How the TSA Has Stonewalled My Follow-Up to Being Sexually Assaulted

February 13, 2020

Last fall, a Transportation Security Administration agent sexually assaulted me at Orlando International Airport. She used all ten fingers to probe my genitals and between my buttocks, and squeezed my breasts, in full view of other flyers.

After I wrote about this for Filter, numerous people called and emailed me with support. Some wanted me to fly right back to Florida and press charges. Some wanted me to get trauma counseling. A number of women just thanked me.

Since then, I have been trying to obtain the video of my October 23 “pat-down,” to no avail. It’s been frustrating, to say the least.

So I was gratified to see this week that that one woman is suing the TSA for this kind of behavior. The traveler, who was passing through Asheville Regional Airport in North Carolina is charging civil battery, among other things, for an unacceptable search. It’s not a criminal case, but she describes it as a sexual assault, in which the agent reached under her shorts to “fondle” her genitals for her sexual gratification. The flyer, who is from California, filed in United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina and is represented by California attorney Jon Corbett, who has made a name for himself going after the TSA’s tactics.

Could I sue? Maybe. But would it be worth it to me, or to any lawyer taking it on contingency? Hardly likely. Even if I started legal proceedings in New York, they would end up in Florida, with a lot of travel involved. It would be prohibitively expensive, with little prospect of adequate money at the end of the process (yes, I asked my lawyer). The agent in my case clearly violated TSA’s own protocol in conducting searches. But I was still left wondering if this would be considered a crime. And I wanted the video.

“Closed Circuit Television is often the property of the local airport authority and only available for 14 to 30 days.”

When I inquired last fall to the TSA about getting the video via FOIA, Elaine Pancake, TSA Orlando customer service manager, responded: “You will receive notice within 1-3 business days of receipt. The notice will contain a tracking number for your request.”

I did not receive a tracking number when I filed my FOIA request with the TSA in January (within the three-month time limit). Rather, I received this, less than a day after filing my request: “Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) is often the property of the local airport authority and only available for 14 to 30 days. We recommend reaching out to the airport authority directly to request any CCTV footage. You can typically find the airport authority’s contact information on the airport’s website.”

The airport authority in this case is the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA). Rod Johnson, assistant director of public affairs for GOAA, told me that I could file a FOIA with his agency for the video. However, “We don’t oversee the TSA so we have no recourse” when it comes to agent behavior, he said.

Could I have called the police from the TSA scanning area where I was being assaulted? Yes, and they would be allowed in, he said, noting that GOAA has a contract with the Orlando Police Department.  

So how should a passenger respond if they feel they have been sexually assaulted by a TSA agent? “I would recommend they contact the TSA,” said Johnson. What? Really? “Either that or you call the police department.”

There have been “no other issues with this, not that I’m aware of” said Johnson. But he was very helpful much more so than the TSAwith instructions about how to file a FOIA with GOAA. I spoke to him on February 12 and started the process then.

When I belatedly contacted the local police department, Sergeant David Baker of the public information office emailed a response to my query: “If you feel you were the victim of a crime, you can contact the Orlando Police Department at 321-235-5300 or come to our headquarters to file a complaint. Since the airport is in the City of Orlando, we investigate allegations of crimes that violate Florida State Statute, regardless of who may employ the alleged violating party.”

He added: “Anyone who believes that they are the victim of a crime at the Orlando International Airport can contact the Orlando Police Department and their allegations will be thoroughly investigated.”

Sergeant Baker also sent me a link to the statute defining “sexual battery” in Florida. The definition is limited to oral, anal or vaginal penetration. I guess walking up to someone on the street and squeezing their breasts or fondling their crotch or buttocks is some other kind of crime. It certainly should be a crime.

But the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, asked which statute covered sexual assault, sent me a link to the same statute.

As a New York resident, I have also complained to NY Senator Charles Schumer. I filed my privacy notice by mail (you have to send a release before a member of Congress will investigate your complaint against a federal agency) right after the assault occurred. However, Sen. Schumer’s office didn’t receive it until late January, because of a new system in which all mail first goes to Washington, DC to be checked for explosives, etc.

It finally got to Susan Orlove, an impressive case worker in Sen. Schumer’s office who can handle everything from Medicare to Social Security to, now, the TSA. I told her that I want the video and an apology. She has contacted the TSA and said that she will keep me informed.

The episode left me asking questions about my own conduct. Why was I such a terrible reporter that I didn’t get the agent’s badge, or note the type of scanner used, or even thinking of calling the police? The reason is that I froze. It’s known as the freeze response, what psychiatrists and psychologists call dissociation.

I vividly remember what that agent looks like, however. Psychologist Christine Blasey Ford explained this phenomenon of memory to the nation in 2018“indelible in the hippocampus”in reference to what Bret Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court justice, did to her as a teenager.

The TSA has become what author Bruce Schneier calls “security theater.” And it’s hurting people.

The TSA was created in response to 9/11, when it was feared that nobody would get in a commercial airplane again if nothing was done about the prospect of deadly hijackings. Now, however, the TSA has become what author Bruce Schneier calls “security theater.” And it’s hurting people.

That agent has continued to appear in my dreamsand she has not fared well there, trust me, facing punishments worse than anything I could come up with while conscious. I don’t for a minute think she represents the entire TSA, but that she is allowed to do this to people is unconscionable.

I think of other women, of my daughter. I may be dismissed as an old lady who allowed herself to get “felt up” by the TSA and then complained about it, but I trust my senses. One friend said the only solution is to wear steel panties. I can just imagine what the scanner would do to that one. 


Image of TSA flag via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain. 


Alison Knopf

Alison has written about substance use for more than 30 years. She has also written for many years about medical coding. A freelance writer, she is also the editor of Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly, and managing editor of Child & Adolescent Psychopharmacology Update and Child & Adolescent Behavior Letter—all published by WILEY. She also writes for Addiction Treatment Forum.

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