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Poll: Nearly two-thirds of Americans support full-body scanners at airports

By Jon Cohen and Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 12:44 AM

Nearly two-thirds of Americans support the new full-body security-screening machines at the country's airports, as most say they put higher priority on combating terrorism than protecting personal privacy, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

But half of all those polled say enhanced pat-down searches go too far.

The uproar over the new generation of security technology, and the frisking of those who refuse it, continued Monday with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano saying the new measures are necessary for public safety.

"There is a continued threat against aviation involving those who seek to smuggle powders and gels that can be used as explosives on airplanes," she said. "The new technology is designed to help us identify those individuals."

According to the Transportation Security Administration, less than 3 percent of travelers receive the pat-downs.

But Napolitano said the TSA would "listen to concerns. Of course we will make adjustments or changes when called upon, but not changes or adjustments that will affect the basic operational capability that we need to have to make sure that air travel remains safe."

One possibility that could generate public support is the use of profiling at airports, where the TSA would single out specific passengers for extra screening based on available information. Overall, 70 percent of Americans back the idea, which has been floated as an alternative.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs sought to reassure the traveling public that "the evolution of the security will be done with the input of those who go through the security." But he said that safe travel remains the higher priority.

Some people upset with the TSA's techniques have waged an Internet-based campaign urging people to refuse to use the scanners on Wednesday, one of the busiest travel days of the year. Coupled with bad winter weather forecasts across the Midwest, their efforts may delay Thanksgiving week travel.

In response to growing criticism, two unions representing some TSA personnel are running full-page newspaper ads Tuesday and sending e-mails defending workers to frequent fliers. While the harshest critics have suggested that enhanced pat-downs amount to sexual assault, union officials said screeners are merely carrying out orders issued by the TSA.

More than 400 of the controversial scanning machines have been put to use at 70 of 450 U.S. airports since October, though the majority of passengers are not being asked to use them. The scanners, which penetrate clothing to produce outlines of the naked human body, are in use at all three of the Washington region's major airports. In development for several years, the machines use backscatter and millimeter wave technology intended to reveal nonmetallic security threats that wouldn't be caught by traditional step-through metal detectors.

The scanners are intended to catch terrorists such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man accused of trying to bring down a passenger jet bound for Detroit last Christmas with explosives hidden in his underwear.

People who set off the scanners' alerts or who opt not to go through them are subject to a thorough pat-down by TSA agents. It is this alternative , which goes beyond earlier hand-screening, that has more detractors among those surveyed. The most objections came from those who fly with some frequency. Sixty percent of men who fly at least once a year say the new pat-down goes too far, compared with 48 percent of women.

Security trumps privacy

On the basic question of investigating threats versus protecting privacy, the public remains about where it has been in recent years. Fully 68 percent of those polled say that the federal government should focus on looking into possible terrorist actions, even if that intrudes on personal privacy. Some 26 percent say it's more important for the federal government to avoid privacy intrusions.

These views carry directly to public assessments of the new scanning machines: 64 percent support them, 32 percent are opposed. While attention has been focused on stiff opposition to the new machines, about twice as many of those polled "strongly support" the new digital X-ray machines compared with those who "strongly oppose" them.

About a third of all Americans see the new scanning machines as a potential health risk, but most say that's not a big concern. A sizable number - 45 percent - of those who see a possible health risk nonetheless support the new scanners.

The balance shifts, however, when it comes to the enhanced pat-downs. On that question, Americans divide down the middle, with 48 percent saying this new level of search is justified to try to prevent terrorism and 50 percent saying it goes too far. In all, 37 percent of all Americans say they feel strongly that the new procedure is overly intrusive.

Sixty-nine percent of Democrats support the new scanners, as do 65 percent of Republicans. Fifty-two percent of Democrats call the new pat-downs justified, compared with 49 percent of Republicans.

The new rules may not make a major difference in people's decisions about whether to fly. Seventy-one percent said it wouldn't influence their planning, while 20 percent said they would be less likely to fly and 10 percent said they would be more likely to fly.

Fewer fliers

Two factors behind the public's reaction to the new airport-screening procedures: Few Americans fly regularly and their concern about the risk of terrorism on commercial aircraft remains muted.

Just 15 percent of those polled say they travel by plane every few months. Most say they fly less than once a year or never. Sixty-six percent say the risk of terrorism on airplanes is not that great.

Those who say they take flights at least once every year are less supportive of the new scanners than those who rarely or never fly, although most still like the idea. By 54 percent to 43 percent, those who fly at least once annually say the pat-down procedure goes too far.

One area where fliers and non-fliers agree is in their support for use of profiling at airports, where the TSA would single out specific people for extra screening based on available information. About seven in 10 in both groups back the idea.

Support for profiling tops 50 percent across party lines, with Republicans overwhelmingly in favor of the technique (85 percent) along with most Democrats (59 percent). Seventy-one percent of independents support the use of passenger profiling when it comes to deciding who should be subject to extra screening.

When it comes to how the TSA should profile, big majorities say screeners should take account of passengers' behavior and their travel history. Most also say nationality should be a consideration, and half say appearance. Between 32 percent and 40 percent say race, religion and sex should be included in a passengers' security profiles.

The poll was conducted on Sunday, Nov. 21, among a random national sample of 514 adults. Interviews were conducted on conventional and cellular telephones. Results from the full poll have an error margin of five percentage points.

cohenj@washpost.com halseya@washpost.com

Polling consultant Meredith Chaiken and staff writers Ed O'Keefe and Derek Kravitz contributed to this report.

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