Balancing security and freedom has been a defining debate of the last 10 years. And no one has been more in the crosshairs than the Transportation Security Administration agent. He's finally gone too far, according to a new bill that was introduced on Thursday, called: "Stop TSA's Reach in Policy Act," or "STRIP Act."
If passed, the legislation would "strip" agents of their police-like uniforms, badges and the title of "officer," to cut them down to size, and empower travelers to resist potential abuses of power.
"Congress has sat idly by as the TSA strip-searches 85-year-old grandmothers in New York, pats down 3-year-olds in Chattanooga and checks colostomy bags for explosives in Orlando. Enough is enough!" said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) in a statement. "The least we can do is end this impersonation, which is an insult to real cops."
The Transportation Security Administration is one invention of the post-9/11 era, along with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to which the agency belongs. Before then, passengers and their baggage were screened by private employees who were contracted by airlines.
In 2008, their uniform was redesigned to project a more professional image. The white shirts were shed for the kind of blue shirts associated with police and were adorned with a shiny badge. Other requirements: "Trousers will have a front crease that meets the top of the shoe with a slight break and the back crease stops 1 inch above the heel."
But to some critics, giving TSA officers the trappings of policemen made them more likely to abuse their positions, and rendered passengers' more vulnerable to violations of their constitutional rights.
Stories of molestations and oppression at the hands of TSA personnel popped up with what seemed like increasing frequency. When U.S. airports began introducing full-body scanners in 2008, many Americans felt that they were being asked to sacrifice too much in the name of safety, although a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled the technology constitutional this year.
Gizmodo reported that officials operating one scanner in Orlando, Fla., have been saving the images, perhaps illegally. And TSA agents aren't immune to the potential humiliation of a whole body scan. One struck his supervisor with a baton in the airport parking lot, after he stepped through a body scanner during a training session and his boss began making fun of his genitalia.
Fears that the TSA had gone too far peaked last month when three elderly women, on their way from New York to Florida for Thanksgiving, were strip searched. New York lawmakers urged the agency to employ passenger advocates to be on hand during screenings. The TSA replied that it would set up a toll-free hotline to address travelers' questions and concerns.
The tradeoff between security and freedom is one of the oldest American debates. As Benjamin Franklin once said: "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
But there is also something suspicious in all the frenzy. Meg McLain became the first purported victim of the body scanner controversy, when she accused TSA agents of painfully molesting her after she opted out the X-ray. A few days later, John Tyner posted a cell phone video of himself refusing to go through a scanner, the clip went viral, and he became a temporary hero. "I don't think that the government has any business seeing me naked as a condition of traveling about the country," he declared.
But Tyner clicked "record" before even entering the checkpoint, as if he planned the whole incident in advance. And video evidence suggested that McClain had made up the whole story of molestation. Both travelers are strong libertarians, and McLain is a member of the libertarian "Free Keene" movement, backed by the Koch brothers, and is an occasional libertarian radio co-host.
As The Nation reported, "... everywhere you look, the alleged victims' stories often turn out to be false or highly suspicious, promoted by lobbyists posing as 'ordinary guys,' and everywhere the cast of characters is always the same: drawn from the cult-ish fringes of the libertarian movement, with trails leading straight to the billionaire Koch brothers' network of libertarian think-tanks and advocacy groups."
After all, a survey by CBS last year found that 80 percent of Americans approve of the body scanners.
The new bill, which hopes to minimize TSA abuses, touches on issues critical to our republic. But as is usually the case with such debates, partisan politics is at play under the surface. Both parties have favored security over freedom at some point in the last 10 years. The Patriot Act, which reduced restrictions on wiretaps, extensive record searches, and the detaining of immigrants, was supported widely by both Republicans and Democrats. It was passed by President Bush, and extended by President Obama.
"Every single member of Congress should be supporting federal employees, not trying to demean them," said AFGE National President John Gage. "This bill has nothing of significance, certainly does nothing to add to our national security, and -- at a point where Congress should be focused on the budget, economy, jobs, etc. -- is a complete waste of time."
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