Time to junk Pistole

The public reaction to the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) overreach and lack of even minimal sensitivity should stand as a lesson to those who believe the government always knows best and think Americans are a malleable bunch who will ultimately do as they are told.

George Will, echoing the late William F. Buckley Jr., got it right. We do live in a society in which too many of us are willing to accept just about any indignity without protest. But as the boys and girls at TSA are learning, our acquiescence in the outrageous has its limits.

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At one level, the argument being made by TSA in favor of increasingly intrusive searches at our airports is the same we’ve heard every time anyone has dared since 9/11 to suggest that our protectors ought to be sensitive to constitutional rights and the differences in the way free and totalitarian states go about the task of protecting themselves. We are told that since we are in the midst of a war with an enemy that has little respect for human life, we must do everything we can to protect ourselves and the American homeland; that security must of necessity trump traditionally guaranteed rights and that those who disagree simply don’t understand the dangers we face.

Former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld has been much maligned, but put the challenge we face in better perspective than anyone since when he observed just a few days after braving the fire and smoke enveloping the Pentagon on 9/11 that if, in response to the attacks of our enemies, we give up those freedoms that are uniquely American, we will have lost. Since then we have been gradually doing just that, and justifying every alteration in the way we live our lives in the name of “national security.”

The “enhanced” pat-downs being visited on those who refuse to go through the new scanners are clearly designed to intimidate and make such refuseniks pay for their reluctance to do as they’re told. Some are afraid of the radiation, but more object to bureaucrats sitting around a screen to observe them virtually naked. The TSA response: Get over it.

It now appears that the developers of the new technology TSA is deploying foresaw these objections and suggested that the government adjust the machines so that the “pictures” being taken would be distorted in such a way as to be unobjectionable without in any way compromising the ability to detect explosives or weapons. TSA ignored the warning and the suggestion.

So while it’s easy enough to blame the “screeners” for what’s been going on, most of them are merely doing what they are being ordered to by their superiors. President Obama’s TSA administrator, John Pistole, is a former FBI agent much in the mold of John Magaw, the first head of TSA. Magaw was a former Ohio state trooper who went on to head the Secret Service. Like Pistole, he was a cop who took his mission seriously but had no feel for public relations or the rights of the citizenry he was appointed to protect.

Shortly after his appointment, Magaw met with airline executives to inform them that his mission was quite simple. He was appointed to make sure no passenger aircraft would ever again fall into the hands of a terrorist, and said if that meant no passenger aircraft would ever again take to the skies, that would be fine with him.

One had to admit that ending commercial passenger traffic in the U.S. would have been one heckuva way to accomplish that mission, but it would have destroyed a major industry, played havoc with the lives of millions of Americans and constituted just the sort of surrender to terrorism that Rumsfeld had warned against.

Magaw gradually backed down, of course, as President Bush and others came to the conclusion that perhaps the job required someone who could cope with multiple sophisticated missions regardless of how good a cop he might be.

There are signs that Pistole is beginning to get the word from his superiors. He has softened his tone somewhat in recent days, but still arrogantly insists that TSA will do whatever it wants to “protect” us. The outrage at the way he’s pursuing a legitimate mission is undermining his ability to carry it out effectively. For one of his assistants to go on television and suggest that while we might not like the fact that TSA is requiring us to give up our Fourth Amendment rights, we ought to just get used to it is a symptom of the sort of arrogance that justifies the way TSA official are mistreating the young, old and infirm at hundreds of airports around the country.

Magaw lasted six months. He should be joined in retirement by Pistole.

Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental 
consulting firm.