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Airport 'pat-downs' cause growing passenger backlash

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 12:40 AM

Airport travelers call it groping, prodding or just plain inappropriate - a pat-down that probes places where the sun doesn't shine. The Transportation Security Administration calls it the new reality of airport security.

Following the uncovering of a terrorist plot last month to blow up cargo planes en route to the United States, the TSA has instituted a new type of pat-down of passengers, a move that's part of a general tightening of air security. If a full-body scanning machine shows something strange or a passenger declines to go through the machine - which is now in use in the Washington region's three major airports - an officer will perform a more personal search.

The examinations routinely involve the touching of breasts and genitals, invasive searches designed to find weapons and suspicious items. The searches, performed by TSA security officers of the same sex as the passenger, entail a sliding hand motion on parts of the body where a lighter touch was used before, aviation security analysts say. The areas of the body that are being touched haven't changed.

"There's nothing punitive about it; it just makes good security sense," the TSA said via its blog. "And the weapons and other dangerous and prohibited items we've found during pat-downs speak to this."

But the new pat-downs have prompted a growing backlash among pilots and flight attendants, civil liberties groups and security-weary passengers who say the touching goes too far.

"It's more than just patting you down. It's very intrusive and very insane. I wouldn't let anyone touch my daughter like that," said Marc Moniz of Poway, Calif., who is planning to accompany his daughter's eighth-grade class from San Diego to Washington in April. "We're not common criminals."

In the latest escalation of the debate over the balance between security and passenger rights, privacy advocates have enlisted consumer rights activist and four-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who called the screening techniques "extremely voyeuristic and intrusive."

"If anyone is going to try to get through, they're going to [conceal items in body cavities], so this isn't going to stop that," Nader said. "My prediction is that TSA is going to lose all of this."

Brian J. Sodergren of Ashburn, who works in the health-care industry, is organizing an "opt out" day to encourage passengers to say no to advanced imaging technology, known to industry insiders as a "virtual strip search." He's planning the protest for one of the busiest travel days of the year - Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving.

"Many people only fly around the holidays and may not be aware of the security changes," Sodergren said. "I think once people are made aware of what is happening, they may have reservations about the new procedures."

Another group launched a Web site, WeWontFly.com, and says it has gotten more than 70,000 hits per day since going online a week ago. The Web site asks passengers to say no to scans and pat-downs and for TSA to remove its "porno-scanners" and "gropers."

"We're opposed to letting TSA treat us like criminals," said James Babb of Eagleville, Pa., an activist who is organizing the We Won't Fly campaign.

But while passengers can opt out of being put through the full-body scanners, if they want to fly, they can't also opt out of the pat-downs.

"It is irresponsible for a group to suggest travelers opt out of the very screening that could prevent an attack using non-metallic explosives," TSA Administrator John S. Pistole said. "This technology is not only safe, it's vital to aviation security and a critical measure to thwart potential terrorist attacks."

Expanding security

Several of the country's leading passenger advocacy organizations, as well as pilots' and flight attendants' unions, have publicly criticized the heightened screening, questioning its effectiveness and asking the Department of Homeland Security to make pat-downs and full-body scans a secondary security measure.

"People just don't have a lot of faith in TSA right now," said Brandon M. Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights, a Washington nonprofit group. "Things are done differently at [different] airports, and there doesn't seem to be a consensus that this is making air travel safer."

Kate Hanni, executive director of Flyers Rights, an advocacy group based in Napa, Calif., that says it has 25,000 members, said she was inappropriately touched at a checkpoint as she traveled from San Francisco to New York last week to accept an award from the Huffington Post. The underwire of her bra set off the metal detector, and she was patted down, Hanni said.

"It's absurd - you feel violated and abused, and lots of people, including myself, won't put up with it," said Hanni, who started Flyers Rights in 2006 after a nine-hour delay at a Texas airport.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 53,000 employees with 38 U.S. and Canadian airlines, said it is working with federal agencies to create an exception for pilots who have been subjected, they said, "to a long line of ever-increasing security measures that have frustrated and burdened."

"Screening airline pilots for the possession of threat objects does not enhance security, because pilots have the safety of their passengers and aircraft in their hands on every flight," said Capt. John Prater, the group's president.

A different touch

Security officials say pat-downs are primarily used when a traveler sets off a traditional metal detector; when an anomaly is found during a full-body scan; or during random screening. Those who opt out of the full-body scans or walk-through metal detectors are also subject to the pat-downs.

Aviation security analysts say the chief change is the way TSA agents are touching passengers. Lawyer Charles Slepian, founder of the Oregon-based Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center, a security consultancy, said full-body scanners and frisks are useful for discovering knives or other hand-held weapons but are less effective for detecting terrorist devices, such as chemical explosives.

"It's a better way to frisk, but we're now subjecting the general public to the same frisking that police use with probable cause," Slepian said.

TSA officials have refused to comment on the specific techniques being used, but the best example of how the pat-downs are performed is a TSA video on YouTube.

In response to a report from a Florida radio personality who said she was handcuffed to a chair at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport during a security screening, TSA posted a link on its blog to the security video, which shows several passengers being frisked after going through a scanning machine. At about the 5:30 mark in the video, a woman wearing a purple sweat shirt can be seen being briskly patted down by a female TSA agent.

Other security experts say the enhanced physical examinations could be helpful in finding dangerous weapons hidden in underwear, such as the plastic explosives discovered on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian-born man who unsuccessfully tried to blow up a passenger plane to Detroit on Christmas Day.

Billie Vincent, former director of aviation security at the Federal Aviation Administration who now works as a security consultant in Chantilly, said such pat-downs "undoubtedly improve security. It allows TSA to search areas that a metal detector might not get."

As for the effectiveness of all of the new and enhanced airport security methods, the jury is out.

"Most of these security features are for public consumption," said Vahid Motevalli, the co-founder of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University and now a professor at Purdue University. "In many cases, if you don't catch these issues well in advance of the airport, it's too late."

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