Opt-Out Day could create headaches for fliers

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; A03

They are white-collar professionals, parents and frequent travelers with full-time jobs. But they're also activists, leading a fast-moving grass-roots movement designed to change the federal government's policy about full-body X-ray scanners and physical pat-downs.

But for thousands of Thanksgiving airline passengers, Wednesday's National Opt-Out Day, a protest that began online a little more than two weeks ago, could be a headache leading to long delays at airport checkpoints.

Organizers say they want to focus growing anger against the Transportation Security Administration's enhanced security procedures. The agency implemented the techniques after a failed terrorist plot late last month to blow up cargo planes headed to the United States.

The opt-out campaign is a low-dose rebellion in which passengers say no to the more than 400 imaging machines in use at nearly 70 airports nationwide. Instead, they will opt for a public frisking, which has been criticized as being too invasive because sliding hands probe clothed genitalia and breasts.

"I just want to know if the TSA workers actually believe they are keeping people safe by feeling us up if we opt out of the full-body scan," said Cara Eshleman, a baker from Arlington County who is flying out of Reagan National Airport on Wednesday and plans to opt out if she is directed to a full-body scanner. "It's too bad I already bought my ticket. If I'd have found out about this before, I wouldn't be going anywhere for the holidays."

One unruly passenger or several travelers opting out could spell a long day at the airport for many others. A full-body imaging scan usually takes five seconds, with an extra 15 to 30 seconds to produce the blurry but scantily clad images of passengers and their undergarments. A full-body pat-down by a security official of the same sex takes at least twice as long, one to two minutes on average, according to video of the frisks.

Wednesday is expected to be the busiest travel day of this year's Thanksgiving holiday. Complicating matters is a weather forecast calling for rain, snow and strong winds across the upper Midwest, which could cause additional delays.

Criticisms of protest

Some aviation security experts say the public firestorm is largely being fueled by a few privacy-obsessed individuals, many of them self-identified as libertarians, and is not emblematic of the larger feeling among Americans that such screening, although intrusive, is necessary to ward off terrorist attacks.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday found that 32 percent of Americans object to the full-body X-ray machines; 35 percent say they may present a health risk; and 50 percent oppose the new pat-down searches.

"I think the 'opt out' is going to be a huge bust. It's clearly a fringe group that's concerned about privacy," said Billie Vincent, a former director of aviation security at the Federal Aviation Administration who now works as a security consultant in Chantilly. "If you're going to find something in someone's crotch, you can't equivocate."

Vincent and others are pushing for more profiling of passengers - an idea supported by 70 percent of those surveyed in the Post-ABC poll. Several aviation security groups have consulted with Israeli officials, whose Shin Bet security service at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport routinely frisks passengers thoroughly and asks specific questions about a traveler's job, home town, trip plans and other personal information.

"People don't see the intelligence. The threat is real and persistent," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. "There is no single silver bullet. It's a complex environment."

Less than 3 percent of the more than 35 million airline passengers who have traveled since Nov. 1 have received pat-downs, officials say. About 2,000 complaints have been filed regarding the frisks and imaging scanners, according to the TSA.

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, TSA Administrator John S. Pistole urged people who were considering opting out to think about their fellow passengers and expressed concern about holiday travelers missing flights.

"If large numbers of people do intentionally slow down that process, I don't think we can avoid people not making their flights on time," he said.

Nationwide plans

The move to opt out started Nov. 8 when an Ashburn pharmaceutical executive, Brian J. Sodergren, launched a modest Web site that encouraged travelers to opt out of the scanning machines and accept a public pat-down so that people can "see for themselves how the TSA treats law-abiding citizens." The site went viral within hours.

"I never realized the nerve I was tapping into," Sodergren said in an interview this week. "But a lot of people, like me, felt like this is a gross violation of privacy and the policy needs to change."

Two Philadelphia area men, one a marketing executive, the other a Web developer, piggybacked on the idea and, on the same day, created a slick Web site and a corresponding media campaign - one that they say has brought in more than 600,000 visitors in a little more than two weeks. A map on the site shows opt-out day events planned for 20 airports Wednesday.

"It's overwhelming. From Monday to Wednesday, it's been nonstop," said George Donnelly, the webmaster of the We Won't Fly site. "From radio and Skype interviews, to Facebook and Twitter, the response has been more than our wildest dreams."

At Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport, a group of college students will hand out devices that register the amount of radiation given off by screening machines and gloves for travelers to give to TSA officers performing physical checks. In San Francisco, a passenger-rights groups will be monitoring pat-downs and screenings from an upstairs restaurant, with camera crews from ABC's "Nightline" in tow. And in Philadelphia, a demonstration is planned along the airport terminal's sidewalks for several hours, with a post-protest party set for the airport Marriott bar that evening.

Steve Bierfeldt, a development director for the Campaign for Liberty, a group connected to U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), is planning to distribute fliers at National. Last week, Paul introduced a bill, the American Traveler Dignity Act, to discourage the new screenings.

"This is a big movement that is brewing," Bierfeldt, of Alexandria, said. "People are no longer going to willingly submit to technology that's needlessly intrusive.

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