Editor’s Note: I have corrected the article to reflect new information.
It all started yesterday evening when I arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport in the rustbelt township of Moon, Pennsylvania for a flight to Boston.
I approached the Kiosk to print my ticket and immediately got an error, asking I go get my boarding pass from the airline’s main booth. I followed the instructions.
There, the woman typed my information in and made a phone call. After a lengthy 20 minutes, she gave me the phone and asked me to “listen” while she briefly walked away. This most likely was a way to get whatever Department of Homeland Security surveillance team to identify me and watch me through the camera.
Shortly after, my ticket printed with the dreaded SSSS – Secondary Security Screening Selection. This is the first time it has ever happened to me (I last flew less than a year ago). The SSSS list is reserved for suspected terrorists and criminals, of which I am neither. There are millions of people on the list, with random samplings finding that up to 40% of people on it have inaccurately registered records. Furthermore, a federal judge last September found that the practice is unconstitutional. I’ve been traveling largely by bus and car to work on news stories or visit friends so I was caught off guard.
Little did I know I was in for an annoying and long night, but I didn’t expect how bad it would be. I have heard from other peaceful dissidents and journalists that they have been harassed like this at the airport for the past year.
I used the restroom then approached the TSA line. They took me to a separate, cordoned off section and began the invasive and downright ridiculous process.
As one man meticulously poked and prodded my frank-n-beans from every angle, a senior citizen checked every nook and cranny of my wallet along with the bristles of my toothbrush for…I’m not sure exactly. I made sure that none of my electronics (phones and laptops) were being illegally searched, which they didn’t, they only ask you to turn them on.
In the commotion (at least 7 TSA agents surrounded me) a woman was asking me for personal information, like my latest home address. My response to her was to ask whether it was mandatory to give it to her. She did not say whether it was mandatory, but kept asking over and over again for my information and I refused to give it. I don’t have anything to hide, but the principle stands.
When the search concluded (about 20-30 minutes), they found a secondary phone I use that happened to be out of batteries. They asked me to turn it on, which I agreed to but needed to charge it. The TSA supervisor told me it was against protocol, and escorted me with all of my stuff back outside to charge my phone, telling me that I would have to do the search all over again from scratch.
At this point I was going to miss my flight. I summoned the supervisor again, who was very polite and friendly to my face, to demand a place where I can complain for my atrocious treatment and that I be compensated for my airline ticket. I informed him that I was a journalist and that being treated like a member of Al Qaeda on my way to a domestic flight was confusing and humiliating.
He gave me a TSA card and in my frustration over the bullshit I had just endured, decided to leave the airport to find different transportation to my destination that would be free of these silly theatrics.
As I walked away, a female police officer named Deb Spotts approached me to ask me why I had gone into the TSA security and back out. I told her they had asked me to go out and charge my phone. She then demanded to know why I had used the bathroom, to which I responded “to take a piss.”
She asked me for identification, and my response was to ask her if I was being detained and was free to leave over and over again. She radio’d her Sergeant, Michael Kuma, who gave the order to arrest me. Multiple police officers, including one carrying an assault weapon, grabbed me and put me in handcuffs.
The entire time I was loudly asking in front of others in the airport lobby why I was being detained, what their probable cause was, and that I wanted to call a lawyer. The police officers transporting me told me that they did not know why I was being detained, which is absurd.
I specifically told the officers that I did not consent to any search of any of my belongings, which they mostly respected. My things were put in a bucket in front of my cell and I was in there for about an hour.
Finally, Sergeant Kuma emerges with his team. I asked him for an explanation.
According to Kuma, the TSA inspectors had “felt” two bullets in one of the tight sleeves of my flight jacket. I have never owned a firearm nor have been shooting.
I asked Kuma why I was not dogpiled and detained during the TSA special suspected terrorist screening process if they thought I was trying to bring bullets on board. Kuma’s response is that bringing bullets on a flight was not illegal, which is a flagrant lie!
I then gave Kuma permission to search my jacket and show me the supposed bullets in my possession. He took his time, briefly got the jacket out of my sight, then acted like he was struggling to get the “bullets” out.
Then, all the cops smiled at me while Kuma said “oh wow, they’re only pen caps!”
He then pulled out black bullet-shaped pen caps from my jacket as I looked on in disbelief. I don’t carry or use pens at all.
These are anti-puncture caps that come pre-installed in M1A1 flight jackets.
I then obtained the Sergeant’s business card, with a phone number on the back to be able to get the police report of my illegal arrest. He told me to wait a while because it takes time to get it in the system. I will be following up on this.
These kinds of shenanigans are so stupid I’m almost tempted to laugh about this myself. This would be a joke if it wasn’t part of a wider system the federal government has in place that has no law enforcement value and is intended solely to intimidate and inconvenience journalists and people with First Amendment protected opinions they don’t like.
The big question I have, and will be investigating, is how did I get on the SSSS list, along with many others I know who engage in peaceful advocacy or dissent? Why in the last year, and all of my life, have I flown without any problems prior to this?
The Department of Homeland Security keeps the criteria for being a “selectee” very private, likely due to the civil liberties ramifications of the system as they drastically expand how many people are targeted and why. As someone who hasn’t even been harassed by the FBI or accused of anything, occam’s razor tells me that in my case and others, they are using a purely political criteria. The only scenario for what just happened is that they are deferring to the Southern Poverty Law Center for names and adding them to the list uncritically. If it came out, it would be a scandal, as the SPLC is a highly discredited, agenda-ridden and universally despised organization.
There is a small chance that it is a case of mistaken identity, but I doubt it. I will be looking into applying for the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) and will see what they tell me.
National Justice is over the target indeed!