Why TSA ‘Enhanced Pat Downs’ Are Not Effective

For the past few months the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been testing the new ‘enhanced pat down’ at airports around the United States, before implementing this new security measure at every airport under its authority.

The ‘enhanced pat down’ is in place primarily for airline travelers who choose to ‘opt out’ of being screened by one of the new whole body imaging (WBI) scanners.  Should a passenger ‘opt out’ they walk through a standard walk-through-metal-detector (WTMD) and are then subject to being touched and felt in an extremely intrusive manner by a TSA Transportation Security Officer (TSO).

During an ‘enhanced pat down,’ TSA TSO’s feel passengers with the front of their hands and palms, touching a person’s buttocks, breasts, under a woman’s breasts, inner thigh, under and behind a man’s genitals and everywhere else you could imagine. Passengers may be asked to open their belt and be felt inside the top of their pants.

The ‘enhanced pat down’ is seen by many as a violation of their personal space and of their body in general. However effective the TSA may be billing this security procedure as a viable security screening option for those who opt-out of the whole body imaging scanners, the fact is that it misses hidden items.

Recently in speaking with a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) anti-terrorism expert, it was detailed for me how the new ‘enhanced pat down’ would have likely missed the December 2009 ‘underwear bomb‘ that failed to detonate on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.   This DHS anti-terrorism expert has first hand knowledge of the complete design of the ‘underwear bomb,’ and claims that the way most TSA TSOs are performing ‘enhanced pat downs’ that would have likely missed the feeling of the contents of the bomb as it was integrated into the underwear design.

The DHS anti-terrorism expert went onto say “should terrorists decide to use a woman instead of a man during her menstrual period or simulated menstrual period and pack the pad with a powder explosive, placing a trigger device in a seemingly unrelated traveler’s bag, we won’t catch them. Absolutely no one is going to check a woman’s pad, even if the feel it between their legs. Any terror group out there has learned the lessons they need and have been working on adapting.”

Aside from items hidden in undergarments, the DHS anti-terrorism expert continued with “the WBI scanners see everything, even items hidden inside a person. We know that terror groups have explored placing explosives into breast implants, a WBI would see this, an enhanced pat down would not.  Terrorists are likely to use a body cavity to smuggle items on board a plane, which is something that was never discussed publicly when talking about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab‘s underwear bomb plot last year. The enhanced pat down will never reveal an item hidden in a body cavity while the WBI screening will.”

So, with the TSA having access to terrorism expert analysis and intelligence, one has to question why they are choosing to deploy security tactics of an ‘enhanced pat down’ when the agency is already aware that the security procedures are ineffective.

Edited To Add: The DHS source quoted above has clarified that the whole body imaging scanner capable of detecting objects inside a passenger is a technology in development. I will attempt to gather further information on this new technology and write about it when I feel I have sufficient information.

Happy Flying!


  1. […] Originally Posted by chollie The big excuse for the NoS/eliminate wands/open palm frisking was the underpants bomber (who, with a little help from whoever his mysterious friends were, showed up at a most opportune time for Chertoff & Co.). The then-current technology and procedures wouldn't have found the bomb – WTMD and HHMD couldn't detect it. And only Pistole categorically states that the frisk would have. There are dissenting opinions however: http://boardingarea.com/flying…not-effective/ […]


  1. Here again, I agree with everything you said up until your final paragraph. Clearly, there is no question as to the real purpose of enhanced pat downs: it is to make it so obnoxious and so demeaning that the traveler is forced to “opt in.” So all these negative publicity about enhanced pat downs is EXACTLY what the TSA wants to deflect from the real issues of safety and privacy rights invasion that WBI scanners pose.

  2. It is my understanding that the WBI machines only scan the surface of the skin and therefore will not reveal anything that is inside the body.

  3. Jeff,

    I am presently checking into the statement made by the DHS expert regarding a scanner’s ability to find objects concealed inside a person. Millimeter wave I do not believe has this potential, possibly backscatter does.

    I’ll edit the post (adding a note) once I have an answer.

    Happy Flying!


  4. It is my understanding also that the backscatter machines cannot see into body cavities. An NPR story from Jan 2010 indicates this. p://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122499686

    I am quite concerned about the health issues.

  5. Can the WBI tell the difference between a breast implant filled with saline and a breast implant with more than 3.4 oz or a dangerous explosive?

    Speaking of breast implants… why are they allowed on planes to begin with since they contain more than 3.4 oz of liquid?

  6. Years ago, after watching the Fifth Element I joked that soon enough we’d be put to sleep when traveling on regular airplanes. What an efficient way to fly! No mess, no fuss, and think of the money saved on peanuts and coffee! 😉

    But then you realize, it won’t save us. It won’t cut down on the potential for terrorists to implant timers and detonators, or use a stewardess… The world is starting to mirror loopy Onion articles and cheese scifi. All I can say is that is down right -awesome-.

  7. There should be no such thing as “opt out” if you are selected, you go through the WBI and that is that. And from what I have read millimeter wave isn’t harmful, whereas backscatter gives about an xrays worth of radiation.

  8. Owen JJ Stone and John Tyner TSA Caught with Their Hands Down Our Pants under New Enhanced Pat-Down Enhancement, with the ojective to intimidate fliers to submit to Pornographic Biometric Scan rather than molestation.
    TSA Targets John Tyner In Effort To Chill Nationwide Backlash when he told a TSA official this past weekend, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested.”
    John Tyner was kicked out of a San Diego Airport for refusing to submit to invasive TSA groping measures, is now the target of a DHS/TSA investigation and an $11,000 dollar lawsuit.
    If you say no DHS and TSA will charge you with probing and resisting Big Brother’s Rules.
    TSA said to Tyner ‘You lose a lot of your rights when you buy that ticket.’

  9. The TSA TSO’s statment to Mr. Tyner was incorrect, poorly thought out and wrong … however Mr. Tyner’s actions were wrong as well. The fines in place by the TSA have been in place for years … to date NO ONE has ever been fined for leaving the TSA secure area once escorted out … well no one except Mr Tyner I guess.

    Mr. Tyner however claims he searched the TSA website, which shows SAN as an AIT airport. If he did that much research he must have known that he would be subject to the enhanced pat down. Lets not overlook the content of his blog indicates that he wanted a fight.

    Happy Flying!


  10. He indicated that the site (at the time he looked) did NOT show SAN as an AIT airport. It wouldn’t surprise me if they updated the site AFTER the incident.

  11. So when the TSA person asked my wife if the pad between her legs was for her period or incontinence, that was okay? Putting their hands down between her skin and her panties, that’s okay? Or is just okay for us minons? She was crying, which I guess Janet Nappy doesn’t care about. And the old woman being felt up between her legs whilst being forced to get out of her wheelchair and put her hands up against the wall and told to spread ’em, that’s okay? And the toddler who has been told not to let anyone but her parents and her doctor touch her privates now has to be told that the government can touch her privates, but anyone else would be arrested and charged, that’s okay? A direct violation of the 4th Ammendment is okay? And now tell me, racial profiling is not okay? All the terrorists were muslims, but heaven forbid anyone touch their bodies! Geez, what happened to America?

  12. Sam,

    Profiling certainly should not be racial. One thing that the limited number of TSA SPOT agents will tell you is they are looking for ‘micro expressions.’ While there have been failures and miss-hits by TSA SPOTs the actual practice of deploying body detection officers is effective.

    One thing that needs to be kept in mind is that the “Underwear Bomber” was not Middle Eastern, nor did he look Middle Eastern and Timothy McVeigh was as “All American” looking as possible. It is likely that anyone who’d be carrying out an attack on a flight as a passenger would not look Middle Eastern … and may not even be from the Middle East.

    Happy Flying!


  13. FYI: Most consider the MMW to be safer, but long term effects have not been studied. Additionally, there is a study showing DNA damage from MMW. If there is a health risk, it is probably very small, but the research isn’t there to completely declare this safe.

    As for seeing inside the body, the backscatter is capable of this but only if the radiation dose is higher. Stronger x-rays go through the body rather than bounce off. This would increase the health risks such that your risk of dying from cancer would be greater than your risk of dying from terrorists. The risk/benefit now is close to even – which means that under normal circumstances the backscatter scanners would never be approved.

    The GAO reported that they weren’t sure that WBI could have detected the underwear bomber (depending on densities and how something is contained, it can escape detection), so these scanners aren’t the end all to screening.

    Instead of body scanners or overly invasive pat downs, we need to work on improving our use of no-fly lists and integrating intelligence among agencies. Existing intelligence, if used wisely, would do much more to ensure passenger safety than these overly intrusive screening measures.

  14. Why has there been no mention of bomb sniffing dogs? They could screen a whole planeful of passengers in a fraction of the time it takes the TSA goons. They’re smarter than the TSA goons, too! People who don’t like dogs could go through the scanner or be frisked. You’d need far fewer TSA employees, which would save the taxpayer a bundle. Then the dogs could also sniff through all the luggage and cargo. They won’t ask for a raise, share naked pictures of you with their friends and they are always in a good mood. By the way, most Muslims don’t like dogs, so might just avoid the airport altogether. C’mon people, stop complaining and do something. Write to your congressmen. You can reach them by email. It will take less than 30 seconds. If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem!

  15. I’ve got a more pleasurable answer for the US travelers

    Screener Requirements:
    For Male passengers all screener’s must be contracted from Hooter’s.
    For Female passengers all screener’s must be contracted from Chippendales.

  16. Rapiscan makes backscatter X-Ray scanners and L3 makes millimeter wave scanners. The DHS ‘anti-terrorism expert’ is simply giving us a reason to use Rapiscan in the years to come. Must be a friend of Chertoff.

    We are just pawns in the security theater.

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