By James Bovard
If you use hand sanitizer when traveling, the Transportation Security Administration can badger you as if you were a terrorist suspect. TSA is one of the biggest hassles many Americans will encounter this holiday season. I learned that firsthand while flying home from Portland, Ore., on Thanksgiving morning.
I arrived at the airport two hours before my flight. As usual, I opted out of going through TSA’s Whole Body Scanners. The agency’s prize possessions are incompetent at detecting terrorist threats; the inspector general reported that they fail to detect 96 percent of weapons and mock explosives in smuggling tests. The machines take birthday suit snapshots of each traveler; TSA claims photos are not retained, but the agency has less credibility than Congress.
A TSA agent took me aside and gave me a vigorous patdown. This is the usual routine I experience at airports and a small price to pay for a silent protest for my constitutional right to be free of unreasonable, warrantless searches.
I was surprised when the agent claimed his glove showed a positive alert for explosives. “What type of explosive was it?” I asked. “I don’t know — it’s a code,” he replied. I asked how often the detection machine generated false positives. He said that was classified information. It was not like I had been hanging out at shooting ranges or missile launch sites in Oregon.
TSA’s explosive detection tests are routinely triggered by the glycerin in soaps and hand sanitizers (which I used that morning). TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein admitted in 2013 that “commonly used items can render a false positive alarm during screening.” TSA’s explosive test is akin to a police radar gun that exaggerates the number of speeders by a thousandfold. But regardless of the stratospheric error rate, the TSA claims absolute power over anyone who triggers the alert.
Two other agents came up and the three of them marched me off to a closed room with a sign, “Private Screening in Progress — Do Not Enter.” The TSA agents shuffled along lackadaisically, almost certainly knowing it was a false alarm.
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