More TSA horror stories emerge while agency ponders what to do

Brett Michael Dykes
November 22, 2010

The ongoing furor over the Transportation Security Administration's stepped-up security measures shows no sign of abating, and as the agency gears up for the nation's busiest day of travel over the Thanksgiving holiday, TSA officials say they're considering a scaleback. In the meantime, air-traveler horror stories continue to mount, with some widely spread tales proving to be a fabrications -- or efforts to deliberately get a rise out of airport security agents.

One apparently overblown story involved a TSA agent patting down a shirtless 8-year-old boy at the Salt Lake City International Airport. Utah Valley University student Luke Tait told the Salt Lake Tribune that the boy was extremely shy and had physically resisted the pat-down. Tait captured a cell-phone video of the incident and posted it on YouTube.

However, the TSA's version of events is a little different. Saying that "many are coming to their own conclusions about what's happening in the video," the agency responded to the uproar through its blog:

On November 19, a family was traveling through a TSA checkpoint at the Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC). Their son alarmed the walk through metal detector and needed to undergo secondary screening. The boy's father removed his son's shirt in an effort to expedite the screening. After our TSO completed the screening, he helped the boy put his shirt back on. That's it. No complaints were filed and the father was standing by his son for the entire procedure.

[Related: X-ray body scanner details]

It should be mentioned that you will not be asked to and you should not remove clothing (other than shoes, coats and jackets) at a TSA checkpoint. If you're asked to remove your clothing, you should ask for a supervisor or manager.

You can watch the video captured by Luke Tait below:

But other stories did emerge over the weekend that appear factual -- and that are indeed quite cringe-worthy. One retired special-education teacher on his way to a wedding in Florida had an experience with TSA agents that he, or anyone who hears about it, likely won't soon forget. A bladder cancer survivor, Thomas Sawyer now wears a wears a urostomy bag, which collects his urine through an opening in his stomach. When the bag was fondled by a TSA agent after the bag set off alarms in the airport's scanner, urine spilled all over Sawyer's clothes.

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"Every time I tried to tell them about my medical condition, they said they didn't need to know about that," Sawyer told MSNBC. "One agent watched as the other used his flat hand to go slowly down my chest. I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants."

Meanwhile, some opponents of the new procedures are seeking to dramatize their alleged invasiveness by staging dramatic encounters with TSA personnel. Libertarian activists have taken to provoking run-ins with the TSA in airports and then sharing their stories and videos on the Web. For instance, libertarian radio host Meg McLain -- who claimed that hostile TSA agents screamed at her and handcuffed her -- proved to be lying about her experience, once the TSA took the rare step of releasing video of her passing through airport security without incident.

[Related: Why body scan boycott would be a mistake]

And of course there's this coming Wednesday's planned "Opt Out Day," which has anti-TSA activists encouraging travelers to refuse to pass through X-ray scanners in favor of pat-downs on the busiest travel day of the year. But some critics dismiss the planned mass protest as an act of "idiocy" that will only make the situation worse.

"Ignore these imbeciles. Their plan would clog security lines and ruin your holiday for no good reason," writes Slate's William Saletan about the promoters of the Opt-Out protest. "They don't understand the importance of the electronic scans. They're wrong about the scanners' safety. And from the standpoint of dignity, their advice is insane. If you opt out of the scan, you'll get a pat-down instead. You'll trade a fast, invisible, intangible, privacy-protected machine inspection for an unpleasant, extended grope. In effect, you'll be telling TSA to touch your junk."

Perhaps the biggest losers in all of this are the actual TSA agents, who are thrust in the front lines of the current uproar -- and who complain that this high-profile public ostracism isn't exactly what they signed up for. In addition to the usual rigors of security screening -- which, as CNN notes in a dispatch today, involves everything from chasing cats through terminals to snatching babies off of X-ray-machine conveyor belts, TSA agents are being forced to grope people they'd very much prefer not to touch in their private lives.

The travel blog Flying With Fish gathered opinions from 17 different TSA agents on the recent furor, and judging by their responses, they seem to be among the people most put off by the whole mess.

"It is not comfortable to come to work knowing full well that my hands will be feeling another man's private parts, their butt, their inner thigh," wrote one male agent. "Even worse is having to try and feel inside the flab rolls of obese passengers, and we seem to get a lot of obese passengers!" Another added that most of the travelers the agency deals with "have a problem understanding what personal hygiene is."

In short: Thanks a lot, bin Laden!

(Photo: AP/Ted S. Warren)

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