I Traveled to a High-Risk Country—and It Ruined Airport Security for Me

Getting "SSSS" on my boarding pass is now the thing I fear most about flying

TSA Officials And Delta Introduce Automated Security Screening Lanes At LaGuardia Airport

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“Can you stand to the side, please? I need to call my supervisor,” the TSA agent told me. 

She had just scanned my driver’s license, and instead of the typical green, the light attached to the credential authentication technology unit flashed red. I meekly shuffled over to the side with a long line of impatient travelers behind me. 

A few minutes later, the TSA agent's supervisor came over and walked me through a series of screenings. I was sent through a body scanner and metal detector, after which they gave me a full-body patdown. ("I'm going to touch you here and here, like this and this," the female agent said, not so much to get my consent but more as a heads-up.) They scanned my hands for trace explosives. They sent my carry-on through the baggage scanner before taking everything out and carefully looking at each item; they opened my wallet and flipped through the pages of the book I was reading.

"There's nothing here," said one agent to another. I put my shoes and coat back on and waited a few minutes. Were they going to ask me more questions? Were they going to explain what they were looking for?

"You're free to go," one of the TSA agents told me after seeing the confused and questioning look on my face.

I was en route to Barbados for work and had gotten to the airport extra early that morning because, while trying to check into my flight the day before, I had received an error message saying that I needed to check in with a representative at the airport. Although the attendant had handed me my ticket without any issues, I realized that this particular snafu was connected to a recent trip I took to southeastern Turkey.

Flying to a High Security Risk Country

Two weeks prior, I was getting ready to board a flight to Sanliurfa, Turkey, to report on the unveiling of a 12,000-year-old archaeological site when a man in plainclothes came up to me.

"Are you Elizabeth?" he asked.

"Yes," I said, confused. How did he know my name?

"I need you to come with me."

The man led me to the front of the line, behind a wall where we had more privacy. Another man was standing there, who I later presumed to be a Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agent. He leaned over a notepad with a pen in hand and began rattling off a list of queries, jotting down my responses: What did I do for work? What does my day-to-day look like? Why was I going to Sanliurfa? What are my social media handles? Did I live with anyone? What are their social media handles? You must travel a lot for work—why don't you have a lot of stamps in your passport? (I had gotten it renewed in December 2019; this was my first international trip in nearly two years). After a couple of minutes, I finally asked a question: "What is this about?"

"You're traveling right near the Syrian border," he explained. "Since you don't have family or any connections there, and you're traveling by yourself, we need to look into this. Nine times out of 10, though, everything checks out fine."

So they suspected I was a terrorist. Great.

Going Through Customs

My trip went without incident. I visited Gobekli Tepe, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for housing the world's oldest-known monumental buildings. I went to the unveiling of Karahantepe, and I ate a lot of lamb. After a while, I forgot all about the journey to get me there.

Until I arrived back in the U.S.

When going through customs, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer sent me into a separate room for further questioning. A second CBP officer asked me a series of questions, not unlike the ones the HSI agent had asked me before my trip, although this time, they requested more details about my trip: "Did you see anything suspicious while you were there? Any guns? If I Googled your article about Karahantepe, will I find it?" (In case you work for DHS, it's here.)

A History of Bad Flights

I have always been an anxious flier. Not because I’m scared of turbulence or anything like that, but because eight times out of 10, something goes horribly wrong with my trip. Like the time I was supposed to travel from Heathrow to Newark, I instead flew aimlessly around the English Channel for five hours because of a malfunction in the airplane's pressurization system. We couldn’t fly above a certain altitude needed to get across the Atlantic, and we couldn't go back to Heathrow because there was too much fuel in the tank to land safely. So, the pilot had to fly in circles until the plane had dropped enough fuel, rescheduling the flight for the following day.

Or the time I got food poisoning in Oaxaca, hours before my flight home, and spent a good chunk of the eight-hour journey in an airplane bathroom.

Or when my hand-me-down suitcase—which had slowly been shedding pieces and whose zipper had been giving me trouble throughout a two-week camping trip—finally ripped open upon arriving at San Francisco International Airport for my flight home. I had to get it shrink-wrapped to make sure all my things got home safely. (“You know exactly where this is going when you get home,” said the employee at Baggage Wrapping Service, referring to the curb). 

Even though I aim to get to the airport two hours before domestic flights, three hours before international flights, I often sprint through the airport, arriving at the gate during the final call, gasping for air as I settle down into my seat.

Suffice it to say, as someone who works in travel, honestly, I'm not too fond of flying—but my recent experiences added a whole new layer of anxiety. (“This would happen to you of all people,” a friend told me when I shared my latest horror story).

Who's at Risk of Getting "SSSS"

My experience in Barbados was the first of many: Every time I flew, I would get the dreaded "SSSS" (which stands for "Secondary Security Screening Selection") on my boarding pass, foretold by my inability to check into my flight online or the airport kiosk, and followed by full-body pat-downs and line-item searches.

The second time it happened, on my way back from Barbados, I was told I was "randomly selected by Homeland Security" for additional screening. Random? I doubted it.

It's not just travelers who have recently been to one of the U.S. Department of State's designated high-risk areas that get a secondary screening. People identified as a security risk by TSA's Secure Flight Program include those who've booked a last-minute or one-way flight, paid in all cash, or have a name that matches another person on a DHS watch list.

Searching for Solutions

The fourth time I got a secondary screening, I flew to Indiana to spend Christmas with my family. My mom had asked me to bring a cell phone I hadn't used in two years so that we could trade it in. After getting flagged just before getting all my things searched, TSA asked me if all my electronics were turned on. "Just an old cell phone," I said. "It's completely dead, I think." I took it out of my purse and pressed the "on" button. Nothing. They asked me to leave the line to charge it.

As I was sitting next to TSA, waiting impatiently for my old phone to charge, I took my new phone and—finally—began searching for solutions. (Why did it take me so long, you ask? False optimism, I suppose).

While I had thought that applying for Global Entry would help clear my name, a quick Google search taught me that other people who had been in similar situations had no such luck. It was then that I learned about the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP), a "single point of contact for individuals who have inquiries or seek resolution regarding difficulties they experienced during their travel screening at transportation hubs—like airports—or crossing U.S. borders." Travelers eligible for redress include those "who have been denied or delayed airline boarding; have been denied or delayed intro or exit from the U.S. at a port of entry or border crossing; or have been repeatedly referred to additional (secondary) screening."

To avoid being referred to additional screening, I could apply for a Redress Control Number (RCN), a seven-digit case number that would enable TSA's Secure Flight program to match me with the results of my case. Should the DHS agree to issue me one, I could use it when booking flights to prevent TSA from mistaking me as a security risk.

When I went back through security, I asked the TSA official why I kept being flagged. No one had ever told me before, and I wanted some kind of official confirmation that what I feared—that I was on DHS' radar—was true. She didn't know, and the system didn't say: She was just doing what she was told.

"Am I on some kind of Homeland Security watchlist?" I asked.

"Yeah, probably."

"What can I do to get off this list?" Better to ask an official than the Internet, I thought.

"I don't know," she said.

"If I apply for redress, will that help?"

"Yeah, maybe."

Applying for Redress

Submitting a redress application was pretty simple, albeit clunky, given the number of broken links on the DHS Trip Portal. I first took a short quiz to determine if I was eligible for redress, after which I was directed to create a Login.gov account and complete a Traveler Inquiry Form. To file my case, I had to provide information about my travel experience, including my flight date, airport, and flight number; give a detailed account of each incident; and share my personal info, such as my birthday, height, and weight.

In addition to the form, I also had to upload either a copy of my passport or another government-issued photo ID. Upon completion, I was able to check the status of my application via the "My Cases" tab on the DHS TRIP Portal. It took exactly one month for DHS TRIP to send me my final determination letter via e-mail; they approved my case, and the letter came with my redress number to provide when booking flights on an airline's website.

Since receiving my redress number, my flights have been relatively stress-free, although DHS TRIP "cannot guarantee" that my future travels will be "delay-free." Still, it's much less likely to happen. The worst thing that happened on my last flight? I sprinted through Charleston International Airport to make an extremely tight connection. And I'll take that over getting patted down any day.

Article Sources
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  1. UNESCO World Convention. "Gobekli Tepe." Accessed April 26, 2022.

  2. Federal Register. "Secure Flight Program." Accessed April 26, 2022.

  3. Homeland Security. "Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS Trip)." Accessed April 26, 2022.

  4. Homeland Security. "Redress Control Numbers." Accessed April 26, 2022.

  5. U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. "Frequently Asked Questions." Accessed April 26, 2022.