These days traveling is no fun, especially if one is an airplane passenger traveling inside the USA. Last week I was in Pasadena, outside Houston on a business trip. On Tuesday morning the weather was furious with rain and wind blowing so strong that I could not reach my rental car from the lobby of the hotel without an umbrella. However, before I could reach my car the wind had tore apart the umbrella. Then there were the rolling black-outs that followed throughout the day disrupting people’s regular work schedules. Many offices, schools and colleges had an earlier than usual shut down. The remainder of the week also felt too cold with pipelines freezing and bursting.
The weather forecast for Friday when I was scheduled to fly out was bad. Houston expected some snow, worse enough to form an inch or two of ‘black ice’, which’s very dangerous for commuters. To my surprise and utter dismay I found that the Continental Airlines had cancelled my morning flight and instead automatically bumped me out for a Sunday morning flight. It took several calls to my American Express travel agent and the airlines office before I could find a seating assignment for the Friday afternoon flight out of George Bush International Airport.
Houston is in the south-eastern side of Texas where the weather during this time of the year is usually not severely cold. Naturally, its commuters are not used to driving under icy road conditions. So, all the schools and most offices chose not to open on Friday. When I got up in the morning I discovered only a very thin layer of ice on my car windshields. The local TV stations showed shots of several freeways and roads. There were some car and truck accidents, especially in the above-the-ground highways which with bridges can become dangerously slippery. Obviously, the city administration was ill-equipped for the slippery roads and had not made enough preparation to salting the roads and highways.
After reports of accidents on the highways, some of the highways, including the Sam Houston Toll-way, were closed down. I left early for the airport so that I won’t miss my flight. I had to ride on the feeder roads that go parallel to the major toll-way that leads to the airport. With very few cars and trucks moving, it was an easy commute.
All the passengers must of course go through a thorough body-scan, after they take out their shoes, jackets, coins, belts, computers and liquid gels/lotions, including toothpaste that weigh more than 3 oz. All these items must then go through scanners which supposedly are capable of detecting any harmful devices or ingredients that can ignite or explode. We are told that every day millions of bags are screened for explosives and other dangerous items at over 7,000 baggage screening locations and at over 450 airports nationwide. Interestingly, so flawed are these scanners, as demonstrated by some incidents, new full-body scan machines (Advanced Imaging Technology) have been installed in many major airports that provide security screeners of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) with essentially nude images of travelers. To ensure privacy, faces are blurred and the images are deleted once the TSA officer determines that the passenger is not a threat. These full-body scan machines have been highly criticized by many passengers for invasion of individual privacy and/or of being pornographic entertainment to the TSA. The Allied Pilots Association, a union representing 11,000 American Airlines pilots, called the measure a ‘demeaning’ and an ‘unacceptable’ experience. One privacy watchdog group had gone so far as to file a lawsuit in a federal court, seeking to have the machines removed from airports.
But more problematic is the pat-down searches, where a TSA personnel puts his/her hands in and around all body parts and cavities, including the breast and the groin area to check for explosives or other harmful objects. These new searches have appropriately been decried as "sexual molestation" or "sexual assault." I know firsthand why it is so objectionable and humiliating. After much criticism, most airports now do a random pat-down on passengers, i.e., all the passengers are no longer subjected to this pat down searches.
Last Friday, after arriving at the airport, I stood in the check-in line for security check. I took out my laptop computer from the carry-on bag; I also took out my shoes, jacket, etc. Then I stepped in through the body scan area. As expected, no beeping sound was heard, which would warrant a pat-down search. When I was about to collect my carry-on belongings from the conveyor belt, the mean-spirited TSA (Transportation Security Administration) personnel standing near the scan machine whispered something into the ears of a TSA colleague, who pulled me out for a pat-down search. I felt humiliated. Minutes later, I saw another south Asian also pulled for a thorough search. No other persons were randomly checked for such a humiliating experience. After the search was over, I could not avoid stating that it was a clear case of discriminatory racial profiling.
The government agency – TSA - was created in the post-9/11 days to ensure that certain items and persons prohibited from flying don’t board commercial airliners. Even when some nine million Americans are unemployed the TSA continues to hire people. According to its official website, some 43,000 trained and certified Transportation Security Officers are currently stationed at over 450 airports across the country. Combined with over 1,000 credentialed security inspectors, these professionals screen over two million passengers daily. While the government finds it difficult to balance its budget, the TSA and its parent organization – Department of Homeland Security (DHS) - continue to grow with men and machines.
Many of the TSA advisers are former agents of Israel’s Shin Bet and Mossad. In the post-9/11 era, many Israeli firms have made tons of money selling their security services, including scanning machines.
Rapiscan Systems, a manufacturer of body-scan technology, is a client of Michael Chertoff’s (Bush’s Homeland Security Secretary and co-author of the Patriot Act) security consulting firm, the Chertoff Group. It is worth noting that Chertoff (of dual Israeli nationality) played an important role in letting the detained suspected Israeli agents go back to Israel without any trial, immediately after 9/11. Chertoff is not alone in promoting companies like the Rapiscan Systems that make the airport nudie-scanners; many former congressmen are also involved. Lobbyists for Rapiscan (whose contract is worth $173 million) include Susan Carr, a former senior legislative aide to Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) who’s coincidentally chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee. They claim that such machines are a leap ahead of the metal detectors used in most airports, and are necessary to keep up with the plans of potential terrorists.
As we know better, such claims are absurd. If these latest full-body-scanners were that effective in detecting harmful objects, the travelers could have been spared of the extra pat-down searches.
The Homeland Security Department and other government agencies have been reviewing the Homeland Security Advisory System's usefulness for more than a year. The five-tiered, color-coded terror warning system, created after the Sept. 11 attacks, was one of the Bush administration's most visible anti-terrorism programs. Criticized as too vague to be useful in communicating the terror threat to the public, it quickly became the butt of late-night talk show jokes.
In the middle of 2009 Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a 60-day review of the color code. Last week, 566 days later, she decided to phase out the colors and go with another system -- the National Terrorism Advisory System, or NTAS. By the end of April, terror threats to the U.S. will no longer be described in shades of green, blue, yellow, orange and red. The new plan calls for notifying specific audiences about specific threats. In some cases, it might be a one-page threat description sent to law enforcement officials describing the threat, what law enforcement needs to do about it and what the federal government is doing.
It is high time for Secretary Napolitano’s office to stop the insanity with scan machines which serve no purpose other than costing American government and its people billions of dollars. Surely, if a terrorist wants to carry out its deadly attack, the gathering places of the passengers for security check-ups are easier targets. He/she need not even go through the scan machine to commit the heinous crime. So whom are we fooling with expensive gadgets that do nothing other than fattening the coffer of the vested interest?