Been groped by TSA agents? Former DHS official implied privacy advocates are to blame

At a Senate panel about DHS challenges after 10 years, a former DHS/NSA official said you can't blame the TSA for "stupid screening;" instead, it is the fault of "privacy campaigners."

When passing through airport security to catch a flight, surely you've experienced either the body scanners or "enhanced" pat-downs. Well, fasten your flipping seatbelt because, according to a former DHS official, if you've been groped by TSA agents, you "can't blame the TSA;" instead, he implied that you should blame privacy advocates.

The Department of Homeland Security was created in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Yesterday, on the 12th anniversary of those attacks, a Senate panel heard expert testimony about "The Department of Homeland Security at 10 Years: Examining Challenges and Achievements and Addressing Emerging Threats." There were several prepared testimonies for the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing.

Stewart Baker formerly served as DHS Assistant Secretary and NSA General Counsel; he's been described by some as being no fan of civil liberties based on his past statements, such as, in Techdirt's words, "Anyone advocating for basic civil liberties is to blame for 9/11." Just the same, I was totally unprepared when he implied that privacy advocates are to blame for "ten years of stupid screening at our airports."

While speaking about DHS "unquestionable successes," Baker praised the border screening program.

It's not easy to find a handful of terrorists and criminals in a flood of millions of travelers, especially if you have less than 30 seconds to make the call. DHS quickly realized that taking more time to inspect everyone would not solve the problem. Indeed, DHS could quadruple the wait (and the hassle), and it'd still be trying to find bad guys based on two minutes of scrutiny. As a result, border officials began gathering more background data earlier on all travelers, and they used that data to decide which travelers needed more than 30 seconds of attention.

He continued talking about background data of travelers collected for border screening, adding "but they did not happen without immense effort. Privacy campaigners did their best to kill them." At this point, he was talking about a decade of negotiating with the European Union, which was "far more enthusiastic about regulating American security programs than its own security agencies."

Unlike border officials, though, TSA ended up taking more time to inspect everyone, treating all travelers as potential terrorists, and subjecting many to whole-body imaging and enhanced pat-downs. We can't blame TSA for this wrong turn, though. Privacy lobbies persuaded Congress that TSA couldn't be trusted with data about the travelers it was screening. With no information about travelers, TSA had no choice but to treat them all alike, sending us down a long blind alley that has inconvenienced billions.

Then Baker listed the virtues of TSA's Secure Flight and PreCheck program, which includes having a background check run on applicants. ... "because TSA PreCheck is voluntary and has been rolled out cautiously, privacy campaigners have been quiet. To date, more than 15 million passengers have experienced TSA PreCheck."

DHS should seize this moment to further integrate air and border security approaches so that TSA and CBP both know a traveler is coming their way in time to plan for screening. While the Department has made great strides towards integration of its various databases, this process is not yet complete. All elements of the Department should have as much information as possible regarding those they are screening, whether that information was originally collected by CBP, TSA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE"), or any of DHS's other component agencies.

Such a strategy would not be free of controversy or complication. Because of past privacy limitations, it is likely that DHS will need Congressional assistance to achieve this goal. But the gains in reduced delays, in increased security, and in personal dignity would be significant. No one wants to be against privacy, but we've tried the privacy campaigners' preferred solution, denying even the smallest scrap of data to the government, and they saddled us with ten years of stupid screening at our airports, where a lack of data forced TSA to treat everyone like a suspected terrorist. No one liked that solution, with good reason. It's time to recognize that failure and encourage experiments in smarter, faster, more informed screening based on data-sharing.

TSA misconduct on the rise

You've heard the stories about TSA agents stealing from passengers' luggage, smuggling drugs, and humiliating travelers. The most recent Government Accountability Office report about TSA and widespread employee misconduct also listed numerous other offenses such as snoozing on the job, tardiness, and letting buddies through security without screening. 10% of the misconduct involved abusive behavior or inappropriate comments.

An ex-TSA worker, who previously "shamed" a 15-year-old girl for her outfit, recently made "threats" that prompted a brief shutdown of parts of LAX. Police also "found a handwritten note entitled "9/11/2013 THERE WILL BE FIRE! FEAR! FEAR! FEAR!" and containing unspecified threats that cited the anniversary of the terror attacks."

The GAO report stated that over the last three years, TSA employee misconduct rose 26% - from 2,691 reported instances in 2010 to 3,408 in 2012. Christopher Elliot summed it nicely by stating, "No other report has come this close to reflecting the public's disappoint with the agency." In other words, our "patience with the TSA is just about up."

We're unimpressed with the weekly tallies posted on the TSA blog of weapons confiscated by screeners; we just want to know when they've stopped a terrorist from blowing up a plane. And when the TSA says it has a "zero tolerance" policy for misconduct in the workplace, we don't want to hear about a 26% rise in employee misbehavior.

P.S. We also don't want to hear that treating us all like suspected terrorists, forcing us to endure humiliating experiences, such as being "groped" by TSA agents, is the fault of privacy advocates.

All bold and italicized emphasis was mine. DHS witness testimony, including Baker's, can be downloaded here.

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