The Transportation Security Administration agent, a gray-haired woman with tired eyes, told me I had been "selected" for enhanced screening and directed me into a large machine.
I had been traveling for about 14 hours from Europe, and I was coming through the Dallas-Fort Worth airport on my way back to Florida. I did not realize until it was too late that the agent had me step into a whole-body imaging scanner newly deployed at airports around the country.
She had me lift my arms.
I thought I was in one of those puffer machines that sniffed for explosive chemicals but instead it was a high-tech strip-search. Had I known I would never have agreed.
The millimeter-wave scan machine took an image of my body under all my clothes and then gave it a tin-like patina. The picture makes one look avatar-like, with every hill and valley in full view. The image was then viewed by a security officer "in a remote location and a windowless booth," so the agent couldn't match a face to a body, according to Sari Koshetz, a spokeswoman for the TSA.
She told me they "do not consider (it) to be a problem" that men are looking at the images of women travelers, since the officers are all "well trained."
Really? I wonder if they are as well-trained as those military professionals working at the National Security Agency. You know, those intelligence officers who reportedly listened in to the private, personal and intimate phone conversations between American soldiers, aid workers and reporters in Iraq and their spouses and lovers stateside.
These agents were supposed to be eavesdropping only on the phone calls of Americans overseas who were talking to terrorists. At least that's how President Bush explained it when he was lobbying Congress to allow broader warrantless wiretapping by the NSA.
But rather than protecting our national security, intercept officers spent time violating Americans' privacy by routinely recording salacious phone sex and other personal conversations, according to two whistle-blowers who worked at a NSA listening post in Fort Gordon, Ga. The juiciest stuff was allegedly passed around.
Here is the inevitable: You give people with routine jobs the ability to rummage around in other people's intimate lives — innocent people who are not suspected of anything — and bad stuff happens. Privacy goes out the window, boys will be boys, the rules, law and even the Constitution don't stand a chance. Titillation trumps training, at least for some.
That is why I wasn't at all comforted when Koshetz explained the privacy protections in place for the body imaging machines, assuring me that the pictures cannot be copied or stored.
But it is still your tin-foiled body that some stranger is eyeing.
As I stepped out of the virtual strip-search machine I immediately felt a shock wave of humiliation and intrusion, particularly as I looked around the security area and realized I was the only female traveler around and the only person "randomly" selected.
The TSA agent hadn't bothered to explain that I had the right to decline and submit to a pat-down by a female agent instead — a choice I would have taken.
Yet Koshetz insists that being given that choice verbally is protocol.
When I objected to having had a photo taken under my clothes, the agent snapped "it's not a nude picture" but then couldn't explain what it is.
Koshetz claims that all security officers "understand" the technology and are "able to explain it."
Either I got the most incompetent TSA agent of the bunch, or there's a gaping chasm between official claims and reality.
Do we really have to show the TSA — some man in a windowless booth — what we otherwise reserve for our spouses and personal physicians in order to fly?
These machines should not be used for random screenings. They are too invasive.
Oh, and they're scheduled for a roll-out at Tampa International Airport this week.