New TSA policy a violation of, um, TSA policy

Gotta love an Agency that can managed to violate their own rules when creating rules.  I suppose if they never bothered to publically state either of the two contradicting policies they’d be fine.  And up until the unredacted Screening Checkpoint SOP document turned up last month at least one of the policies was not particularly well known.  This week, however, the TSA has issued a new directive (anyone taking bets on how long until a full copy is leaked or subpoenas served to the reporters??) as part of their follow-up to the failed bombing attempt on Christmas day.  And the new policies are in violation of their own policies.

The new policy, according to several sources, requires that passengers originating from one of 14 countries are subject to a full search of their carry-on luggage and a pat-down when boarding flights bound for the United States.  This policy is eerily similar to Section 2A-2 (C) (1) (b) (iv) of the Screening Checkpoint SOP.  That section dictates that passengers presenting a passport from one of twelve countries be subjected to a full secondary screening (essentially the same bag check and pat-down).  The main difference is the addition of two countries to the list, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.  And the rule now definitely applies at foreign ports rather than at TSA checkpoints.

The problem with this policy is that it violates the TSA’s stated Civil Rights Policy.  That policy suggests that

[T]he public we serve are to be treated in a fair, lawful, and nondiscriminatory manner, without regard to … national origin.

So you’re not going to be subject to discriminatory screening based on national origin, unless you happen to be from one of 14 specific countries and then you will.  Glad that they’ve cleared up that confusion.

On the plus side, the pat-downs conducted at most foreign checkpoints are much more thorough thatn the TSA-administered ones.  Just this morning in Barcelona I watched a woman receive a rather thorough search at the WTMD that identified metal around her breasts and forced her to actually pull the necklace out from under her shirt to show the screening officer.  I’m not so sure that such a thorough check would ever happen in the lawsuit-happy USA.

Still, the policy doesn’t really address the main issue at hand.  The TSA is constantly fighting the last war rather than looking to the next one.  Their “intelligence” appears to be a rather unfortunate joke of a system.  And there are insufficient resources – time, cash, human and space – to reasonably provide 100% manual screening.  Besides, it isn’t necessary.  The key is in having the appropriate information and acting on it in advance, not after the fact.  IATA Director General Giovanni Bisignani, a man who knows a thing or two about air travel, sums the situation up quite clearly:

Instead of looking for bad things—nail clippers and rogue bottles of shampoo—security systems need to focus on finding bad people. …

Adding new hardware to an old system will not deliver the results we need. It is time for governments to invest in a process built around a check point of the future that combines the best of screening technology with the best of intelligence gathering. Such a system would give screeners access to important passenger data to make effective risk assessments

But that hasn’t stopped the TSA, Canada’s CATSA or the UK’s DfT from trotting out plans to increase the use of Whole Body Imaging – aka Strip Search – machines around the globe.  Fighting the wrong fight in an expensive and inappropriate manner.  Thanks, government.  You’re real great there.

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Update (1/5/2010 12:07am EST): Couple small typos in the original post that changed the meaning of a few key phrases.  Whoopsie.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. You are wrong. This is not discrimination on the basis of national origin, but on the basis of citizenship, which is not unlawful. National origin discrimination would be a rule that requires any person born in a particular nation, say Nigeria, to be screened differently, even if such person were not at present a Nigerian citizen.

  2. So looking at the TSA website, I find this:

    “Because effective aviation security must begin beyond our borders, and as a result of extraordinary cooperation from our global aviation partners, TSA is mandating that every individual flying into the U.S. from anywhere in the world traveling from or through nations that are state sponsors of terrorism or other countries of interest will be required to go through enhanced screening.”

    So let’s say I am traveling from Syria to the US via Amsterdam, and I happen to book that trip in two parts, on two PNRs, with two different airlines. How’s the Amsterdam screener supposed to know where I came from?

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