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Originally published November 13, 2010 at 7:07 PM | Page modified November 15, 2010 at 11:39 AM

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Airport pat-downs provoking backlash

New pat-down procedures at airports have prompted a growing backlash among pilots, flight attendants, civil-liberties groups and security-weary...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — New pat-down procedures at airports have prompted a growing backlash among pilots, flight attendants, civil-liberties groups and security-weary passengers who say the touching goes too far.

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 calls the screening techniques "extremely voyeuristic and intrusive."

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) calls it the new reality of airport security.

The new TSA pat-down procedure is part of a general tightening of air security that includes new full-body scanners which use X-rays to see through clothing to detect suspicious objects. If a full-body machine — like those now in use at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — shows something strange or a passenger declines to go through the machine, a TSA 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.

"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, D.C., in April. "We're not common criminals."

Brian Sodergren, of Ashburn, Va., 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."

An activist group has launched WeWontFly.com, a website, and says it has gotten more than 70,000 hits a day since going online just a week ago. The 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, 42, of Eagleville, Pa., 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 nonmetallic explosives," TSA Administrator John Pistole said. "This technology is not only safe, it's vital to aviation security and a critical measure to thwart potential terrorist attacks."

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Some doubt effectiveness

Several of the leading U.S. passenger-advocacy organizations, and 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 body scans a secondary security measure.

"People just don't have a lot of faith in TSA right now," said Brandon Macsata, executive director of 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, a Napa, Calif.-based advocacy group that says it has 25,000 members, said she was inappropriately touched at a checkpoint as she traveled from San Francisco to New York recently. 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, the largest union of its kind in the world, representing 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."

"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.

Meanwhile, CNN reported that the Council on American-Islamic Relations has issued its own travel advisory about pat-downs. Muslim women who wear a hijab and are selected for secondary screening because of a head scarf should remind TSA officers "that they are only supposed to pat down the area in question, in this scenario, your head and neck. They should not subject you to a full-body or partial-body pat-down," the group said.

Pat-downs as a backup

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.

Security analysts say the chief change is the way TSA agents are touching passengers. Attorney Charles Slepian, founder of the Oregon-based Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center, a security consultancy, said full-body scanners and frisks are useful for finding knives or other handheld weapons but 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 declined to comment on the specific techniques being used.

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 held for allegedly trying to blow up a passenger plane to Detroit last Christmas.

Billie Vincent, a former director of aviation security at the Federal Aviation Administration who now works as a security consultant in Chantilly, Va., 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, 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."

Material from The Seattle Times archive is included in this report.

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