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Too much power, too little judgment in the hands of TSA

As most people probably know, the TSA has ramped up its security screening recently. There is an excellent description of the situation in my fellow Care2 blogger Robin Marty's post Groped or Nudie Pics: TSA asks which method you prefer. It describes children being patted down as they scream and beg for it to stop. It includes links to the stories of women, including rape survivors, describing what amounts to a sexual assault as they had their breasts, their buttocks and their labia felt by TSA agents. Later posts describe a flight attendant and breast cancer survivor being forced to remove her prosthetic breast. All of this is being done in the name of safety. If it were true that it would make us safer, perhaps we could have the debate about whether it is worth giving up all personal dignity in order to increase safety. But it isn't. The TSA hasn't caught a single terrorist trying to board a plane. There are other methods, like Israel's, that are considered more effective, more efficient, and less invasive.

I think the TSA guidelines and procedures are scary, unnecessary and abusive. But what is even more outrageous than those policies is the amount of power that TSA agents yield and the frequent absence of knowledge about their own guidelines and procedures. A lot of people are saying, don't blame the poor TSA agents for these horrible policies because it isn't their fault. That is true, but it is their fault when they do not know their own policies and when they mistreat and harass travellers who ask them to follow those guidelines. One example is the pregnant and breastfeeding mother in this video who was transporting breastmilk home to her baby and requested the alternate screening for medical liquids (which includes breastmilk), which she is allowed to do under TSA guidelines. She even had a printed copy of those guidelines with her, but that did her no good as she was held captive, harassed and missed her flight.

This is one of the reasons why I vacation in Cuba and Europe with my children instead of in the United States. They want to go to Disney World one day, but I don't think they should be subject to a nightmare in order to realize their dreams. The TSA is just one more example of American "authorities" abusing their power and severely lacking judgment as they carry out their duties. I wrote about another example previously in my post called Shaking the Bush out of America, but apparently this goes far beyond Bush's stupid policies.

Fear of terrorists, illegal immigrants or whatever else Americans are afraid of is not an excuse to stop treating people like human beings.

Note: There is an update and more information available on Sustainable Mothering.
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    Too much power, too little judgment in the hands of TSA - PhD in Parenting - PhD in Parenting

Reader Comments (75)

I've been trying to figure out the origin of that video and what kind of follow-up there was but I can't seem to find it.

do you know?

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPamela

I'm not sure. If you have a YouTube account, you could send a message to the person who posted it and ask.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

The video made me so tense and frustrated for that poor woman. To be given the choice to throw away your child's food or potentially poison it? That's not a choice.

It, and some of the comments following, regarding the woman's "attitude" confirm just how little respect women - and breastfeeding - are given in this society.

Had the substance been blood or insulin or medication, would this have been an issue? If the woman had been a man, would her "attitude" have been called into question? Should women just be meek, accepting, and just take it?

Her hand was removed from hew own belongings, she was treated disrespectfully, harassed even though the law was on her side, and detained without cause. She had every right to be offended, frightened, frustrated, and have an "attitude". She was defending her RIGHT to ask for an alternate screening of medical liquid.


November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally


Jake from Sustainable Mothering posted it to Facebook earlier today. That's where I first saw it. She said she was working on obtaining an interview with the woman in the video. Try getting in touch with her to see if she knows anything more.


November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Douglas

Annie, I am so glad you included the link that explains how Israel handles their security. I've often wondered about it, and I think it's so telling that they focus on behavior, not potentially threatening items.

TSA agents have been allowed to become bullies, and they pick on the vulnerable -- I've been harassed while traveling with my young son because I had a container that had an ounce too much liquid, and because I forgot to empty out our reusable water bottles before going through the security line. As a mother with a small child, and as a veteran, it was insulting and stupid -- partly because we were in such a small regional airport, and partly because if there was a threat, they were probably slipping through while the TSA agents were in a tizzy about my water. And this was before these latest regulation changes.

I said years ago that agents needed to be trained to spot threats -- not look for stuff -- and to stop harassing innocent travelers.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSuchada @ Mama Eve

I am an American-Israeli living in Israel. Security is top notch--and all over. Once you are past the visible security there are still "eyes" watching you until you board the plane.

However, many people argue that it's not scalable--Israel has two commercial airports, compared to hundreds (more?) in America. Israel puts its best people on it. TSA...I am sure there are good people, but with such a huge number of employees, how can they be fully screened for quality control and fully trained?

But I think many Americans are extremely squeamish with the amount of profiling that goes on. Some of it is behavioral, but absolutely some of it racial. I think perhaps the TSA flap now is going to let people know that for their safety they're going to have to be invaded one way or the other. For what it's worth, I prefer the Israeli way; dreading a trip to the US next summer.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKate

I read this earlier today and it seriously pissed me off. I would be livid if This were me.


November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Ryerson

Thank you for the information. It is always best to see both sides of a story. I had not seen those other links.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne

i can only imagine how many women this has happened to. it's infuriating. i can imagine i would have reacted in the same manner she did, especially being pregnant!

it says they finally let her go, but it doesn't say what happened to the milk!! was she allowed to keep it or did she have to throw it out? did i miss something here? i also wonder how this video was obtained?

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

Jake Aryeh Marcus from Sustainable Mothering posted an update on her facebook page (look for her comment (the 11th comment on the post) for an update. I'll link to her blog post both here in the comments and in the main post once she has written it.


November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

While it is unfortunate that this happens. I am really tired of hearing the complaints. I am in a wheelchair and have had to endure this kind of treatment for YEARS. I complained and nothing happened. I have been poked and touched and even pulled into rooms. So now that MORE people have to endure it, its not ok? I have had to suck it up for years

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCerulean


No, it is never okay. It isn't okay that it happened to you for so long. I know that people with disabilities face all sorts of problems when traveling due to the obstacles created by the government and travel companies. You shouldn't have to suck it up.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Last Christmas, we nearly missed our flight because a TSA agent harassed me about my laptop! The sign clearly said that I didn't have to separate it from my case, but she told me I had to. Yeah, at 5'4", 125 pounds, and wearing glasses and a ponytail, I look so much like a terrorist. No, I look like a teenager!

But this breastmilk incident infuriates me even more. How is a mother supposed to feed her baby if some of these airlines kick women off of planes for nursing their babies? Ugh.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaura


Those little inconsistencies are infuriating. I always try to be prepared and follow the rules and they just end up throwing me off balance and annoying me. But it is nothing compared to some of the situations other people have been facing recently with the TSA.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I am really not looking forward to flying home from BlogHer next year. I am really excited to attend the conference for the first time. The recent news about the new screenings has put a definite damper on that.

I hope that the US government hears the very real, and legitimate, concerns, and changes its tactics. This isn't making anyone safer, not even a little. It's security theatre, and it's completely crossed the line.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmber

Amber, calling is security theatre is pure genius! That's really what it is... giving Americans a false sense of security just because of all the BS that is done by the TSA. It isn't effective. They don't really know what to look for or what they're looking for - they just blindly apply rules and don't train their staff to understand them or even explain why they are in place.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAida N

This video does not only infuriates me but scares the living you know what out of me. I have to fly next month with an 8 month old by myself. How will they handle a baby in an ergo carrier? Will I have to take her out? Will they pat both of us down? I will lose it if they make me put her down, even for a second. I don't understand how they can get away with this ludicrous and harassing behavior.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKate H

A bit of update, particularly for those of you who aren't on Twitter. There are a few errors in the text on this video because this one was made by the brother-in-law of the mother. She was not pregnant at the tome of the incident - she became pregnant a few weeks later. Other than that, the story just gets worse. Her son was not a year old but was an exclusively breast milk fed *7* month old. There is an additional 30-odd minutes of video which was destroyed before she could submit the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request which allowed her to get this TSA video. What happened after the end of what you see on YouTube - and which allowed her to finally get the "alternate" screening to which she was already legally entitled - was she was ordered to pour the breast milk into more containers. While TSA regulation currently requires no particular packaging or quantity of breastmilk, she had four 3 oz containers. TSA forced her to divide it into more containers so each container held approximately 2 oz. No rhyme or reason here. She had to sprawl on the floor and pour the milk into more containers. Then they wiped it the containers - the "alternate" screening - and finally let her through.

I am currently reviewing all the documents exchanged between this mom and TSA. So hang in there for a more extensive blog post. :)

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJake Aryeh Marcus

Are these security measures for flights into and around the United States? I am thinking about you are right about choosing vacations outside of the States.

Not only do we go through this every single time we fly in the U.S. (I went through "enhanced" security - a full body x-ray, metal detector and frisking - just this past weekend for a ninety minute flight), but we don't have the option of vacationing in Cuba. U.S. citizens are forbidden by our government to visit Cuba.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJake Aryeh Marcus

Kristin is a Canadian, like me, so she does have that option. I do feel bad for Americans who have no option at all. I'm thankful that at least I can opt out by not traveling to the US.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting


The Ottawa Airport Authority is on twitter. I asked them about travel to the US. They said security is done by CATSA (the Canadian authorities) on the way to the US and by the TSA on the way home. So we should expect to be treated in accordance with our own government's policies on the way out and in accordance with the US government's policies on the way back. CATSA does use the full body scanners, but I haven't heard of any CATSA horror stories like the TSA horror stories from the past couple of weeks.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I figured. :) I want to go to Cuba so badly - if for no other reason, I could use better healthcare.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJake Aryeh Marcus

Kate H:

You may have to put the baby down, In fact, I would say it is extremely likely. Although I never travelled with a stroller when my babies were little, I think I would travel with one now if I had to travel in the US so that I would at least have somewhere safe to put the baby right next to me while I got frisked if necessary. You should read this story about Erin, author of Five Dollar Dinners, recent experience travelling with her infant:


November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Thanks for the link. What I am trying to wrap my head around at this point is, what are our rights as travelers? I feel like the descriptions of the experiences traveling and interacting with the TSA have an air of helplessness about them.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKate H

I flew recently with my 8 month old in a wrap by myself and was not required to take her out. They asked if there was any metal or just cloth and when I said cloth only, they let me walk right through the xray machine with her. So for the person who asked I would suggest a cloth only wrap. No guarantees but you might be able to go through without taking it off. I wouldn't take a stroller alone because you will have a hard time folding it and putting it in the xray machine while holding the baby. Good luck!

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Cuba is crawling with American tourists. Especially Havana. But you probably knew that. Where there's a will, there's a way. The Cubans purposely don't stamp passports - just put a card in them that you return to them when you leave. There is a reason for that.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

From an American perspective:

I've flown more than a dozen times with my child(ren) in the last 6 years. We've flown to very small airports (Maine) and very large airports (LAX). Most recently (last month - October), we flew in & out of Orlando, Florida.

I've been asked to take babies out of the snugli, my backpack carrier, and my sling, AND, I've also been told it's no problem to leave them in. I always travel with at least a cheapo umbrella stroller in the event that I need to have a place to put my child down. Though, that being said, the stroller needs to be folded & put through the xray machine, the baby removed from the carrier & carried through the metal detector - so it's not like you can put baby in the stroller & wheel her through - it's a convenience & annoyance. It's more for when you have to sit down & put your shoes back on after going through security & you have a baby that needs a place to be (not on the floor).

I can say the closest I've come to being harassed during any of my trips through security is being asked less than politely to remove my sunglasses & hat and asked pointed questions about why I was travelling and what my children's birthdates were. I have also been been "rushed" through the metal detector and huffed & puffed at while I tried to manage putting a stroller back in position, kids in, baby back on my back, shoes on two toddlers & gathering all of our belongings when people were waiting, without any help offered. I've been asked to trash full & half full bottles of water. We have been detained, and given a seat for ourselves & children, while our laptops are thoroughly scanned. I have been giving a "wanding" with a hand-held metal detector while my child(ren) sat in the stroller within my sight.

I have been allowed to carry water, food, and juice for my children (one TSA agent in Florida told me that anything I had for the "babies" was okay) through security without any trouble (though I've never travelled with breastmilk). I've been helpfully assisted with my children & belongings about as many times as I've been treated impatiently. Neither my children nor I have ever been patted down and we've never had to go through an x-ray scanner (though our luggage has).

All that being said, the last time we travelled by air was early October of this year - so I'm not sure if the new regulations were put into place after that time.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

Unfortunately, we were bullied over my sister's insulin because we wouldn't take it through the scanners and nearly missed our flight. My mother was livid. We even had a note from the doctor stating it should be hand checked. I think a lot of this is just about power and seeing who you can wield it over. VERY frustrating! :-(

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarfMom

As a Canadian-Israeli living in Israel, I have to say that the only airport I feel safe in is Israel.
However, while the TSA may be ridiculous, I find the "security" at Pearson in Toronto to be a downright joke and something needs to be done. First of all, all the employees working at the screening point appear to be from the same family or at least race, which is automatically suspicious to me. They laugh and joke in some language that isn't English or French and barely seem to be paying attention to anything but each other. And of course, the line is long, concentrated completely outside the screening area (but quite close to the entrance to the airport) making it completely vulnerable to anyone.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLauren


I agree that security at Pearson seems like a joke, but I don't think it has anything to do with anyone's race or language.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Kate H, I went through Pearson Intl Airport in Toronto 2 years ago with my 15 month old son in the Ergo carrier. They made me take him out and put the sling through the scanner. I had to hold my son over my head while the security officer patted him down, removed his pants and opened his diaper. For some reason we were buzzing going through the scanner and it was likely the metal decoration on my jeans. We had to repeatedly go through the scanner, even after I offered to go to a back room and remove the jeans if they were that concerned. After they finally let us through I had to put my son to collect our things and I was still waiting for the Ergo to come through the scanner (was put on the belt far back after many other passengers belongings had been going through.) My son ran away from me back through the scanner. I went through the scanner again to grab my boy who did not have any contact with other passengers and a second security officer physically pushed us back and made us go through the search and scan again. I was livid! My parents saw all this happening from the other side of security and were getting distressed. The other passengers in the lane (quite a queue after spending so much time on us) were shocked and sympathetic. I angrily asked the security officer why he was treating us like that and he was red-faced and said, "I'm just doing my job." I said, "Yeah, right, you're doing a fantastic job." Total morons who have no critical ability when it comes to security procedures and what is a threat and what isn't. It was embarrassing to receive such treatment in an airport in my country.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterB

It is definitely a joke. They are lax when they feel like it and hard asses when they feel like it... For example, with mothers travelling alone with a child. Pearson was the only airport that ever patted down my child and opened his diaper and we've been travelling in 6 different countries already.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterB


I travel frequently and, in my experience, Pearson Airport is the most maddening place on the planet. I've been through their super dooper screening more times than I can count. EVERY SINGLE TIME, I get pulled away for additional screening where some guy digs through my bag and asks me what every single thing is.

Sadly, I'm not surprised you got that treatment.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPamela

I always travel in yoga clothes and do not wear any jewelry. That usually avoids any beeping from the scanner. That is my first line of defense, but I know it isn't a full proof way of avoiding mistreatment and I also don't think people who do happen to have some metal on their clothes (or in their bodies due to medical procedures) should be treated disrespectfully.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Came here to read the comments to see if there was more info, and I'm glad for Jake Aryeh Marcus's comment clarifying the situation. I think the video with its inaccuracies REALLY hurts the case (whether with think so subconsciously or not). I truly do believe in a mother's right to BF for as long as she wants, and that no one should try to impede her, especially when the guidelines support her case (although, unfortunately, to call them guidelines and not rules implies it is up to the individual TSA agent). Instead of what was there, my mind was piecing together reasons for a mother with a child who would be eating solids and able to skip a feeding putting herself through such an awful situation. Knowing her child was exclusively breastfed changes my heart (though I know it really shouldn't).

Regardless, ANY passenger being made to wait for an hour and threatened in such a way is despicable. I don't feel any safer with the crap that's been going on. I live near a mile from a very busy and important airport and often get worried that something will happen. The way Israel handles airport security would make me feel so much safer, only I don't trust my fellow Americans to have the intelligence or patience to learn the skills needed for such an endeavor, and videos like this certainly don't do anything to improve that confidence. We're broken and in trying to find the threat from outside we're only further opening the fissures.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeanne

I agree Jeanne. The errors are distracting and the corrections make the story *more* compelling, particularly if you have exclusively breastfed a child. Stacey posted me last night that her brother-in-law is working on a corrected version and will switch the videos asap.

Stacey posted the full TSA videos a while ago but she doesn't know how to edit it to have it move more quickly. Not so many people noticed her videos because, let's face it, in real time it is dull to watch. Her brother-in-law's version is easier to watch and get the impact of time passing while she is imprisoned in the box but the "is she pregnant" and "how is a one year old dependant on breast milk for dinner" questions tug at you.

Another additional piece of information that makes this story even more compelling is that Stacey's job requires this trip every single week but she is not gone overnight. She flies early the morning and flies home in the afternoon. And there is even more to this story (just to make you even hungrier for my upcoming blog post).

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJake Aryeh Marcus

...sympathy was the word I was looking for there. I feel more sympathetic to a woman trying to get milk to a child who (in my mind) truly can't live without it.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeanne

Me too.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJake Aryeh Marcus

also, the CATSA scanners do not use x-rays, but radio-frequency scans, so that takes care of some of the health concerns people are having w the US scanners.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

oh wow - the joke that is security at Pearson has NOTHING to do with the security staffs' race. That is offensive. Canada is a very multi-cultural country, and those security agents don't get paid much - so guess who gets to do the crappiest jobs here. Wow, I am flabbergasted at this comment.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

Oh wow. I didn't realize they are different scanners. I have read all the Health Canada info on the scanners used here and feel fairly confident that I'm not being harmed by an occasional walk through them. I had no idea they were using different ones in the US.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Thanks Jake. I will be waiting to hear more to share it with others. It's had me fuming since I read your comment and many in my breast-feeding moms group will want to know about it.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeanne

I can't believe this is legal. You are much more patient than I am. No one, other than a doctor, is allowed to remove my baby's diaper unless they are changing him.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeanne

Annie, I appreciate your blog and share your concerns about the TSA, but I admit that I'm frustrated by your America-bashing. What initially was an interesting post about a woman's struggle with airport security became completely marred by your final paragraph which basically calls US citizens and lawmakers insensitive, fear-driven idiots.

I won't lie - air travel here can be complex and infuriating. But, like everything else, we take it with a grain of salt because we understand that regulating a country of 300 million people (with almost 20,000 airports) is a messy process. I appreciate people who advocate for change and respect, but your comment, to me, was a bit, um, condescending.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commentershasta

Oh yes, Annie, they are *very* different and the extent of the radiation risk - particularly for people who travel frequently - is still unknown. Have a look at this for a taste of what we do know: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/11/17/whats-the-real-radiation-risk-of-the-tsas-full-body-x-ray-scans/ And throw in that machines of this kind need careful maintainence. Anyone feeling confident in how well TSA will be maintaining them so radiation levels are consistent and measured?

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJake Aryeh Marcus

Wow, Lauren, racist much?

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJake Aryeh Marcus


I don't think that all US citizens and lawmakers are insensitive, fear-driven idiots. I do think that the government and the media have done a very good job of making people very scared. I do think that policy makers have overreacted and implemented invasive and ineffective policies. I also think that certain individuals who are involved in implementing those policies are more concerned about their power than they are about the intent of the policy and they will wield that power over anyone who dares question them, rather than focusing on true threats. Those elements combine to make me extremely concerned and extremely scared. This is about more than one woman's struggle with airport security. It is about systemic problems in the way that the United States deals with security issues. I don't think that it is America-bashing to make that point.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Speak for yourself, Shasta. I am part of that "everyone else" in the U.S. and I absolutely do *not* take it with a grain of salt. The current system is in part fear-based and fear-driven, but far worse it is also driven by legislators and corporations with an interest in violating the privacy of U.S. citizens and profiting from war. The current system does *not* make us safer. It makes us victims and subjects.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJake Aryeh Marcus

We specifically got the NEXUS card because we travel so much to the US.  After interviews with both American and Canadian security officers, you're fingerprinted, your eyes are scanned (not children), and you're listed as a trusted traveller. Everytime you pass through the boader, you bypass the customs line and scan your eyes at a computer kiosk. Now, it doesn't help much with getting through security, but it does make the entire security/customs process a little faster. 

I make it a specific point to have absolutely no metal on me when traveling. I know they're going to check my hijab anyway and I'm always highly embarrassed if I beep through the metal detector. It's in my head, but I always feel like we get extra special attention/treatment when taking a flight anywhere. 

Before NEXUS my husband was once "interviewed" for hours and fingerprinted when flying from TO to Seattle for work. It was completely random, and wasn't based on something tangible like having a similar name as someone on a no-fly list. More like they didn't believe the papers from his company. In the end his company's CEO had to vouch for him. But by that time he had missed the flight. 

But the last time we travelled with baby there were no issues outside of the ridiculous lines. Baby's sterilized water bottle was taken away, but we were allowed to keep the water in the sippy cup. Go figure. 

I still don't know what I'm going to do about being virtually naked vs a pat down the next time we travel. 

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWoodturtle

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