Ethical Leadership - The experience of JCU's 3rd IBD cohort

The TSA’s Conundrum: Civil Liberties vs. Airport Security

On October 28, 2010 the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued a statement regarding the intense security searches that would be implemented on November 1st for the upcoming holiday travel season.  "TSA is in the process of implementing new pat-down procedures at checkpoints nationwide as one of our many layers of security to keep the traveling public safe. Pat-downs are one important tool to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives. Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, among others." (TSA, 2010)
These new measures have been highly scrutinized by the media and the public in terms of civil liberties versus safety. TSA Administrator, John Pistole, defends these search measures in a statement that recognizes the necessity for prevention in order to achieve passenger safety during the increase in travel created by the holiday season. "We cannot forget that less than one year ago a suicide bomber with explosives in his underwear tried to bring down a plane over Detroit. The terrorists allegedly behind the thwarted cargo attempt last month are out there bragging about how they will strike again." (Mayerowitz, 2010)

On November 1, 2010 the TSA adapted the new, aggressive passenger screening methods at airports nationwide raising ethical and legal concerns of travelers subject to these procedures.  Passengers, who trigger the traditional metal-detector, refuse or set off the new full body scanners (currently 373 machines are in place at approximately 70 airports) will undergo the new pat-down procedure. The full body scanner is basically an x-ray machine that permeates clothing and generates an image of the passenger’s body form which is viewed by a TSA screener who is in a separate room and cannot see the actual person. These machines also have the capability of saving and storing the images that it records. There is also concern regarding the health risks associated with the minimal radiation emitted by passing through these machines which were approved by the FDA. The new pat down procedure requires screeners (of the same gender) feeling “under breasts and up passengers' thighs to their crotches.” (Mayerowitz, 2010) 

The TSA considers the pat-downs a necessary tool in detecting hidden weapons or explosives and has issued several statements defending these methods. In one statement issued by the TSA the necessity of the measures are explained along with a defense for the decision to implement the measures. This statement also gives the possibility of retracting these methods in the future. “The U.S. works closely with our international partners to ensure the best possible security. We constantly review and evoke our security measures based on the latest intelligence.” (Clabough, 2010)

The question of the TSA’s aggressive security implementation becomes security vs. the dignity of passengers. The disgrace that these methods cause travelers has been widely documented condemning the invasiveness of the procedures. One story which brings to light the compromise of human dignity caused by these measures is issued by a rape survivor who found the new TSA pat-down experience to be devastating due to her past trauma. Her statement describes her opposition to the full body scanners and the new pat-down procedure. “I knew there were more and more of these scanners coming on line at airports. I try to pick a line where there isn’t one installed yet, but this is getting harder to do. I fly often and I don’t want the extra doses of radiation and I hate the thought of people looking at me naked. Why should I have to let people see me naked to get on a plane? This is my body; I’ve worked many years to re-establish the feeling that I’m allowed to have control over my body after being raped. Even the thought of that leaves me feeling dirty and vulnerable again.” (Schultz, 2010)

Another story involves the humiliation of a bladder cancer survivor who had to undergo the enhanced pat down due to his urostomy bag being picked up by the scanner. His story describes the inhumane and invasive nature in which these enhanced pat-downs are performed.  He had asked to be screened privately and was mocked by the agents who told him that there is nowhere to privately scan passengers. “One agent watched as the other used his flat hand to go slowly down my chest. I tried to warn him that he would hit the bag and break the seal on my bag, but he ignored me. Sure enough, the seal was broken and urine started dribbling down my shirt and my leg and into my pants.”The security officer finished the pat-down, tested the gloves for any trace of explosives and then, Sawyer said, “He told me I could go. They never apologized. They never offered to help. They acted like they hadn’t seen what happened. But I know they saw it because I had a wet mark.” (Baskas, 2010)

Though there is clearly a question to the ethics involved in the TSA’s new procedures, The Department of Homeland Security has a job to do ensure security at the airport which benefits society as a whole. The challenge is finding the balance between the public’s privacy, dignity and airport security, while implementing the proper procedures to accomplish both. TSA administrator, John Pistole noted that the TSA continually revisits and adapts their methods for improvement. Acknowledging the growing public disapproval of new airport security measures, the head of the Transportation Security Administration issued the statement: “They’re necessary, and they’re going to stay for now.” (Johnson, 2010)


Discussion Probes

1.       If you had the choice of getting on a plane which the passengers have all been properly searched by these new methods or one where they could have opted out, which plane would you choose?

2.       If the TSA allows pilots and air flight attendants to not be subjected to the body scans or the pat-downs, how can the Homeland Security, the TSA and the Obama Administration continue to argue against reasonable profiling?

3.       Could the use of body scanners to search all airline passengers without probable cause, be an unreasonable search and therefore a violation of the Fourth Amendment? Or does the nature of airport security with terrorist threats and evolving tactics such as hiding bombs in their bras, shoe bombs and the “underwear bombing” create probable cause?

4.       If a frequent flier chooses to forgo an X-ray scanner because of very health concerns regarding radiation, their other option becomes that of the new pat-down method which is highly criticized by the public. How far can the government infringe upon the civil liberties of the people they are trying to protect and what other methods could be used that would be less intrusive while still being thorough and responsive to the elevated Current National Threat Level? 

Relating the TSA case to the book, Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership Casting Light or Shadow by Craig E. Johnson

The initiation of TSA’s new procedures could be considered an act of utilitarianism (doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people) – Are these extreme measures taken because it is beneficial for the largest group of people’s safety to individually undergo the discomfort of the full body scan or pat down?


The new TSA procedures relate to Kant’s Categorical Imperative (Do what’s right no matter what the cost). Although these processes are under public scrutiny because of our rights as Americans, there is a reason that the measures are being implemented for the safety of all. The advantage is that these initiatives promote persistence in being thorough with security measures and being consistent with all passengers to make the best effort to ensure it.


The principle of justice is fairness is followed by the TSA by using the same procedure for all people without discrimination - for the good of the whole, by consistently administering the security procedures to all passengers, these procedures provide a basis for decision making.


The principle of communitarianism is followed with the TSA’s new procedures as the the focus is shifted from individual rights to communal responsibilities. The principle of communitarianism recognizes that citizenship has civil responsibilities in order to guarantee individual rights. The disadvantage of communitarianism is that the procedures may erode individual rights, as seen here. The expectation is that citizens will make decisions based on the common good and not the benefits of any one individual.


From John Pistole’s issued statement regarding the procedures: “They’re necessary, and they’re going to stay for now.” (Johnson, 2010) It sounds as if he is currently undergoing a process similar to Kidder’s Ethical Checkpoints or a moral reasoning process in recognizing that there is a problem, and is currently determining what action is necessary-whether it be tweaking the process or overhauling it completely. This dilemma seems to set in opposition two core values- security and civil rights/privacy. It is possible that John Pistole is looking for a “third way”- understanding that the situation may be resolved by developing a creative solution.


In evaluating the type of ethical climate that the TSA operates under, the operation best fits the “rules” climate. The TSA and Homeland Security are governed by the policies, rules and procedures and can be blind to societal norms. This is shown by the development of consistent, policy driven, extreme measures that can be insensitive to individual passengers but promote and protect security.


Being an agency of the government, the TSA’s policies are formulated in respect to social responsibility- and concern for those outside the organization is a sign of ethical climate, obligations to communities and stake holders. The problem is that the TSA is protecting the United States security while compromising individual citizen’s rights.


In respect to how some individual TSA screeners are implementing the new procedures, global ethics and global values (every human is treated humanely, fairness and respect for life) along with business standards can be improved in some cases as to these procedures being performed with greater empathy and respect.

(Johnson C. E., 2009)


Baskas, H. (2010, November 22). TSA pat-down leaves traveler covered in urine. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from

Clabough, R. (2010, October 29). TSA Introduces New Pat-Down at Airport. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from The New American:

Johnson, C. E. (2009). Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership Casting Light or Shadows. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Johnson, K. (2010, November 22). Washington Wire. Retrieved Novemeber 28, 2010, from The Wall Street Journal:

Mayerowitz, S. (2010, November 23). Avoid TSA Groping This Thanksgiving. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from ABC News:

Schultz, C. (2010, November 8). Rape Survivor Devastated by TSA Enhanced Pat Down. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from PNC-Minnesota Bureau:

TSA. (2010, October 28). TSA Statement on New Pat-down Procedures. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from Transportation Security Administration: