TSA routinely violates own rules and the law to discriminate against people w/disabilities

Sai has "a neurological disorder that causes episodic muteness and muscle spasms" -- basically, he sometimes becomes mute and gets bad shakes. His doctor has advised him to have juice continuously available, and this helps control his condition. TSA rules allow him to bring any amount of juice through a checkpoint. Unfortunately, the TSA doesn't read its own rules. Instead, Sai is detained at checkpoints for endless, illegal questioning and searches of his personal papers, confidential business documents, etc. When he loses the ability to speak, he uses pen and paper to communicate, but the TSA takes the pen and paper away as soon as he cites language from a landmark legal case limiting their power to search him.

He's videoed one of these encounters, with the TSA and its private contractors at SFO, and he's filed grievances with various agencies over that incident and another at Boston Logan. The TSA is illegally refusing to follow its own administrative procedures, so he's getting ready to sue them (he needs an ADA and/or FOIA-specialized lawyer qualified for the bar in MA and/or CA and/or federally -- any takers?). He's also trying to force them to disclose their secret procedures.

The edited, subtitled video of his run-in at SFO is fantastically infuriating. The TSA and its private contractors are vindictive, lawless, brutal. But Sai is an inspiring example of calm under fire, a guy who knows his rights back and forwards, and doesn't let the fact that his physical condition is deteriorating -- you can see his tremors -- make him lose his cool (here's the unedited version, which runs to about an hour).

Sai's site has plenty of ways you can help with this, including a petition to Congress and a questionnaire to help him with his Freedom of Information suit. And by helping him, you help everyone who has to fly -- and everyone who cares about freedom in America.

On March 1, 2013, San Francisco TSA refused to allow me to travel with medical liquids. My liquids had been been tested clean by xray & explosive trace detection, and the official on scene specifically acknowledged reading the TSA's Special Needs Memo (including that juice is a medical liquid and that there's no volume restriction on medical liquids). This directly involved the most senior TSA officials at the airport, who detained me for about 50 minutes total.

This is only the most recent in a long string of personal incidents of harassment, denial, or direct refusal to obey TSA's medical liquids policy. This time, though, I got it all on video.

Problems with the TSA (via Hacker News)


  1. The United States of America. 

    Land of the Free. Home of the brave.

    Leader of the Free World.

    If you want freedom from oppression, illegal search and seizure and brutal police state actions, come to the USA, the last bastion of liberty and freedom and democracy.


    1. Like George Carlin said, it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

  2. While I have no love for the TSA, this does seem like a loophole.  According to what the gentleman said to the TSA people, anyone can bring in large containers of liquid, claim they’re medically necessary and then refuse to show any proof.  Am I missing something here?

    1. Yes: what you’re missing is that anyone should indeed be able to bring in large containers of liquid, and not have to give any reason whatsoever.

      But, on the upside, Sai hasn’t been able to hijack any aircraft. Yet.

      1.  “anyone should”… where does it say that american citizens have a “right” to fly? that said, my libertarian parts say it should be up to the airline to which he is ticketed… but to “not have to give any reason whatsoever”… well, that’s just legal nonsense.

        1. The Magna Carta long ago established the right for people to travel. The method of which we choose to travel should not be restricted nor the concern of any government.

          1.  Except that the Magna Carta is from England, and while the USA’s law system owes much to such earlier documents, I don’t think you’ll go to far citing it as the basis for your argument in a US court.

        2. No, it’s not “nonsense.”  There are established regulations, and it should NOT be the responsibility of every member of the traveling public to have to explain them to TSA’s mouth-breathing morons (or have their rights infringed). 

          It’s the responsibility of the mouth-breathing morons to know the law and the regulations. They’re PAID to do this.

          Stop laughing already.

          1. I have allergies and asthma. I usually end up breathing through my mouth. Why use ‘mouth breather’ and ‘mouth breathing’ as insults?

          2. This is a person who has a bunny rabbit as a avatar and feels it necessary to have an apple mark in their handle.. I wouldn’t worry about anything they have to say.

        3. where does it say that american citizens have a “right” to fly?

          Logan already pointed out that the right is listed in the US Code, but aside from that, the question as written has America backwards.

          Rights aren’t granted in the America that was designed.  They’re inherent and can only be taken away by due process (see the 9th,  5th, and 4th Amendments to the US Constitution).  The listing of such restrictions are on the government, not on the people.  If there’s no mention of a right, it exists.  Enumeration of government powers can only be to restrict rights.

          Now, that’s not to say that it didn’t take less than three years for Washington and Adams to attack such rights, but abuses by the government are just that – abuses, not a limitation of natural rights.  Jefferson’s election was, in part, a response to such abuses.

          So, the correct question is, “where does the government get the power to deny people the right to travel/fly?”  Some will say it’s inherent in the general police power, but, no, if such exercise of rights violates constitutional restrictions on the government, they’re illegal acts.  Unfortunately, we’re stuck in a world post- Roosevelt’s hostile takeover of the Supreme Court by the Executive, so the mechanism for remedy no longer exists, except in fleeting circumstances.  Jefferson also expected such tyranny to arise, as a consequence of giving humans such power, and encouraged resistance to it.

        1. But… but liquids are all I drink.  I drink more liquids than all other substances combined.

    2. It is a loophole. A few years ago, there was an article [1] that brought up this loophole with contact lens solution: “An officer asked him why he needed two bottles. ‘Two eyes,’ he said. He was allowed to keep the bottles.”
      I have tested this, and it works. Also, I believe water is permitted on a plane, as long as it is frozen at the time of the security screening, but their definition of liquid is very unclear. I have brought sandwiches through security many times and mayo/pesto/other sauces are definitely liquids, but I don’t keep them in 3.4 fl. oz. containers.[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/11/the-things-he-carried/307057/?single_page=true

      1. My wife once had a bottle of water confiscated at the checkpoint.

        The bag that once held ice cubes that were keeping a sandwich cold but which had nearly all melted into a volume of water greater than in the confiscated water bottle? It was not even noticed.

        Your tax dollars hard at work.

        1. Obviously the ice cubes were not made of terror-water, unlike your al-Qaeda-loving plastic bottle.

    3. If the liquid in question passes the x-ray and explosives screening, what difference does it make what it is, or if it’s more than 3.4 ounces?

      1. The theory is that you can take two liquids, each of which will pass inspection, but which, once on the plane, you can combine to make a super explosive to bring down the plane.
        I heard it on Fox News, so it just be true.
        But if you’re asking the question, you must hate America.
        (edited to fix a typo that seemed to be way too distracting to some people)

    4. One simple thing you’re missing: the TSA’s edict is to search/seize weapons and explosives. They can tell the difference between juice and an explosive. Juice is not more dangerous in larger quantities or in the hands of someone without a medical need.

      That’s really where the question should end. 

      I do have a medical need, but I find it offensive to have to explain my disability or justify my medical needs on pain of being prevented from bringing *juice* through security. 

      1. It’s pretty obvious the TSA decided early on you were trying to get your stuff through a loophole, hence their total lack of common sense at the checkpoint.  It’s the slow mission creep of TSA authority (which…surprise…has happened under both the Bush and Obama administrations).

        I hope you win big, but in the end it’s our tax dollars that are going to pay for their incompetence (and their remedial training, and their eventual return to service).

        1. It may look like a “loophole” to you, but for those of us with disabilities, it’s a reasonable accomodation. In general, it’s the absolute minimum change to the rules which permits us to function in society. We learn quick we’re not welcome, but some of us, like Sai., are willing to advocate to improve this situation.

          Here is the text of TSA’s own rules which they’re violating in Sai.’s case:

          1. Clarification, I do not see it as a loophole. The TSA “officers” who were working this issue did.

            Personally, if you can drink it there is absolutely no reason why it should not be allowed through.

          2. Cool. I am not capable of the level of composure which Sai demonstrates, so jumped the gun.

      2. They can’t tell the difference between pepper spray and a laser pointer. They can’t tell the difference between a toddler and a terrorist. They can’t be counted on to tell the difference between any two completely dissimilar objects. Medical privacy laws are in place because your specific condition is nobody’s business unless you say it is. And now that I know that little fact regarding medical liquids, I find that medically, I need water to survive, and I will bring some with me whenever I fly. Which, sadly, since the creation of the TSA is NEVER, unless it’s absolutely required for business.

        Good luck man, I hope you and the rest of America find justice in this.

      3. I have traveled out of SFO dozens of times with my son and his backpack full of medical liquids, which generally include 8-20 oz water, 6 8 oz cans of pediasure, and various bottles of medicines.  We have always been treated with extreme courtesy and I have always been pleased with our experience there — in fact, I have told people how professional the SFO contractors are with this situation.

        It’s true that we always have extra screening: they wipe the cans and bottles as well as the wheelchair and test them for explosives.  I expect this and understand it.  It sounds like you also would understand if they tested your liquids for explosives.  Unlike in your situation, they have never asked us any questions at all, let alone the nature of my son’s disability or anything else intrusive.  

        I’m not sure what explains the difference between our experiences.  Given the number of times I’ve been through that checkpoint and the number of people you interacted with, it’s even likely we encountered some of the same people, and yet with different results. 

        1. It’s because your child is deserving of tender care, and adults with disabilities can go screw themselves.  That’s pretty much how the general public treats people with disabilities.  I get discrimination just about every time I leave my house.   And when a group is given permission to discriminate and a false sense of power, well, they’re gonna use it.

          1. My son experiences plenty of discrimination too — even blatant examples like being kicked out of places that don’t serve kids in wheelchairs — but your point is well-taken.  People are more likely to be bullies to adults than to kids.  

          2. When I was a child I got far more “oh, look at how brave she is and how well she functions” compared to now, when it’s mostly “Jesus Christ, we have to make an effort to communicate with her?  Fuck that! And look, she’s struggling to walk, she should stay out of my face!”

      4. You are an absolute inspiration.. stick it to these assholes.

        I firmly believe it is every American’s duty to absolutely chew out any person you meet or know who works for the TSA, even if it’s your family. THEY ARE FUCKING PARASITES THAT MAKE YOUR COUNTRY A TREMENDOUS LAUGHING STOCK.

  3. this is not surprising at all, unfortunately. what is hard to believe is that with the staggering number of complaints lodged against the TSA since its inception, there is still very little direct oversight of TSA checkpoints and their staff. 

    i understand that there are only a certain number of manager-types in a typical airport, but that’s easy to remedy… there are cameras every 3 feet in most airports… and every single damn bit of  every single damn exchange between TSA employees and the public should be available for review. if the TSA is taking people where there are no cameras, that is not acceptable.

    here’s how it works. TSA employees are given a microphone and a button. every time something goes abnormally, they push the button. this logs the time and place, so that the entire exchange is easily reviewable. “forget” to push the button and get a complaint? fired. plus: you get to list “fired from the TSA” on your resume’.

    the agency REEKS of mice playing with the public while.. are there even cats?

    1. Your goal of seeking oversight assumes a few things.  If you instead look at this as classic behavioral conditioning for submission to arbitrary authority, then the TSA is doing a great job and additional oversight is not required.  How does that saying go, “your actions speak so loudly that I cannot hear your words”?

  4. For my last trip, it was planned to be my first one with an insulin pump. I was worried about being hassled about it, that I had a doctor’s note on their letterhead. I chickened out, and wound up using an insulin pen for the trip. I get discouraged, when walking pens through security, I have to explain to the officers what they are. I didn’t believe they would get the pump through with hassling me or damaging the device.

    1. I wear an Insulet Omnipod, and declare it every time I fly, before I’m inspected. Twice I have been pulled aside for the extra-special inspection — I think they’re looking for explosive fluids — but have been cleared after that. Not once have I been asked for a doctor’s note, which I always have handy.

  5. I’m licensed in Cali and have done some ADA work. Its probably a bigger case than I could do solo, but if I can provide support or be the local Cali Counsel for a lead from MA, I’d be happy to help pro bono on this. 

      1. You just got Marc Randazza on your side. The TSA is fucked now, i tell you — Marc Randazza is a BADASS.

        1. Awesome!

          Kudos to Mr. Randazza for stepping up, he is a credit to his profession.

          For those not familiar with him, he defended Amy Alkon when she was threatened by a TSA screener and prevailed


  6. My main thought about the video was that I can’t imagine many jobs shittier than being the public face of that regime.  Most of them really didn’t sound like they were on a power trip, just enforcing rules that don’t make sense even internally.
    It sounds like if you showed them a doctor’s letter it might have resolved the situation more quickly, but it’s hard to say that’s a real solution.  I mean, you can make a stand with the cannon fodder who can’t change anything, or you can be ignored by the people who maybe could change things, or you can reinforce the whole pantomime by being “helpful” (i.e. violating your own dignity even further), but really the only thing that would fix the problem is if the government and airlines chose to drop the underlying bullshit.

    1.  When you have to put up with job titles like Pedosmurf (for the blue shirt and the defrocked priest @ Philadelphia that likes to diddle prepubescent girls) and Freedom Fluffer (for the crotch groping that ensues after you “opt out” of the porno scanner), you would think that there would be much encouragement to find other employment.  Sadly, as the pepper spray incident last week shows, TSA is the employer of last resort.

    2. Is this the “they’re just following orders” argument? Because I think that’s been shut down quite handily for the last 60+ years as “bullshit”.

      1. Actually it was the “this problem won’t be fixed at the level of screeners” argument, but it’s nice to see the first Spurious Godwin of spring.

        1. “Most of them really didn’t sound like they were on a power trip, just enforcing rules that don’t make sense even internally.”

          That certainly sounds like “hey, man, we’re just doing what we’re told to…”

        2. Spurious? Do you think that the Third Reich happened in a day? Persuading citizens to dehumanize other citizens is a key step in developing a fascist state.

        3. Spurious, because I wasn’t defending screeners and I was saying it’s not a job someone should take.  But if you really want to get into it as a serious point, drawing analogies specifically to the Nuremberg trials is counterproductive, too.
          It’s facile to say “oh, that’s the Nuremberg defense, which is wrong because Hitler”.  In point of fact, the TSA screeners of the Nazi regime (i.e. half of Germany) were excused precisely on the grounds that they were only following orders.  And if “following orders” were never an excuse, it’d raise pretty immediate questions about, say, US soldiers in Iraq.  (There are also questions of taste in making these comparisons but never mind that).If you’re genuinely concerned about the development of an authoritarian regime in the US and elsewhere (and we all should be), one place to start is by looking beyond the deliberately oversimplified post facto construction of the Nazi period; in other words, looking at how it starts, with a cast of ordinary people, and not how it ends, with all the protagonists neatly sorted into good guys and bad guys after the fact.  Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is well worth a read.  One of her important conclusions from the Eichmann trial is that what made such evil possible was simply the language used; framing monstrous things in bureaucratic terms allowed people to keep moving while morality never quite came into focus.

          The relevance to TSA officers is that we allow the conversation to be framed in terms that make it heroic to enforce stupid rules, and by implication, to enforce rules stupidly.  There will always be people credulous enough to slot into that role, and the shitty flying experience is not their fault.  The solution is to stop accepting “patriotism” or “safety” as wildcard justifications for anything the state wants to do, because that’s the root of authoritarianism, and the TSA is just a symptom.

    3. If you work for an organisation that is evil then you are bound to their evil rules. That doesn’t separate you from the act. You are facilitating their evil behaviour which makes you just as bad. It is for this reason that I hate: TSA guys, parking officers, most cops, mining execs and the homeopathy/quackery industry (to name a few).

    4. But they weren’t enforcing the rules! A quick look into their own rulebook would have resolved that problem in minutes. “Sir, I’m afraid you’re not allowed to take these bottles with you.” “Actually I am, they are properly declared medical liquids!” *Looks up rules* “Indeed they are. Have a good flight!”

      It’s OK if you don’t always know every rule in the book (although I bet they are actually required to). But when they are told what the rules are and even where to find them it’s absolutely inexcusable (as well as illegal) to not follow them.

      A refusal to follow their own rules means they are on a power trip and they should absolutely be dragged to court for it.

  7. Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.

    We’ve all been waiting for the right case at the right time to put an end to this ridiculous security theatre.

    Or, if one big case can’t break it, at least enough little cases to make the TSA see that defending their stupid rules just costs too darn much money.

    Or, that some kind of technology steps in to guarantee this level of surveillance invisibly (all the time, and the people who write the rules would surely prefer this to their clueless goons).

    …but it’s stupid, and ours is a country that does fix stupid laws…….eventually…..

    1. I admire your optimism.  However, that was the past.  Right now your country fixes stupid laws primarily by making them imbecilic, while passing ten more stupid laws in the time it took.

      Mine is rapidly following suit.  I don’t like the world any more.

    2. *War on drugs (which high people are winning)
      *Gay marriage
      *Abortion rights

      We’re waiting…

      1. OK. So one example we got right years ago, way ahead of everybody else, and then continuously defend–and two more we are currently winning?

        The republicans/tories/facists of the world are bound to lose in a democracy. Keep up the hope, and turn that hope into action. (Or, shut up).

  8. In the annals of cultural stupidity, the banning of liquids from flights will go down among the all-time greats.  “We shall name this new land Myopia.”

    1. I hate (no) I am inconvenienced by the TSA. I give the mall-cop schmuck who forces me to take off my belt no love at all.

      However, the people who write the rules very likely have calculated, with great precision and debate, that a water bottle full of ***simple explosive redacted*** could bring down a plane.

      Is it stupid? Yes. Should we sue them to oblivion? You betcha. Is the cause of all this to get better procedures in place to keep free people moving freely? Absolutely..

  9. I’m a disabled person myself. And I do not handle being bureaucratically bullied about it with grace; being bureaucratically bullied about it pushes me into catatonic panic attacks. Which is why I concluded, within weeks of 9/11, that I simply do not get to fly until the War on Terror is over, whenever (if ever) that happens. Constitutional guarantee of the right to travel between states or no, if I can’t get there via bus or train, I don’t get to go.

    True story of the second most wrong I’ve ever been in a prediction: I was rent-a-copping on 9/11, and when word spread that they were going to be creating the TSA, everybody at my agency told me I should apply. You know why I turned them down? Because I was absolutely confident that, within a year, the TSA would be disbanded, that airport directors would never put up with service that was as bad as we rent-a-cops were providing at four to six times the price, the the day the law permitted them to opt out (and they can), they would. Boy, do I feel stupid.

    1. You weren’t stupid.  It is enormously wiser to treat your country as capable of being intelligent, even when it’s clearly not.

      Good luck.

  10. “…including a petition to Congress…”

    I do not see anything about this, nor does search find either of those keywords, on his site.

  11. From their interactions it appears that 1.) they don’t understand why juice is a medical necessity for him and are calling BS on it, and 2.) they probably think he is being deliberately difficult.  I understand that as per their own rules he doesn’t have to provide evidence of why the juice is a medical liquid, but he probably should.

    Now, I’m not siding with the TSA here, I think he is clearly in the right, and they don’t seem to know or care about their own rules, I also think the TSA employees are over-reacting because they deal with angry or antsy travelers all day (they tell him to “calm down” when he is already pretty calm), so it’s up to someone to be more diplomatic.

    That said, I hope he takes them to court.  In a democratic society we should have some say in how we are treated by our own government, and the TSA seems to be out of reach.

    1. I was deliberately insisting on my rights. Politely. That’s not being “difficult” unless someone thinks that privacy is merely a privilege that pissant government agents can revoke at will… which it isn’t.

      As for understanding why juice is medically necessary for me, that’s why the policy is facially unconstitutional. It’s none of their business to evaluate (or even to *know*) my medical needs. Their job is very simple, and it’s one question: bomb or not a bomb?

      Turns out juice is not a bomb.

      1. They’ve been watching too much fear based programming on TV, they probably thought you’d drank some miraculous body bomb tonic and were just itching to get your hands back on the trigger mixture.

        In all seriousness, I greatly admire your patience and determination, most of us would just go along with the insanity.

      2.  “I was deliberately insisting on my rights. Politely. That’s not being “difficult””

        I agree, I never said it was, my point was they would disagree– I get the impression that anything other than complete subservience to their authority is treated as “being difficult”, so I look at a situation like this and try to imagine some way to diffuse it.  Clearly reminding them of their own policy didn’t work.  But then the problem is at least partly the policy (and partly that TSA employees are like any rent-a-cop, prone to abusing their authority.)

  12. “Uncontrolled search and seizure is one of the first and most effective weapons in the arsenal of every arbitrary government. Among deprivations of rights, none is so effective in cowing a population, crushing the spirit of the individual and putting terror in every heart.”
    Justice Robert Jackson, chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials

    I will not subject myself nor my family to needless radiation exposure nor TSA molestation. My family and I will not be flying until the TSA changes these procedures.

  13. Rule #1 of the Police State: you must respect the authoritay of any agent no matter how low in rank. If you ask questions or are surly and taking down badge numbers and contradicting the misinformation of said agent, refuting them with actual facts — these will be taken as signs of you disrespecting the authoritay of said agent.

    Given that said agent is earning minimum wage, the respecting of the authoritay is the only jollies that gets them off. Getting to harass and badger someone who does not comply is a job perk; disrespecting the authoritay of said agent allows said agent to enmesh the surly passenger in a bureaucratic nightmare, and this is pleasurable to no end when one’s authoritay has been disrespected.

    Our agents are hard at work protecting us from the phantom menace. The terrorists — do you think they respect our authoritay? No! So stop being a terrorist, get in line.

    (I hope you sue the f*** out of them!)

  14. How many examples of this abuse by TSA have to occur before this agency is replaced? There have been thousands of people harassed and humiliated by this agency and nothing ever changes. TSA will just send out another round of propaganda articles to lazy news writers saying how they work to help those with disabilities but will continue to abuse people anyway.

    Does anyone really believe that terrorizing a wheelchair bound child after she passed the checkpoint in St Louis is making anyone safer? Or humiliating a wounded Marine by removing his prosthetic legs in front of other passengers in Phoenix?

    Can TSA explain how pulling the dress off of a 17 year old on a church trip and exposing her breasts to her classmates and everyone at the checkpoint is protecting her?

    Or how humiliating and exposing a dying woman’s feeding tube at the checkpoint despite her request for a private screening is preventing a terrorist attack.

    How was security improved by pulling an Ohio mother off of her flight and strip searching because she wasn’t white?

    Maybe TSA can explain how stealing our property is going to prevent another 9/11.

    We would like to know how having 108 TSA workers arrested in the last 27 months including 15 arrested for child sex crimes, 32 for theft, 12 for smuggling and one for murder is acceptable.

    Can TSA explain how having over a dozen screeners smuggling drugs and guns through our airports in the past 24 months is essential to airport security?

    Maybe TSA can explain how keeping a known pedophile, Thomas Harkin, working at Philadelphia airport nine months after he was exposed is keeping our skies safe.

    No planes were hijacked between October 2001 and November 2010 without groping children, strip searching women and stealing our property.

    This agency has become a national disgrace and is endangering more people than it protects. TSA needs to be replaced with a sensible system staffed by reputable workers, not criminals.

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