impeachment

Nazi Echo
Pinochet & Other Characters

The Dark Side of Rev. Moon
Rev. Sun Myung Moon and American politics

Contra Crack
Contra drug stories uncovered

Lost History
How the American historical record has been tainted by lies and cover-ups

The October Surprise "X-Files"
The 1980 October Surprise scandal exposed

From free trade to the Kosovo crisis

Other Investigative Stories


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TSA Treats for Holiday Travelers

By Ivan Eland
December 6, 2005

Editor’s Note: For many Americans, the Christmas holidays mean air travel and often frustrating delays. But the post-Sept. 11 airport security also can lead to embarrassing public searches for travelers pulled out of line. Men can be forced to open their pants to show they're not carrying contraband. Women must tolerate inspectors patting down their breasts.

Often the "logic" behind the search selection makes little sense. If a passenger buys a one-way ticket on a credit card, for instance, is that a red flag for a possible terrorist when one has to presume a suicide terrorist has no intention of paying the credit-card bill and thus would be more likely to pay the round-trip fare to avoid a search?

Put differently, is airport security becoming another case of a federal bureaucracy justifying its existence with make-work projects -- in this case, excessive searches of harmless passengers? In this guest column, Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute gives his thoughts:

Last week, I was so irate after flying the 2,000-mile roundtrip from my home in Washington, D.C., to Chicago that I vowed to hitchhike next time.

Did I have to endure the loss of my luggage for an extended period of time or sleep overnight in the airport because of the notoriously bad winter weather in Chicago? No, it was something much worse.

Ominously, I received a boarding pass inscribed with “SSSS”—bureaucratese for winning (really losing) the lottery for a spot in the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) special security inspection line.

At first, a flash of paranoia gripped me and I wondered if I was being singled out for government harassment because of a column I wrote awhile back criticizing the TSA’s airport security procedures. Or could it have been that the government didn’t like my many anti-Iraq War columns?

Finally, I realized my ego was inflating my importance to the government and that the special inspection was probably related to the airline check-in attendant’s offer to put me on an earlier flight. (If I get those same nefarious S’s during the two other air trips I’ve scheduled during the Yuletide season, I may reconsider my original, more sinister hypothesis.)

I began to wonder why changing a flight raises a red flag with the authorities. Don’t millions of people do this everyday in the United States because of inclement weather, changes in their schedules, or mechanical problems with aircraft? Besides, before 9/11, instead of changing flights, the terrorists repeatedly took the same flights to size them up for attack.

And while we’re at it, the government is soon apparently going to allow airline passengers to once again carry onboard the knives, scissors, fingernail clippers, etc., that were banned after 9/11. Apparently, authorities now believe that blowing up planes with bombs is a bigger threat that hijacking them and running them into buildings.

Does this mean that they were wrong about the major threat for years after 9/11 or that TSA is merely trying to find an excuse to lessen some of the most unpopular security measures that have threatened the agency with bureaucratic extinction?

Finally, although the courts (never ones to stick up for the Constitution) have allowed authorities to search all people and their things at airports and roadblocks designed to catch drunk drivers without “probable cause,” don’t such general searches explicitly violate the Fourth Amendment?

Oops, such commonsense questions by any thinking air traveler can only make one skeptical of the government’s efforts to provide genuine security. They can also make your life miserable.

After having all of these thoughts as I went through the regular security screening, which entailed stepping through a metal detector and the usual scan of my luggage and my shoes, I was a bit annoyed when I reached the additional screening area.

Although I held my tongue, my annoyance must have shown as the TSA inspector made me do yoga-style contortions while he ran a wand over me, patted me down all over, and felt down the front of my pants (unbelievable, but true).

Apparently, this gross violation of privacy is deemed acceptable to the government as long as a person of the same gender is inflicting it on the victim. Any ordinary citizen could be arrested for such behavior.

Furthermore, the minimal—if any—added security provided by these additional intrusive measures is certainly not worth the personal violation. And my annoyance was rewarded by having my bag thoroughly ransacked—even though it had already been scanned electronically—with personal items strewn about and not repacked. Luckily, on this trip, I was not carrying holiday packages, which would have been unwrapped and carelessly opened.

Return Flight

On my return trip, I discovered, much to my horror, that these “random” inspections are not so random. When the agent gave me my boarding pass, it again had the ominous S’s on it. I asked her why I had been selected again for this torture. She said that I would have to ask TSA.

I then asked the TSA special inspector why supposedly random searches—presumably designed to deter terrorists from bringing nefarious items onto a plane and actually catch some of them doing it—target the same people on both their outbound and return trip. I noted that if I hadn’t tried to commit a terrorist act on the outbound trip, the probability that I would do so on the return flight was low.

When I said that spot-checking a greater number of people, rather than the same ones, would be likely to net more terrorists, the only thing the befuddled inspector could say was that the airlines, not TSA, made the decisions about who to search.

All of this has reinforced my original skepticism that most of these security measures are make-believe—merely governmental efforts to show the public that “something” is being done about terrorism.

Airline hijackings and bombings have always been very rare and, even after 9/11, the average air traveler has a miniscule chance of ever being involved in such an incident. But unfortunately, this holiday season, the governmental Grinch gives us the gift that keeps on giving: airport pseudo-security.

Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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