All this inconvenience would be an acceptable part of my job if I felt that it serves some purpose. It does not. It's completely absurd to screen the pilots who will, in less than an hour's time, be seated at the controls of a fuel laden aircraft in flight, with crash axe within easy reach! This was recognized before 9/11 and we were allowed to bypass security. That changed in the wake of 9/11, but not due to any credible threat of terrorist acts by pilots or pilot impostors. Rather, it was believed that seeing flight crews forced to go through security would make the public more accepting of new procedures. This is exactly the sort of useless display that has become the TSA's primary stock in trade, what security expert Bruce Schneier refers to as "security theater."
Recent changes in TSA equipment and procedures have elevated flight crew screening from a mere inconvenience and exercise in stupidity to an outright violation of rights and decency. The TSA recently installed hundred of whole body imaging scanners, both of the Millimeter-Wave (Terahertz) and Backscatter X-ray varieties, in order to better detect non-metallic weapons and explosives. These machines penetrate clothing to create a nude image of the subject. Ostensibly this image is to be viewed in private by a screener of the same sex, and TSA claimed that images cannot be saved; both of these assurances have been shown by events to be false. TSA also asserts that the devices are perfectly safe and cannot cause health problems. Expert opinion is not nearly so settled, particularly regarding backscatter technology, and in any case there have been no independent studies to verify that the TSA's health claims are any more authentic than their privacy claims.
Anticipating these objections, the TSA danced around Fourth Amendment issues by allowing pilots and other travelers to "opt out" of whole-body imaging and subject themselves to secondary screening instead. Simultaneously, the TSA changed their secondary screening procedures to make them infinitely more humiliating and invasive, and thus discourage further opt-outs. I have witnessed this process first-hand at several airports. First, the TSA agent loudly exclaims "Opt out! Opt out!"; this is sometimes parroted by other TSA agents, and has the effect of drawing the attention of other passengers. Then, in full view of those passengers (unless the subject specifically requests a private screening), a TSA agent aggressively pats down the subject's body, including breasts and genitals. The TSA manual states that the breasts and genitals are to be searched using the back of the hand, but I have twice observed TSA agents breaking that rule (at LaGuardia, I even observed an agent take both of a woman's breasts in the palm of her hands and squeeze hard twice - "honk, honk!"). This would be sexual assault if anyone other than the government were doing it. Worse yet, they can and do subject children to the search (again at LGA, I observed a TSA agent groping a crying 3 or 4 year old girl).
It is one thing to pass through a magnetometer and have my belongings X-rayed as a requirement of my job. It is another thing entirely to be forced to choose between a virtual strip-search that adds to the radiation I already get on the job (higher than a nuclear plant worker!) and a government-sponsored molestation. Those are absolutely unacceptable conditions of employment, and it's high time that pilots fight back. Toward that end, both the Allied Pilots Association (American Airlines' union) and the US Airline Pilots Association (USAirways) recently issued recommendations for their pilots to opt out of whole-body imaging, request a private room for secondary screening, require the presence of a supervisor or law enforcement officer during the pat-down, report inappropriate TSA behavior, and call in sick if the process leaves them too shaken to fly safely. That is excellent advice which has the potential to quickly overburden TSA checkpoints. It has already had the effect of reviving a long-stalled program to verify flight crew employment and allow them to bypass security. Sometime soon, I may not have to subject myself to the TSA's goons to go to work.
But what about when I travel out of uniform? What of my wife and parents when they nonrev? What of all our passengers, our customers, our bread and butter? Many of them are required to fly as a condition of their livelihood. Why should they be required to give up their Fourth Amendment rights by dint of setting foot on an airplane? Why have airports become rights-free zones? Because aviation has been targeted by terrorists? Trains and subways have been extensively targeted worldwide, should search and seizure without probable cause be allowed on them as well? New York City itself has been repeatedly targeted by terrorists more than any other city in America; should the Bill of Rights no longer apply on the island of Manhattan?
The standard worn-out answer is, "If you don't like it, you don't have to fly." That's a horrible excuse that can be expanded to cover nearly every trammeling of God-given rights. You don't have to travel by train or subway, or visit or live in New York City, do you? You don't have to use the sidewalk by your house, do you? In that case, should using these purely optional pieces of public property be probable cause for a police officer to detain and strip search you? I'm not saying we shouldn't have security at airports, nor that every right should apply (the 2nd ammd clearly does not, for example). The courts have clearly held that security checks at airports, as previously conducted, are constitutional administrative searches. That said, unelected officials have made a very large leap from minimally invasive passive technologies such as magnetometers and explosive trace sniffers to highly invasive technologies and techniques without a sniff of public debate on the constitutional implications and the poor precedents that might be set. That worries me.
Not everyone is so worried about rights. Some are a lot more worried about terrorism. Some are willing to give up almost any right "so long as it makes us safer from terrorists." It's not a mindset I agree with, but even by this standard there is not much reason to support the new body scanners. Many security experts doubt whether they would've detected the components that the "underwear bomber" of NW253 sewed into his undergarments. They cannot see under the skin, nor in body cavities. Remember that both surgically implanted bombs and bombs inserted into body cavities have already been used in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and presumably any operation sophisticated enough to produce a viable high-explosive device would use one of these methods of gaming the body scanners. In a German test of one of the machines, a subject was able to hide all the components needed to assemble a bomb on his body (not in cavities) and pass through the scanner undetected. The Israelis don't use them for airport security and have no plans to; the head of security at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport called them "expensive and useless." For detecting explosives, sniffer machines are also expensive and maintenance intensive but considerably more useful. More low-tech but still one of the best means of detecting explosives: trained dogs. It just happens that the body imaging companies have far better lobbyists. Chief among them: Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security immediately preceding Janet Napolitano.
I'm on the front lines here. If, God forbid, a terrorist should succeed in detonating an explosive on board an airplane in flight, there's a decent chance that somebody I know will die, and I will find myself out of a job in rather quick order. I'm generally in favor of things that decrease the possibility of that happening. I don't think subjecting ourselves, spouses, and children to a virtual strip search or public molestation does anything to help in that regard, and the one thing it does do is make flying a far less pleasant experience. Meanwhile, rampers and other airport workers with much less extensive background checking than pilots are allowed to bypass security entirely. The TSA refuses to considers the one thing the Isrealis have found to be effective: behavior-based profiling, essentially ensuring that each traveler gets some face time to chat with a trained security officer and tailoring further screening according to their behavior.
I think it's high time we put our foot down to the TSA's incompetence and boorishness. To that end, the recommendations put forth by APA and USAPA show the best way forward: use the opt-out process to bring the whole works to a grinding halt. I suggest that everyone who will be flying on November 24th participate in "National Opt-Out Day."