Jenna MacFarlane was on the way to visit a friend in Baltimore in April when her carry-on bag triggered an alarm at Charlotte’s airport.
A Transportation Security Administration screener told MacFarlane she would have to undergo a full-body pat-down by a female officer. Late for her flight and with no option other than to be searched in private, MacFarlane agreed.
The pat-down, done over her clothes, explored her breasts, crotch and buttocks.
“I did not imagine that she would ask me a few times to spread my legs wider and in fact touch my vagina four times with the side of her hand,” MacFarlane later wrote in a complaint to the TSA.
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The experience humiliated MacFarlane, 56, a Charlotte graphic designer and part-time teacher who flies several times a year. It also left her with a nagging question that millions of fellow travelers could ask: How much privacy must Americans give up in order to fly safely?
Just a month before her search, TSA had launched a new, “more involved” pat-down procedure.
TSA defends its screenings. Officers are trained to treat passengers with respect, it says. Pat-downs are done by officers of the same gender as the passenger, with a second officer present, and can be done out of sight of other passengers.
“Pat-downs result in the discovery of knives and other dangerous items carried on a passenger’s person on a daily basis,” spokesman Mike England said. “They are a valuable tool in keeping our skies safe.”
But some security experts question whether the screenings are really effective, and civil liberties advocates say pat-downs can be nearly sexual in their intimacy.
Complaints poured in when the TSA began more aggressive searches in 2010. Travelers gave graphic accounts of genital contact by agents, the New York Times reported, and “a general sense of powerlessness and humiliation.”
CNN political commentator Angela Rye posted a video of her own pat-down at Detroit’s airport last December. Rye said she fought back tears as a TSA agent twice touched her crotch.
“Of course, we want America to be safe and protected but we should not violate the emotional and physical safety of our nation’s citizens at the same time,” Rye wrote.
MacFarlane said she is sensitive to being touched by strangers. Her pat-down, by a female officer who explained the procedure in advance, took place behind closed doors.
“I told her I felt humiliated,” MacFarlane said. “She told me she was surprised that I’d never been searched before.”
She filed complaints with TSA and Sen. Richard Burr’s office but concluded that the agent was just doing her job.
“I travel fairly often, have no criminal record and am a cooperative person,” she wrote in her complaint. “I feel the search was improper, uncalled for, and other searches could have been conducted that would have eliminated the need for invasive touching.”
TSA told the Observer it can’t comment on specific complaints. In a response to MacFarlane’s complaint to Burr’s office, the agency said a test indicated explosives might have been in her bag, prompting the pat-down. None were found.
“The description of (her) screening is consistent with TSA (standard operating procedure) for alarm resolution,” TSA wrote.
People who refuse to go through imaging screening or walk-through metal detectors, or who have triggered alarms, undergo pat-downs, TSA says. TSA also chooses passengers randomly for pat-downs.
Passengers who won’t complete screening aren’t permitted to fly.
MacFarlane’s search came a month after TSA changed its pat-down protocol, reducing several options to one standardized procedure. TSA won’t describe the differences between the old and new procedures but, Bloomberg News reported, warned airport officials that passengers would be more likely to notice them.
Days after TSA’s new policy was enacted in March, the TSA search of a 13-year-old boy in Dallas left his mother livid. Her video got 7.7 million views on Facebook.
TSA says the new procedure uses “enhanced security measures” that were put in place several months earlier but doesn’t expand the areas of the body – including the breasts, groin and buttocks – that can be patted down. They’re intended to find hidden weapons concealed on the body, such as improvised explosive devices or components.
Officers use the back of their hands to touch those areas, the agency’s website says, but in some cases “the front of the hand may be needed to determine that a threat does not exist.” That policy existed before the new procedure began in March.
TSA said it has received about 11 complaints about pat-downs in Charlotte between July 2016 and July 2017, the same number as in the previous year. TSA screened about 9 million passengers in Charlotte between March and late July.
The threats TSA hopes to stop are real: Screeners nationwide found a record 96 firearms – 85 of them loaded and 26 with a round in the firing chamber – in carry-on bags in the week of July 24-31 alone. Agents routinely find knives, brass knuckles, batons and stun guns.
In 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear while on a Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Fellow passengers subdued the Underwear Bomber.
But some critics say TSA’s security measures don’t actually work.
In 2015, Department of Homeland Security auditors successfully concealed mock explosives and weapons from TSA screeners 67 out of 70 times, the Los Angeles Times and other media reported. The 95 percent failure rate led to reassignment of TSA’s acting administrator.
MacFarlane herself said she once inadvertently got a box cutter through TSA screening as agents fixated on the amount of water in her bottle.
Instead of inconspicuous methods that would be more effective, he says, TSA enacts security precautions in response to specific incidents: confiscating liquids, screening shoes, banning box cutters.
“If you’ve ever been arrested, you know that any pat-down that isn’t physically embarrassing is ineffective,” Schneier said. Compared to aggressive searches by police, he said, “the cursory pat-down by the TSA is laughable.”
Schneier says airports need security, but argues that there are few actual terrorists intent on doing harm.
“If we can’t keep weapons out of prisons, we can’t hope to keep them out of airports,” he said. In light of TSA’s weekly haul of confiscated firearms, he added, “the only explanation for why planes aren’t falling out of the sky is because no one is trying.”
Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C., describes a cycle of “mission creep” in which TSA backs off invasive searches after public outcry only to resume them later.
“They’re never going to catch everything so the question becomes, how far are you willing to risk going for the amount of pain you’re applying to the flying public?” he said.
The ACLU says the TSA should tighten its rules on when pat-downs are to be conducted. Passengers, Stanley says, should know TSA policies, demand that they be followed and file complaints if they’re not.
“It’s certainly a civil liberties issue,” Stanley said. “People are being exposed to the close contact with federal officials that many people don’t expect from anyone other than their sexual partners.”
TSA advises passengers with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, an aversion to being touched or a history of sexual trauma to notify agents before they’re patted down.
TSA offers a help line and support officers for passengers with disabilities, medical conditions or other special circumstances, but says the level of service varies among airports. The agency apologized, in MacFarlane’s case, for not getting her the help she had requested on her return flight into Charlotte after her pat-down.
MacFarlane said that, in filing her complaints with TSA and Burr’s office, she had wanted to learn whether the agent who searched her acted appropriately.
“I learned a lot in the following months about how well she had done her job and that Congress approved the procedure,” she said. “I emerged with a healthy respect for the hard work of the TSA agents and how much they too must loathe this procedure.
“I’ve always had it in me that as an American, I should help other Americans. This felt like the opposite. In speaking with the TSA I realized there was no way I could help them other than to submit to what I and others have described as humiliation.
“I thought to myself: There must be another way.”
Maria David contributed to this story.