Airport Pat-Downs: The New TSA Rules Are a Mistake

This week, the TSA announced airline passengers can be subjected to invasive body searches. Former cop Bill Richardson on how the pat-downs could help terrorists walk onto planes.

Jeff Topping / Getty Images

When I was working as a detective for the Mesa, Arizona police department, another detective and I were looking for a suspicious subject in a high crime area. Reports were that he might be armed, and when we found him, the other detective gave him a pat-down search. Finding nothing, we ordered him to sit on the ground. I noticed the man was nervous and very uncomfortable as he sat. It was like he had a bug up his butt and couldn't sit still.

What I observed based on my experiences told me something was wrong. I searched him from head to toe: his hair, the collar and cuffs of his shirt, the inside of his waistband and the surface of his skin. Just short of a strip search, any place I could see or touch—including the inside of his mouth—was checked.

I literally had my hand between his legs and halfway up his butt when I found a small pistol that fit neatly in the area behind his testicles and against his anus.

Would a hands-on body search conducted by an airport TSA agent have found this weapon? The answer to that question now has direct consequences for the security of our nation's airlines.

A pat-down search didn't reveal the gun. A "pat-down" search by definition is "a frisk or external feeling of the outer garments of an individual for weapons only." It took a much more invasive search to find the deadly weapon that the suspect had on him.

Of course, anyone who watches cop shows knows what a pat-down search is. The words are part of the American lexicon, and the public's image of a pat-down search by police is something that isn't all that bad. That is largely because a pat-down is legally justified based on a suspect's behavior and conduct, and is minimally invasive in nature according to the legal definition used by police agencies nationwide.

But the definition long used by police, which dates back to the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision that permitted police to "stop and frisk," has now been changed by the Transportation Security Administration.

As of Friday, TSA agents are using what they call a "pat-down" procedure that allows airport security officials to use the front of their hands to search passengers' entire bodies. That's not a "pat-down." It's a full search of a person's body. In police work, that's called a custody search that includes everything short of a cavity search. The TSA needs to be honest about what they're doing. It's not nice to lie to the American people.

You have to wonder if the enemy knows all too well that American security is limited by American tolerance for the invasiveness of its procedures.

There are many reasons this so-called pat-down search will be ineffective as a security measure. For one, I seriously doubt law-abiding passengers will stand by quietly as the TSA gropes and paws its way across their bodies. These aren't suspected criminals, they're people whose only offense is that they were in the wrong place in line and who were purportedly randomly selected for a full-body search that, according to TSA guidelines, includes the touching of their "breasts and genitals."

But perhaps even more importantly, while rubbing one's hands over a person's body may give the appearance of a thorough search, it's an incomplete approach to security. What about the items that can be hidden in one's rectum or inside a woman's vagina? Just last year, a terrorist used a "butt bomb" in an assassination attempt that experts say would have escaped airport security because the x-rays used in airports don't see inside body cavities.

Effectively searching another person is not for the modest. It's not uncommon for even some police officers to be hesitant to touch a person of the same sex in the private parts. Lawbreakers know that and take full advantage of it. How confident, then, are TSA screeners, who are paid about half of what police officers make, going to feel about going as deep into a search as is really necessary?

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With this week's reports of attempts to ship bombs to Chicago area synagogues from the Middle East by UPS and FedEx cargo aircraft, you have to wonder if the enemy knows all too well that American security is limited by American tolerance for the invasiveness of its procedures. The TSA's version of a pat-down will likely be both too intrusive for people to accept, and not intrusive enough to be effective. Meanwhile, while passengers are being tormented in airports, dozens of other methods to deliver explosives or biological weapons exist with little or no scrutiny.

The American people have been more than tolerant of the TSA's intrusions in the name of airline security, but the agency may have finally tipped the balance between in-flight protections and violating the protections we have under the Constitution.

I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to have a guy in an airport tell me to "bend over and spread 'em" in order to fly to New York City to visit my son.

Bill Richardson is a former law enforcement official who has been worked on narcotics, sex crimes, homicide, and criminal intelligence. After retirement he worked for a law firm in Phoenix as an investigator before spending ten years working as a drug agent for the NFL. He retired in 2007 and has been writing for about 12 years.