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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Airport security screening a disturbing example of abuse of authority.

For those of you who haven't seen the video of this incident in question, I apologize, but I really feel uncomfortable creating a link and making it available.  The mother of the young boy being searched purposely put the video on Facebook in order to spread awareness of what can occur at a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport screening, and I applaud her interest in increasing public awareness, but personally, what I saw on the video bothers me to my core.  To what incident am I referring?  On Tuesday morning at DFW Airport, Jennifer Williamson, her daughter, and her thirteen year old son Aaron arrived at the TSA Security Checkpoint, the screening we all must pass through if we have any intention of boarding a plane.  Williamson and her daughter cleared the machine with no problem, as did Aaron.  At that point, she was informed that there was a issue with the computer in her son's carry-on bag, and he would be required to go through an additional screening.  This was a concern for her, as Aaron suffers from Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which can make thorough physical contact with a stranger a very distressful experience.  Ms. Williamson inquired if TSA could use an alternative method of inspection or "pat-down", given Aaron's condition.  The TSA's own rule book appears to address persons with conditions that require additional consideration, which from my perspective, is exactly what Ms. Williamson was requesting.  Instead, Aaron was given what I would describe as a very intrusive physical inspection.  Did the problem with the laptop somehow leave Aaron not eligible for an alternative inspection?  TSA's comment on the issue is as follows: "TSA allows for the pat-down of a teenage passenger, and in this case, all approved procedures were followed to resolve an alarm of the passenger's laptop."  After examination, Aaron's carry-on, including the laptop, was returned to Ms. Williamson and Aaron, who, by the way missed their flight.

When originally commenting on the experience, Williamson claimed that she and her son were kept in the screening area for one hour.  In an embarrassing attempt at one-upmanship, TSA felt it was important to note that in fact, the Williamsons were only being interviewed/examined for forty-five minutes, and that Aaron's "pat-down" was accomplished in two minutes.  Later, TSA one-uped itself, by claiming that the incident only lasted thirty-five minutes.  At the end of the day, I don't care if the screening took all afternoon.  What is tremendously disturbing to me is the video of Aaron's "Pat-down", which the TSA defends as "appropriate."  From appearances, I would guess that Aaron was wearing one thin t-shirt, shorts, and underwear, which comes to three pieces of clothing for all  you math majors out there.  Having spent my life in Federal Law Enforcement and Intelligence Collection, I've been trained to search an individual, and the level of intrusiveness is directly related to a host of circumstances.  This explains why it's so important to know what problem TSA had encountered with the laptop.  The TSA Officer began the search by checking Aaron's side and underarm area, then moved to the back.  The officer was doing a thorough and proper search, trying to eliminate the possibility that the subject was hiding a knife or something of similar size.  From here on out, things get confusing, at least from my perspective.  Too much time was spent examining Aaron's buttock area (repeatedly), and when the inspection moved to the front of Aaron's midriff, I was again disturbed by the amount of time spent checking this one area.  Just as the viewer thinks that the inspection is complete, the TSA officer comes back, for another "go-over" of Aaron's thighs and sensitive area.  For anyone with children who watched this video clip, and even for those of us who have no kids, would you be OK with a stranger touching your child in this manner?  Was it necessary?  What happened with the computer that necessitated this kind of response?

I take this incident personally because I have defended TSA and its agents repeatedly in my blog.  It is a very difficult and thankless job, and the great majority of TSA officers do great work.  We have been fortunate in the United States that our transportation system has not been successfully compromised since 9-11.  No doubt the bad guys have tried, and I'm sure TSA has disrupted numerous attempts at violence, incidents that Federal Law Enforcement authorities believe are best kept confidential.  I understand the overall necessity to follow-through on every inspection, because in the United States, all persons are given the presumption of innocence and should not be singled out beforehand based on appearance or other personal factors.  But we aren't in Kabul, Baghdad, or Tripoli.  If TSA hires an individual I assume they trust that person to utilize authority appropriately and wisely.  There is still room for discretion, folks, and the physical inspection given to this boy was unnecessary, unjustified, and inappropriate.  I would be happy to apologize to TSA and the officers involved, if I learn that something on the laptop (or tablet) in question led the officers to believe that it was a detonator of some sort, or provided evidence that Aaron was concealing a blade somewhere.

The question remains, "why would TSA single-out this boy?"  Before I proffer a hypothesis, please understand that this is only conjecture on my part.  I have no idea why TSA put this boy through this "thorough" physical inspection.  I've been referred for additional screening myself numerous times, and I've had my private area "gone over", but never twice during one episode.  Just like most of you (bless those of you who already have all the answers), I don't know the motivations behind this unfortunate event.  Could it be that Ms. Williamson was not having a great day, and she approached TSA with her initial inquiry in a "brusk" or demanding manner?  Its also possible that her attitude was misconstrued, as she was obviously distracted by concern for her son?  But if Ms. Williamson did push the wrong buttons, one way to respond would be to make sure she received that dispensation, but just not in the form she had anticipated.  She wanted special treatment (not many people have heard of SPD), and they made sure she got it.  I would hate to think that any U.S. government employee in a position of authority, would deal with a twelve old suffering from this condition, with EVEN MORE intrusive physical contact, regardless of the alleged behavior of the parent.  This is a bit of "Devil's Advocate"; I have no reason to believe that Ms. Williamson was anything but polite, patient and responsive during this incident, although most of the parents with whom I 've spoken would have stepped in and ended the physical inspection before it was complete.

*Its important to keep in mind that in the video clip that has been made available (I'm curious if TSA will release theirs), the TSA officer closely observes policy regarding inspections, and I'm sure a Supervisor was present.  Ms. Williamson deserves the same benefit of the doubt, as she isn't audible or visible in any part of the clip that I've seen.

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