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Professional Troublemaker

 Jonathan Corbett, Civil Rights Advocate

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What Are My Rights At The TSA Checkpoint?

tsacheckpointGoing through airport security manned by the TSA is an unpleasant at best, panic-inducing at worst experience, and it definitely helps to know what to expect and what you can do to ensure that you are harassed as little as possible.  The TSA is absolutely horrible at informing travelers as to the procedures they will face (often times declaring that they are “sensitive security information” and therefore cannot be published) and those working the checkpoints often misrepresent the rights and responsibilities of travelers (sometimes to be intentionally difficult, but generally because they were poorly trained).

So, here’s what every traveler should know before they collect their boarding pass at a U.S. airport:

  1. You have the right to opt-out of the body scanners and request a pat-down.  Unless your boarding pass indicates that you are subject to heightened security, which will be denoted by four S’s in big bold letters, you may simply tell the person running the body scanner that you “opt out.”  Try to keep a close eye on your belongings while they find someone to pat you down.
  2. You have the right to take pictures, video, and audio recording.  It can be comforting to many to know that they may document their interaction, especially if it looks like there’s going to be a problem.  You can take pictures, video, and audio recordings of the entire screening process with the following two exceptions: a) you can’t take pictures or videos of the x-ray monitors, and b) you can’t hold your belongings (including a camera) while you’re walking through the body scanner or metal detector, or while receiving a pat-down, but you can have a travel companion who has already been cleared do so on your behalf.  If the TSA ever denies you the ability to record your interaction other than for those two exceptions, please contact me.
  3. You have the right to request the TSA’s video of your experience!  Video from security cameras is almost always a public record covered by the federal Freedom of Information Act or similar state laws.  Generally, the video is in the possession of the local airport authority, so your request should be made to them, but I highly suggest sending simultaneous requests to both the TSA and the airport.  How?  Read about submitting FOIA requests to the TSA.
  4. You have the right to carry medicinal liquids as a carry-on, even if they are over 3 ounces.  Any liquid that you need for a medical purpose must be permitted through the checkpoint.  It does not have to be a prescription, and you do not need a doctor’s note.  If you have diabetes, you can easily justify a bottle of Gatorade.  If you have a baby, you may bring breast milk.  You also need not detail your condition for the TSA; simply take the items out of your bag to be separately screened and let the screener know that the items are medical liquids.
  5. You have the right to fly without ID.  If you forget, or lose, your ID, you may still travel.  They will simply verify your identity by calling in your information.  Leave extra time for the process, but fear not.  Note that if you can, but simply refuse to, show ID, the TSA’s policy is to refuse to screen you, although that policy does not exactly square with court rulings.
  6. You have the right to speak to a supervisor.  Blue-shirted TSA screeners come in 4 varieties, represented by 0 through 3 stripes on their shoulders.  0 = trainee, 1 = Transportation Security Officer (TSO), 2 = Lead TSO, 3 = Supervisory TSO.  If you have a problem and the person with whom you are speaking has less than 3 stripes, ask for an STSO.  If the STSO still gives you trouble, ask for a Transportation Security Manager (TSM), who will be wearing a suit.  A TSM is required to be on duty in the airport; do not believe any assertions that one is not available — they are.  Finally, if the interaction with the TSM is still unsatisfactory, you may ask to contact the Federal Security Director (FSD), who is a regional airport director and may not be on-site but generally has staffers who are.  Another resource is the TSA’s national “TSA Cares” hotline.  While the name is a misnomer, as the TSA certainly does not care, they may be of assistance at (855) 787-2227.
  7. You have the right to make a complaint.  Ask for a comment card on your way out, and the name of anyone who made your TSA experience more unpleasant than usual.  You can also file your TSA complaints online, but it makes them more nervous when you ask for a paper copy.
  8. You have the right to request a police officer supervise.  Did the TSA just ask to conduct an invasive search on your person?  Feel free to request that airport police supervise the situation.  Most, but not all, airport cops understand that the TSA is a disaster and that 0% of the times the TSA has demanded absurd levels of screening has the target actually been a terrorist.  As the saying goes, “‘I just caught a terrorist!’ said no TSA employee ever.”
  9. You have the right to refuse to take off anything but outer garments.  This includes, obviously, your clothes, but also includes any medical devices, prostheses, etc.  The TSA is not permitted to conduct strip searches.  If you are asked to do anything to the contrary, contact a supervisor and airport police.
  10. You have the right to refuse screening.  I cannot stress this enough: if the TSA demands that you continue screening in a private room, you should refuse.  You may miss your flight, but think about it: if the TSA does what you see at the checkpoint in full view of the world, you can only imagine what they will do if they determine you need “private screening.”  And, if you can’t imagine, let me fill you in: they will be touching your genitals with the front of their hands.  Know also that the TSA has not successfully leveled a fine or any other penalty against anyone for refusing screening, and their current policy is to simply escort the traveler out of the checkpoint.  Your airline will almost certainly re-book you at no cost.  It is your body, and your choice — do not let the TSA persuade you otherwise.  Just remain calm and firm.

Finally, if you have a negative experience, please don’t keep your story to yourself.  I would love to hear your story and may be able to help you to find resources to help.  Be in touch.  And, please share, print, and distribute to help others avoid TSA assholery.


“Jon Corbett is a civil rights advocate known for filing the first lawsuit against the deployment of TSA nude body scanners, as well as defeating the body scanners live in “How to Get ANYTHING Through TSA Nude Body Scanners.  Presently a law student, he continues to advocate for travel and privacy rights.  Twitter: @_JonCorbett, Web: https://professional-troublemaker.com/

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TSA Quietly Forcing Some Passengers To Go Through Body Scanner *And* Pat-Down — Even If Body Scanner Says Clear!

tsa_molestation_or_radiation

Image credit: DDees.com

 

When the TSA announced in 2015 that for “some passengers” they were eliminating the body scanner opt-out option, which allowed passengers to be screened via pat-down instead of body scanner, they phrased it as follows:

“TSA is updating the AIT PIA to reflect a change to the operating protocol regarding the ability of individuals to opt opt-out of AIT screening in favor of physical screening. While passengers may generally decline AIT screening in favor of physical screening, TSA may direct mandatory AIT screening for some passengers. … The individual will undergo physical screening if ATR alarms for the presence of an object.”

For those not into TSA jargon, AIT = body scanner, ATR = the software on the body scanner that allegedly detects stuff on your body, and “physical screening” = pat-down.

But, new documents I obtained in my lawsuit against these policies (source, pp. 27, 28) show that they lied about a key fact: if you are selected as one of these “some passengers,” you will be screened with both body scanner and pat-down, even if the body scanner does not alarm:

“That does not preclude TSA from determining that security considerations may sometimes justify exceeding the baseline established by the pat-down technique by requiring certain passengers to undergo both AIT screening and a pat-down—two screening methods that provide distinct benefits when used in tandem. … These [redacted] empirical findings supply ample justification for TSA’s decision to require selectees to be screened using both AIT scanners and a pat-down, without the ability to opt for a pat-down alone.”

Further, the pat-down you’ll receive in this scenario has been modified, although the TSA has redacted from the document exactly how (my best guess, based on my research of all documents and the TSA’s past treatment of passengers selected for additional screening, is that your “sensitive areas” will be touched with the screener’s front-of-hand, rather than back-of-hand).

So, who are these “some passengers” that the TSA is subjecting to both a scan and a proper groping?  As discussed in my previous post on this lawsuit: anyone can be randomly selected for this treatment.  If you’re on the TSA’s “we think you might be a terrorist” list, you’ll be a “selectee” every time you fly.  But, if you buy a one-way ticket with cash, or something else the TSA finds to be “suspicious,” or even if you don’t and you just get unlucky, you can now expect blue gloves between your legs.

It is highly troubling that the TSA is demanding invasive double-searches without disclosing their intentions to the public.  And what does this say about the nearly $2B body scanner program, if the TSA feels the need to pat people down after using them?  Clearly it shows that the TSA knows the body scanners can easily be beaten, so why have them at all?

The reason, of course, is [REDACTED] — the best way to avoid being accountable to the people.

Another Day, Another Mental Health Failure, Another Mass Shooting in a “Gun-Free Zone,” Another “Before the Checkpoint” Tragedy

fllshootingAs you probably heard, a man today pulled out a gun in the non-secure area, near baggage claim, of Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood Int’l Airport (FLL) and shot and killed at least 5 people, wounding several more.

The man was identified by the media as a 26 year old active U.S. Army soldier with no immediately apparent motive.  And I sit here shaking my head, because this brings up not 1 but 3 recurring themes in our society that we simply refuse to address:

Mental healthcare is lacking, especially for our military.  I’ve watched enough of my fairly well-functioning (i.e., hold down jobs) friends let anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions go untreated or under-treated because treatment is simply too expensive.  But for those without resources — such as the homeless, or those that come back from war injured or deeply traumatized — the rates of untreated mental illness are astounding.  A report from a year and a half ago noted that going to the VA to seek mental health treatment can result in waits up to 279 days, and yesterday the L.A. Times reported that there are 1,200 veterans in that city who don’t even have a roof over their head.  The cost to our society of letting mental illness go treated far exceeds what we would spend on treating it, and when we refuse to provide it to people who go to war for us, we are flatly failing our duty to those people.  I am certain the 13 people with bullet wounds in Broward County today would agree.

Gun-free zones don’t work.  As a Florida weapons license holder, I’m aware that Fla. Stat. 790.06(12)(a)(14) prohibits me from walking into the baggage claim area of an airport with a firearm, essentially making all airport structures “gun-free zones.”  I remember thinking how stupid this was while picking up a friend at FLL airport a couple years ago, because any law-abiding citizen before the security checkpoint is now a target for criminals who know they don’t have guns.  I can’t imagine how infuriating it would be to have left your weapon in your car, out of a desire to comply with the law, while helping mom with her suitcase, only to become the next victim.

Pre-checkpoint airport attacks are in vogue, and the TSA makes it worse.  Over the last decade, there have been several incidents of violence committed by individuals in airports prior to security screening.  Domodedovo airport bombing (2011), LAX airport shooting (2013), Ataturk airport bombing/shooting (2016), etc. etc. etc.  The TSA, by creating lengthy checkpoint lines that over the last year have often exceeded 1 hour, has created a target that, again, criminals know is unarmed and unable to fight back.  What is the point of putting your blue-gloved hands all over our bodies to ensure that we don’t hurt people on an airplane when any terrorist could just blow/shoot up the checkpoint instead?  To make sure that airplanes aren’t used as missiles 9/11-style?  Because we fixed that problem with re-enforced cockpit doors and changing our mindset from “comply with hijackers so they’ll let you go” to “fight them to the death in the sky, even if it means risking the plane.”  Airport screening should be quick and expedient, looking for the most dangerous items and ignoring your Swiss Army knife, bottle of water, and 10 oz. shampoo bottle, such that there is never a line of more than a few people.  This can be accomplished by adjusting policies, throwing out the scanners (or selling them to fascist regimes where they belong), and putting bomb-sniffing dogs at the checkpoints.

This shooting makes me angry, because it is a perfect demonstration of what we, as a society, are screwing up and refuse to fix.

TSA: We May Force You to Go Through Body Scanners Because… Well… We Can’t Tell You

tsagropeAt the end of 2015, the TSA snuck in a pre-holiday amendment to their body scanner opt-out policy: that passengers may “generally” opt for a pat-down instead of the body scanner, but the TSA reserves the right to require the body scanner.  I immediately filed suit, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to reverse this arbitrary change made in the face of 94.0% public opposition to the body scanners and the fact that I made readily apparent in 2012: that the body scanners simply don’t work.

A year later, we finally have the government’s position on the matter.  First, I’m reminded that I’m complaining for no reason:

“AIT screening presents no greater intrusion upon passenger privacy than the walk-through metal detectors previously deployed at airport checkpoints”

…which is why 94% oppose them.

Next, I’m told that I shouldn’t concern myself with the matter, because only “selectees” will lose their right to opt-out:

“[T]he challenged AIT screening policy applies only to individuals who have been issued a boarding pass with an “SSSS” notation indicating that they have been selected for enhanced screening.  This notation generally means that the passenger in question is a ‘selectee.’  Selectees are individuals who are ‘[k]nown or suspected [t]errorists’ or who have been ‘identified as [posing a] higher risk’ to airline security ‘based on intelligence [redacted].’  Additionally, as of July 2016, TSA has instituted a policy under which [redacted] airline passengers are randomly designated as selectees for the purpose of a particular trip.”

…but that last sentence is, of course, the problem and, frankly, is what we all already know: that you can be Mother Theresa and still end up with a blue glove between your legs because because the TSA has randomly made you a “selectee.”

But, let’s ignore that for a moment.  There’s a more pressing question: Why does the TSA feel that someone with a higher “risk” level (whether because they are a suspected terrorist, or were randomly selected to be treated like one) should be screened by body scanner rather than a pat-down?

“[Redacted].  Covert tests also suggested selectees could [redacted] opting out of AIT screening in favor of a pat-down.”

Ah, that clears it up.  The TSA, allegedly, found some scenario where it’s easier to beat the pat-down than the body scanners, but doesn’t want to tell us what that is.  But, what about the very real scenarios where the body scanners are easier to beat than the pat-down?  That, of course, isn’t discussed at all.  Once again, the TSA blindly chooses these high-tech, high-price, highly-invasive gadgets when very effective alternatives exist.

The case continues as I get an opportunity to file a reply brief.  I’ll also be asking the court to appoint counsel with a security clearance to review the redacted brief and represent my interests, because hiding the rationale for a policy that is being challenged for arbitrariness from the person challenging it doesn’t exactly lend itself to a fair day in court.

Corbett v. TSA – Appellee Brief (Redacted) (.pdf)

 

Briefed: Can the TSA Eliminate the Pat-Down “Opt-Out?”

petSince the nude body scanners were introduced by the TSA as primary screening in Fall 2010, they have always maintained that use of the technology is optional: that if you wanted, they would instead simply molest you using their new “pat-down” rather than use radiation to image your nude body.  Not exactly a pretty choice, but it was some choice nevertheless.

Five years later, after all the dust had settled over the lawsuits by passengers who felt that the TSA’s new screening techniques were unconstitutionally invasive (and down-right stupid considering that despite being the most intrusive search they had ever implemented, they were blatantly ineffective), the TSA doubled-down on their scanners and announced to passengers that they reserve the right not to honor “opt-out” requests in the future.  This new announcement flew in the face of the 94% of the public who formally told the TSA to ditch the scanners, and me being one of that 94%, I immediately filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.  Two other lawsuits were filed by EPIC and CEI, alleging that the TSA improperly disregarded that 94%.

It’s amazing how long these things take to progress.  It’s 7 months into the lawsuit and I just filed my principal argument, the appellant’s brief — a written statement of the entire case.  Those 7 months were filled largely with the TSA bickering about how much information they had to release to me, which resulted in the end with several thousand pages landing on my doorstep.  I’ll be posting those pages, known as the “administrative record,” shortly (scanning thousands of pages is an effort!), along with a few highlights (including, “How Any Terrorist Can Get Pre-Check,” an exposé on why the Pre-Check system is bullshit), but what was most interesting about them is they showed zero basis for their decision to eliminate the opt-out.  As I explain in my brief:

The Administrative Record is illuminative on the reasons for adopting the body scanner and pat-down program as primary screening in 2010 [Ed – Not that they were good reasons, but they were reasons.]. There are many documents that address the effectiveness of the body scanners and provide some evidence of cost/benefit thought process and procedures by which the program is tested. See, e.g., Admin. Rec., Vol. 4, p. 3893 (results of body scanner field testing). However, the elephant in the room is that there is no discussion on the effectiveness of the pat-down component of the program, nor a comparison between how likely a body scanner is to find a dangerous item on a passenger as compared to a pat-down.

Full brief below…

Corbett v. TSA IV – Appellant’s Brief (.pdf)


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Court Refuses to Hear International Security Interviews Lawsuit; TSA Ramps Up Domestic Version

Last month, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals abruptly terminated my case against the TSA’s international security interview program, wherein the TSA forces US-flagged airlines to interview their passengers before they return to the U.S.  Their reason?  I asked for an injunction (forcing them to stop or modify the program), and the court ruled that I can’t prove that I will be subject to it again, and therefore I lack standing.  The rationale for this interpretation of standing comes from a case over 30 years ago where the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled that a black man who was choked out by the L.A.P.D., nearly to death, during a traffic stop still could not seek an injunction against the chokehold policy, despite proving that the L.A.P.D. had a widespread practice of chokeholds, that they were regularly deadly, and and that he was a victim of the policy.   Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95 (1983).

Lyons was a bad ruling, and I’m not certain the court would make the same decision today given its trend against rubber stamping blatant racial discrimination, but importantly, it ruled that while Mr. Lyons could not sue for an injunction, he could indeed sue for money, so I’ll get to renew my case as a request for money damages.  If I win even a trivial amount, the TSA would have to stop the program, because then thousands of passengers daily could sue for that trivial amount.  Even $100 would do, given that about 2 million passengers would be able to sue every moth by my calculations.  So, I shall proceed in that direction.

In the meantime, as I noted before, the case is already won, because it forced the TSA to: 1) publicly disclose the existence of the program, which had been previously described nowhere on the public Internet, and 2) state in open court that it wouldn’t force travelers to participate in the program with a threat of denied boarding, which is what I encountered.  I continue the lawsuit because the TSA needs to direct the airlines to stop the practice of threatening denied boarding, which it has thus far refused (at least publicly) to do.

With that said, I received an e-mail from a woman this weekend who said she was questioned at a gate for a domestic flight:

In Tulsa yesterday, three [uniformed TSA screeners] fanned out among people waiting AT THE GATES and began interrogations.  They asked EVERYONE up and down my concourse, “Are these your bags?  (Yes) Do you have any others? (No) Did you check any?  (No)  Where are you going? (Charlotte) After Chicago, where are you going?  (I’m not going to Chicago, I’m going to Charlotte.) Okay after Charlotte, where are you going?  (Portland)  Portland Oregon or Portland Maine?  (Y’all are scaring me.  Is something going on here?  What’s up?)  We have to talk to everybody.  Portland Oregon or Portland Maine?  (Maine)

[It was American Airlines, the gates near A5, Saturday, August 6, waiting for a 1:40 pm flight to Portland Maine, after a flight to Chicago had taken off from the same gate.]

This is likely an extension of the SPOT program, the largely discredited waste of taxpayer dollars by which the TSA thinks its poorly-trained screeners can pick out terrorists just by looking at and talking with them.  Please remember that you have no obligation to answer their questions, and although there may be additional screening, they cannot deny you boarding for remaining silent.

Corbett v. TSA III – Appeal Dismissed (.pdf)

PS – Delta, you suck.  7 hours of scheduled flying became 14 today because you still use a computer system designed during the Reagan administration.

TSA: Taking Pictures Of Our Dogs Is Illegal!

tsak9
I’m told that this picture is very illegal.  TSA K-9 handler at JFK T1 immediately before ordering me to stop taking pictures.

On Friday, I flew out of New York’s JFK T1 after experiencing what was the longest airport security line I have ever seen. It literally stretched from the zig-zag queue at the center of the terminal to the far end of the terminal, and then around the corner. The TSA, of course, knows that terrorists now target security lines, rather than airplanes, and doesn’t seem to care that they are putting us at risk, but I digress.

After finally reaching the front of the queue, I spotted, for the first time, the TSA’s new experiment with bomb-sniffing dogs. Interested in finally seeing the TSA put a far better solution in place for the detection of non-metallic explosives than the body scanners, I snapped a few pictures, including the one here.

But, of course, the TSA can’t leave well enough alone. “You can’t take pictures!” barks the dog’s handler. I can’t? Well that’s news to me, and I consider myself pretty up-to-date on aviation security law. 🙂 I soon spot an STSO (supervisory transportation security officer — the “3 stripe” blue uniform people) and ask her to clarify, but she tells me she doesn’t have time to talk to me. Eventually, I spot her boss, the TSM (transportation security manager — always wearing a suit), a very friendly South Asian woman who is cheerfully tells me that my First Amendment right to photograph has been suspended:

Jon: Are you the TSM by chance?

TSM: Yes.

Jon: I have a question for you.

TSM: Sure.

Jon: What’s the policy on taking pictures in line?  The person with the K-9 told me I was not allowed to take pictures.

TSM: Yes, that’s a screening process, what he’s doing there, so you’re not allowed to take pictures.

Jon: OK, so that’s a federal regulation?

TSM: Yes.

Jon: Not New York state, that’s a TSA…

TSM: No, not New York state, it’s federal.

Jon: Ok, so if I ask the TSA, because I’m a civil rights advocate, and my job is to sue the TSA, if I ask them, they’re going to tell me that I’m not allowed to take the pictures, and that’s official TSA policy?

TSM: You have to specify what you were doing.

Jon: Taking a picture of a K-9.

TSM: You can’t.

Jon: OK.

TSM: Because that’s a screening process.

Where legal, I generally record my interactions with the TSA, and New York being a 1-party consent state (any party to a conversation may record it), I got an audio recording (.mp3).  (As a side note, a reasonable argument can be made, and some courts have held, that audio or video recording of government officials while working in public is constitutionally protected even in 2-party consent states.)

Why is this a “big deal,” some may ask: Any time the government restricts our ability to take pictures, they are reducing their accountability to the people. Thousands of times per day, law enforcement in this country violates the rights of citizens, but only occasionally is it caught on camera, and only then is it punished (sometimes).  By removing our ability to document their actions, they are insulating themselves from consequences for wrongdoing, and this a free society cannot stand.

I’ve asked the TSA’s Civil Rights Office to comment as to whether this is official TSA policy and await a reply, but expect a new lawsuit to be filed soon either way.

Terrorists Detonate Bombs in Brussels Airport — Before The Security Checkpoint

International media reports today that 2 bombs went off in BRU airport, just outside of Brussels, Belgium, and Islamic State has claimed responsibility.  How did they get these bombs past security?  They didn’t…

Passengers queuing at terminal counters described sudden panic and mayhem as the explosions turned the departure area into a death trap with flames, smoke, flying glass and shrapnel.

This is far from the first time such attacks have happened.  For example, just 5 years ago terrorists bombed DME outside Moscow, Russia, killing 37 people.

As passengers flying from US airports this year have been told to gear up for longer wait times, largely due to the additional time added to screening by body scanners that don’t actually stop threats, they should realize what this means is that the security queues are getting longer.  It sounds an awful lot to me like the TSA is creating a target rather than protecting one.  Would it make less of a terroristic statement for ISIS to blow up a TSA checkpoint with 150 people than to blow up a 737 with 150 people?  Of course not.

This mess brought to the taxpayer at a cost of $8B per year.


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TSA Tries Doing Exactly What I’ve Asked It To Do for 5 Years: Metal Detectors + Dogs

The TSA announced an “exciting” “new” program that it’s trialing in MSP airport in Minnesota:

After a explosives-detection dog sniffs passengers for traces of explosives, travelers can then move through expedited screening like the Precheck program, where they can leave on shoes and light coats, and leave laptops and small containers of liquids in their carry-on bags.

“You’ll see them snaking up and down the line,” Neffenger said of the canine teams. “I’m very excited about getting extra teams here.”

(source)

In other words, passengers that pass a dog skip the body scanner and go through a metal detector.  This is exactly what I’ve been asking the TSA to do since the very beginning, because:

  1. dogDogs are by far cheaper than the body scanners.  A body scanner costs $300,000, functions for less than a decade, and requires significantly more man-hours per
    passenger than a dog, which may cost low-5 figures to train and a couple bucks a day in food.
  2. Dogs are by far tougher to beat than the body scanners.  The fact of the matter is that if you’ve been working with explosives, you likely have traces of it all over your body, and you’re likely not fooling Rover, while in 2012 I proved that beating the body scanners takes no more than a sewing kit.
  3. Dogs are far less invasive than the body scanners.  These dogs are trained to detect explosives only, while a body scanner is set to alert on anything on your body, including medical devices, scars, hygiene products, your baggie of weed, etc. Dogs are a targeted search only for the stuff the TSA should actually be looking for.

Instead of spending nearly $2B by now on technology that people hate because they are slow, invasive, and emit poorly-studied radiation… instead of fighting tons of legal battles… instead of making them perhaps the most hated federal agency on the planet… they could have just done this 5 years ago.

Let’s hope their pilot program goes well and the body scanners are relegated, along with a pat-down option, to those who fail Fido’s nose.

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