Jul 12

This is not just my story but the story of many.

My name is Betsy Fecto. I am an activist. I am also a woman, heterosexual, Independent (but a Democrat for the upcoming Election). I am disabled. I have no religious affiliations other than an inclination toward spirituality of many natures. I am a teacher...a mental health professional. I am Mother to Sarah and Grandmother to Autumn. I am a person.

My story begins on May 19, 2012 when I accompanied a group of grassroots activists and organizers to attend the National People’s Action in Washington, DC. While the others traveled by bus, due to my disability and use of a wheelchair, I was the only member of my home group (Maine People’s Alliance (Portland, ME) to fly. I have not been on an airplane since before 9/11 and knew that there had been some important changes in security protocols but only had what I could read on the Internet or learn from friends to guide me. No one seemed to be terribly concerned although they stated they had felt “uncomfortable” during “pat-downs”.

I left from the Portland Jetport around noon on the 19th and found the experience easily managed. The staff at the Jetport was kind and helpful. I went through the TSA screening process without a hitch.

During the short time that I spent in Washington, I attended a few of the activities, conferences, etc. including a surprise visit to Timothy Geithner at his home in Virginia. Geithner is the Secretary of Treasury for the U.S. government. The National People’s Action targeted Geithner to ask for his support for the Robin Hood tax. (http://www.npa-us.org/NPA2012)  As the second day of the conference began, I became ill with intense pain and gastrointestinal symptoms and could not attend any of the other actions planned by NPA. Instead, I arranged for an earlier than previously planned flight home out of the National Reagan Airport. Luckily, I was able to exchange my U.S. Airways ticket and return home on an earlier flight.

This is when the real story begins…a story that still haunts me and keeps me awake at night.

I allege that I was sexually abused by one of the TSA screeners during the security area where I was detained by security staff and supervisors prior to being able to proceed to the boarding area. I use the term allege because I believe people should be considered innocent until proven guilty. It is unfortunate the Homeland Security (TSA) do not seem to consider this when using improper search and seizure protocol is the very nature of airport security. Until you are proven innocent, until every metal detector, body scanner and pat-down is completed and you are shown to be a “most-likely safe” passenger, you remain on the secure side of the wall.

I know I’m not the first and will unfortunately not be the last person who has been abused, denigrated, humiliated, mortified, and enraged by intrusive scanning practices. Upon returning to Maine and doing some of my own research to see if others had also experienced molestation, I was shocked to learn of the immensity of this problem. Imagine bringing your young child to go through security having told them never to allow a stranger to touch the private areas of their body only to have a government official do so. A three year old terrorist? I don’t think so. An afternoon watching YouTube videos about TSA sank me into a deep depression and triggered new symptoms of PTSD.

No one is immune. Not Kings or queens, children or elderly, men or women or anyone in between. Do not fool yourself into thinking that you are the exception although you may very well be. I hope so.

My story may not be as clear as you would like it to be. Sometimes my thoughts wander and I get confused. But I will tell you that all of what I am telling you is true...

I will be switching formats here (“stick to the facts, Ma’am”) unless I come to a point I feel it necessary to interject a few words of humanity. This is the same information contained in my requests for help through the National and State offices of the American Civil Liberties Union. I think it helps to begin with the demographics and move to the terror.

Date of Occurrence: Monday, May 21 – 12:30ish- 2:30ish pm

Airline: US Airway

Airport: National Reagan Airport in Washington, DC

Destination: Portland Maine Jetport

Flight #: 3262

Gate: 37…Boarding time 2:30pm

On May 21, 2012 I was getting ready to depart from National Reagan Airport with a departure time of 3pm. As I previously stated, I had become ill while attending the National People’s Action Conference in Washington, DC and hoped to be able to take an earlier flight by “stand-by”.

I was met by a Skycap (sp?) when I got to the Airport as I am in a wheelchair and was aided to the secure area to be released to the boarding area. I had arranged to take the Super Shuttle from the hotel to the airport and had specified that I needed a wheelchair accessible van. A Super Shuttle did arrive to pick me up but the wheelchair lift was not working and the driver insisted that I literally “climb” onto the van. This was very painful but I agreed because I wanted to insure I would arrive at National Reagan Airport on time.

I sat waiting for the Skycap to take me to the security area and thinking about how easy the process was when leaving Portland, ME. All I had to do was walk through the full body scanner and get a brief scanning with a metal detector and all was done. I assumed that this was the typical security experience of anyone attempting to board an airplane today. My wheelchair was scanned by a metal detector, a typical and expected action. What followed, however, was far from “typical and expected” but I have come to know that these types of horrific incidents are becoming a daily occurrence.

I agreed to go through the full body scanner hoping no pat-downs would be required as I am a past victim of sexual abuse and don’t like strangers touching me. I was agreeable to and emotionally prepared for a simple pat down if considered necessary. I was not prepared to go through the body scanner twice (walking) and 3 pat downs (standing), each one increasingly invasive and simply wrong.

After passing through the body scan the first scan, my chair was apparently not ready and I was told to sit in a chair against the wall. They were passing the metal detector over my wheelchair and eventually took it someplace out of my sight. My belongings (suitcase, purse, shoes) were put on a shelf behind me.

A female TSA screener approached me and asked if it was ok if she did a pat-down. I asked her why as I believed you would only get pat down if there was a suspicion. She said people frequently had both so I agreed.  The first pat down she explained what she was doing as she was doing that. I’m not sure if she ran a wand over me this time or during a subsequent “search”. She “patted”  the back of her hands up and down the outside of my leg and as well as the inner calf and thigh. Using the back of her hand, she touched the top and sides of my breasts but moved quickly and didn’t linger. I felt ok but tired from standing and sat down again only to be asked by a male TSA screener to walk through the scanner again.  This time I asked why and was told nothing. Believing I had no choice I agreed just hoping to be done with this and on my plane home.

Suddenly it felt like my world had dramatically changed.  About 8 to 10 male security screeners (agents?) formed a semi-circle around me and all snapped on blue gloves. I asked what was going on but no one would answer me. I was told that they needed to do an “advanced pat down” and now I was very nervous but it was the same female screener so that didn’t upset me too much. The fact that they were treating me as if I were somewhat of a threat terrified me. As far as I know, a 59 year old female in a wheelchair doesn’t fit any type of profile I know. I was told by a male screener that they were going to have to take my belongings into another place and go through them one by one with a metal detector. Surely my suitcase and belongings had nothing threatening in them- I’d watched how they were scanned, as well. The 8-10 security guys that had surrounded me would occasionally snap their blue gloves, sometimes in unison and watched when I finally agreed to the “advanced pat down”.  One of the many nightmares that I still experience is this very image though the security personnel are standing repeatedly snapping their blue gloves in rhythm. A very intimidated and I believe deliberate action, in my waking and asleep hours.

The female screener asked me once again to stand. I did so and placed my arms out to the side to keep my balance.  The pat-down was different than the initial one and definitely more disrespectful of my ownership of my own body. She did state out loud what she would be doing but her hands didn’t always stop when her mouth did. She ran her hands roughly down the outside of my pants. I had to fight to keep my balance and told her not to push so hard. Her comment “this is an advanced pat down”. My response was “that doesn’t give you the right to make me fall”. There were tears in my eyes now.

She continued, up and down my sides and the sides of each breast- this time with her palm, not the back of her hand. She ran her fingers along the inside of my bra and the waistband of my pants. She ran her open hand up the crack of my buttocks as well as the swell of my buttocks. I told her that seemed un-necessary. She ran her hands up and down my legs again, this time actually cupping my vaginal area. Then it was over. I sat down next to the suitcases they returned from “wherever” and noted that my belongings were just tossed in the suitcase – the same for the content of my purse.  I kept hearing people talking around me saying something about a “2 alarm, 2 alarm” but when I asked no one would explain what they were talking about but they did say they had to call in a “supervisor”.  A man, not dressed in a TSA uniform, sat beside me and asked (interrogated) me about why I was in Washington, DC, what hotel I had stayed at (Hyatt on Capitol Hill), what group I was there representing (Maine People’s Alliance who were attending the National People’s Action) but noted that he already seemed to know all of this. I knew I was going to vomit and reached for the plastic bag I’d packed just for that occasion that sat on top of my open suitcase. At least 3 screeners or other staff grabbed my arm and told me not to reach in the suitcase so I cried and began to throw up then was handed one of my plastic bags. No one had ever said they thought my suitcase or belongings were a problem.

Once again, the female scanner insisted she had to do yet another “advanced screening”.  I first refused. I had enough and by now they should have all of the information they needed. She asked if I wanted to go to a private area. I said, “NO, I want witnesses” (meaning the other passengers not the group of onlookers from TSA that appeared to be doing just that).

I stood. Again, I raised my arms to the side. I felt like what was happening around me was surreal. I felt like I was surrendering and felt dizzy and ill. Before she even began, tears of fear were rolling down my face. She went up and down my outer legs with an open palm and again, up to my upper thighs and cupped and probed my vaginal area. I was guarded and wanted to scream or run. I was being sexually assaulted right there in front of a team of TSA screeners by the screener herself. “Is that necessary, I asked”, crying. You’ve already got your information?” No response and no voice telling me what she was doing. She ran her hands up and down the small of my back and up to my shoulders, down my arms and stopped and appeared to be examining my left armpit. She did not touch the top of my breasts rather cupped my breasts and paused for at least 5 seconds not moving her hands. She asked me quietly, “Are these yours” and raised her eyebrows”. I closed my eyes and asked if she was done. “No”. She cupped my buttocks from behind and placed a finger or two in the inside of the buttock. I have external hemorrhoids so I could feel the pressure of her fingers there and later found that the hemorrhoids had bled from the pressure. Cryng, I was told to sit down. My wheelchair was there but I wasn’t allowed to sit it in.

Finally a “supervisor” (I know nothing about who he was the supervisor of) came out and looked over some scanner and told me I set off a “two alarm” and that’s why he had to come out and that I couldn’t leave until he said so. I told him I was worried about missing my flight and had no place to go if I missed it. I had been vomiting off and on for two days and was dehydrated. 

A lot of the focus now was on my suitcase which they also took to another area before the supervisor was called out. The supervisor now ran metal detectors. I sat nearby and could hear what they were saying. They swabbed the inside of my metal arm rests, continually opening and closing them (not just the “supervisor” but other staff who had been laughing that my wheelchair looked like a Ferrari and kept playing with the arm lifts. I worried with all of those people touching my wheelchair that they may have had traces of explosives or something as they stated now that this is what they were looking for.

I asked if they were suspect of my body or my chair and they asked if any other individual other than TSA had touched it (only the skycap that had remained in the secure area waiting for me the entire time). They asked where I had bought the chair and I stated (still tearing up and frightened) that I bought it second hand at the Salvation Army in Portland, ME). Two individuals, one the supervisor again examined my chair trying to figure out if the flat seat could have been opened and something put inside.

Suddenly, it was over. No explosives, no implanted devices, nothing. What then had justified 2 trips through the body scanner, 3 pat-downs (2 of them “advanced”) if the focus was my wheelchair? Again, I asked but no one would reply. Again, the supervisor said I couldn’t leave until I got his go ahead. Again I said I needed to board the plane by 2:30pm. He left and did not return for 10-15 minutes then apparently came out of his office, saw I was still there and asked me “why are you still there?” Shocked, I told him he’d told me to wait until he “released me”. He grumbled something to the skycap and told him to take me to the boarding area.  BTW, I also had to remind them that they hadn’t returned my laptop which they immediately picked it off of a table and brought it to me apologetically but it had been out of my sight for nearly 1 ½ hours.

I was able to make my flight and the rest of the trip was uneventful other than the fact that I was angry, confused, worried that I’d done something wrong, felt violated (I was “violated”), etc. By the time my friend picked me up at the Portland Jetport I was shaking and upset and told him what happened. He knew I’d had a history of abuse and listened compassionately to my story and just suggested I go home and get some sleep.

Since this occurrence I have sought help from the Maine ACLU as I believe my 4th amendment rights had been violated but also that I had been criminally sexually assaulted.  My initial contact with Maine ACLU was on May 30, 2012. I have tried contacting Maine Volunteer lawyers and Pine Tree Legal Services as I am disabled and on a fixed and very limited income. I also contacted my local representative, Chellie Pingree and my district representative, Representative Denise Harlow.

I have told a couple of friends as I still am experiencing a return of PTSD symptoms and have sought the aid of a psychiatrist and a therapist through a hospital-based outpatient treatment center. I suspect I will need specific therapy to address my PTSD.

After conducting my own research on what is and isn’t allowed (the protocol) during airport scanning and pat-downs, it is my understanding  TSA screeners are” allowed to do limited administrative searches for threats to aviation security, weapon, explosives and incendiaries” A simple scan of “YouTube” under TSA violations will yield anybody a lot of frightening information, as well as, using any search energy to compile complaints of thousands of people who allege they have been abused by TSA.

In order for TSA personnel to do a random search they must have “probable cause”. If they honestly believed I was carrying explosives or I had really had set off alarms, I believe whatever issue they had would have resolved itself after two walks through the full body scanner, a simple pat-down, an “enhanced” pat-down and an extra “intense” pat-down apparently thrown in for good measure.

 I have been told that 4th amendment rights considerations are often dismissed as the passenger retains the right to leave rather than submit to a search. Does this mean that people who are truly under suspicion are then allowed to wander the airport – people who may indeed pose an actual threat? No one ever mentioned this while being screened. I had no choice but to cooperate as I had no other way and no one with me to help arrange another way home. 

The Fourth Amendment says:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The female screener’s touches were offensive and criminal.  No warrant was served. No one would even explain what it was they were looking for and why. Where are the search warrants to be able to either visually search (with the full body scanner) or physically search (through the pat downs) each and every citizen who is flying on an airplane in this country?

On June 2, 2012 I contacted TSA by email asking for their protocol for the TSA screenings. I received the following in the format that you see below.

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

You forwarded this message on 6/2/2012 12:18 PM.


Thursday, May 31, 2012 10:01 PM


Elizabeth Fecto


You forwarded this message on 6/2/2012 12:18 PM.


Thursday, May 31, 2012 10:01 PM


Elizabeth Fecto

Thank you for your e-mail regarding patdown screening. 
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) seeks to provide the highest level of security and customer service to all who pass through our screening checkpoints. Our policies and procedures focus on ensuring that all passengers, regardless of their personal situations and needs, are treated with respect and courtesy. Every person and item must be screened before entering the secured area, and the manner in which the screening is conducted is important.  
One screening procedure, which generates discussion and concern among passengers, involves use of pat down searches. Pat downs are used to resolve alarms from the walk through metal detector (WTMD), when anomalies are discovered through Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) screening, as well as when random screening activities are conducted. 
A Transportation Security Officer (TSO) of the same gender as the passenger will conduct the pat down search, and as the screening is being conducted, the TSO should be describing the procedures he or she is using. TSOs are required to use the back of the hand to pat down a passenger’s sensitive areas. For non-sensitive areas, TSOs are required to use the front of the hand.  
Passengers have the right to request a private screening, and private screening will be conducted in a room or in an area away from other passengers. However, if a passenger does not permit the search, he or she will not be permitted to board an aircraft.  
We understand and regret the discomfort and inconvenience that you may have experienced as a result of pat down procedures. Nevertheless, we believe these security measures are necessary and appropriate for ensuring the security and confidence of all air travelers. TSA continues to develop and deploy new technologies to address the explosives threat, but the use of putdowns provides an additional layer of security at the checkpoint. For more information regarding pat down procedures, please visit TSA’s Web site (www.tsa.gov). 
We hope this information is helpful. 
TSA Contact Center 
NOTICE: The information contained in this message and any attachments is privileged and confidential and therefore protected from disclosure. If the reader of this message is not the intended recipient, or an employee or agent who is responsible for delivering this message to the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any dissemination, distribution or copying of this communication is strictly prohibited. Senture does not accept liability for changes to this message after it was sent. The views expressed in this e-mail do not necessarily reflect the views of the company. If you have received this communication in error, please notify the sender immediately by replying via e-mail to this message and deleting this information from your computer.

Do Not Be Surprised if Somehow the Above Information titled This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it %20[ This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it " target="_blank">tsatcc_do_not_reply@senture.com [tsatcc_do_not_reply@senture.com is deleted as it has been several times (how, I don’t know) from previous copies of this work.

I did not find this information very helpful and sent a copy to a Maine ACLU individual who said that she didn’t find it helpful either. I don’t understand what this lasts comment is about being “privileged”  and “Confidential” and don’t believe that letting others know what is suppose to happen during a pat down would bring anybody any harm.

I also researched the definition of sexual abuse/assault in the Criminal Statutes and Codes for Washington, DC. and found the following information from various sources:

There are four different “degrees”  (levels of seriousness) for the crime of sexual abuse in Washington, DC; this is in addition to a misdemeanor charge and separate charges related to sexual abuse and children. There are also separate evidentiary rules for dealing with potential victims of sexual abuse.

While it is a valid defense that the victim consented to the sexual act, the defense has the burden of proving consent by a preponderance of the evidence (that is, more likely than not). The requirement in D.C. for independent corroboration of a sexual act was abolished for women in 1976 and for members of both genders in 1985. Although I eventually agreed to allow 3rd screening, I did not feel I actually “consented”…I felt I would not be allowed to leave the secure detainment area unless I was cooperative and I was so tired and ill.

The D.C. Code defines “sexual act” as: (1) the penetration, however slight, of the anus or vulva of another by a penis, (2) contact between the mouth and the penis, the mouth and the vulva, or the mouth and the anus, or (3) the penetration, however, slight, of the anus or vulva by a hand or finger or by any object, with intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person. Absolutely. Being surrounded unnecessarily by 8-10 TSA “onlookers” while being touched had no apparent purpose than to humiliate, harass and degrade me.

“Sexual contact” is defined as the “touching with any clothed or unclothed body part or any object, either directly or indirectly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of another person.” D.C. Criminal Code 22-3001. Again, YES

Third Degree/Fourth Degree Sexual Abuse

While the 1st and 2nd degree offenses address a sexual act (penetration, for example), sexual abuse of the 3rd and 4th degrees address sexual contact (for example, inappropriate touching). The difference between the 3rd and 4th degree offenses is then the same as the difference between the 1st and 2nd degrees. That is, 3rd degree involves actual force, threats putting the person in fear of death, bodily injury or kidnapping, or rendering the person unconscious. The 4th degree offense involves reasonable fear of any type of injury or a victim who is already unconscious.

The penalty for someone convicted of 3rd degree sexual abuse is a maximum fine of $100,000 and up to 10 years imprisonment. The penalty for 4th degree sexual abuse is a maximum fine of $50,000 and a maximum sentence of 5 years. D.C. Criminal Code 22-3004; D.C. Criminal Code 22-3005.

Although I do not believe that the statutes covering either First or Second Degree Sexual Abuse, I do believe I was the victim of 3rd/4th degree and believe my abuser should be prosecuted.

I also know that the criminal statutes were not created for situations such as illegal TSA “assaults” or government sanctioned assaults. I know that I was sexually abused. I am almost certain I could identify the TSA staff person who abused me but feel equally the TSA onlookers served no one and had not other purpose that to cause me to be fearful, belittled, intimidated and harassed. Consent is “”implied” only because even you don’t cooperate you cannot fly which leaves many people, like myself, without another choice.

I realized too late that I could have and should have made an immediate complaint to TSA onsite as well as the Washington, DC police. There was no time. I did not know I had that right. I was tired, ill and emotionally spent. I was feeling threatened, mildly dissociative, detached and hyper vigilant. Clearly, my PTSD had been triggered and I remain in a state of acute stress.

In summary:

    • I will not stand by and allow myself to be a victim of sexual assault by TSA government agents.
    • I intend to help legislate an immediate change to the advanced (enhanced) body pat downs and the credibility of their need for a second enhanced pat down.
    • I speak for other victims of sexual assault by TSA screeners, as well as, against the tactics used by other TSA screeners to harass, frighten and intimate potential passengers causing such fear as to cause the passengers inability to act to protect themselves, before, during and after the assault. No other individual, man, woman, child, transgender, disabled, etc. should have to experience what occurred in Washington, DC...anytime, anywhere. I hope other victims can find a safe place within themselves and eventually be able to share their experiences publicly or within small groups of persons (lawyers, activists,  local and  national government agencies, etc) and find some peace within themselves and help for others.
    • I call upon all Americans to stand up against this pat down procedures or rather the search policy of sexual molestation.
    • I will not fly again until I learn that these changes have been made and in place and encourage others to not fly as well although I recognize the need others to do so.

A final comment shared by author Erin Chase: “It is acceptable and encouraged that a TSA government official can do something to an American citizen that US military personnel cannot do to a member of the Taliban”.

I would like all of whom I shared my experience with to insure that others no of this potential abuse each and every time they fly and to know that there are several venues of complaint but no guarantee that they would volunteer. I would like to claim reimbursement for minimal (unsafe) damage to my wheelchair and counseling services for the trauma I continue to experience.

Betsy Fecto

A short addendum:

As I mentioned previously, during my short stay in Washington, D.C., I did attend the action where we marched to Timothy Geithner’s home. The neighbors brought lawn chairs to the street, others simply stood by in awe as 26 school busses passed them by in Geithner’s quiet, suburban neighborhood. I learned a lot that day and it really bolstered my determination to continue to strive to make social change in a non-violent way but in ways that gain the attention of the persons we most need (or not) to make those changes. When we chanted, “this is what democracy looks like”, I felt it in my heart and deep in my being. Yes, we do have the power to make change. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be writing this article. But a single individual is unlikely to be successful. Masses of determined people, young and old, are needed to make good things happen in America. It takes solidarity and people not afraid to use their own voice, tell their own stories, make demands they believe are right and to follow through on them.

They also must be able to ask the help of others.

A lot of negative events have followed the assault. I have a history of PTSD (not by TSA) and my symptoms now rage, keeping me up at night with raw images of my experience. My life has changed. How I feel about who I am has changed. But my “roots” as an activist hold strong and I will not allow this practice of government sanctioned sexual molestation to continue.

I am asking your help.

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