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Originally published March 8, 2011 at 8:00 AM | Page modified March 8, 2011 at 1:07 PM

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Travel Troubleshooter

More extensive TSA searches in Sea-Tac Airport rattle some travelers

TSA searches in Sea-Tac Airport waiting area anger some passengers, but agency won't confirm if it's testing more aggressive searches in Seattle.

Tribune Media Service

As she waited for her flight from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Medford, Ore., last month, Linda Morrison noticed something unusual in the waiting area.

"A lady in a TSA uniform came over, put on her rubber gloves and went up and down the rows of seats, choosing bags to go through," said Morrison, a retired corporate recruiter who lives in Seattle. "She didn't identify herself, didn't give a reason for the search. She seemed to be targeting larger carry-on bags."

Morrison was stunned. She expected to be screened at the designated checkpoint area, or maybe at the gate, where the Transportation Security Administration sometimes randomly checks passengers as they board. This was different. "To me, it just felt like an illegal search performed by a police state," she said.

There's that phrase again: police state. It's being thrown about a lot more since November's pat-down/opt-out fiasco, as public anger over the TSA's new security measures remains high. Which makes the question of whether we're traveling in a police state, or something like it, worth taking seriously.

At least one other reader also reported the roaming searches described by Morrison, also in Seattle. Christine Porter says she witnessed an identical procedure on two separate occasions. "TSA now randomly appears at boarding gates to check boarding passes and IDs as well as potentially hand-search carry-on luggage," she said. "It's irritating."

Is the TSA testing a more aggressive screening procedure in Seattle? I asked the agency.

"TSA officers at airports nationwide routinely screen passengers at the gate area using a variety of methods, including physically searching bags and using explosives detection technology," said agency spokesman Greg Soule. "This additional layer of security is part of our unpredictable approach to keep passengers safe and reduce the risk of dangerous items being carried on planes."

As is often the case with TSA's answers, I can't tell whether that's a yes or a no.

I put the police-state question to an expert on repressive regimes. "It's absurd to liken the annoyances brought on by airport security to life under a police state," Washington, D.C.-based human rights activist Mariam Memarsadeghi said. "A police state is defined by perpetual fear — fear of a state apparatus that is incessantly watching over the actions of people for the sole purpose of maintaining its power over them."

The threat American air travelers face is from not the government but international terrorist networks, Memarsadeghi said.

So maybe the term "police state" isn't quite right, then.

James Morrissey, a University of Illinois biochemistry professor and a frequent air traveler, prefers "intrusive security." "TSA has become a law unto itself, and it routinely tramples the civil rights of the flying public," he says. "Unfortunately, there will always be some people who will be perfectly OK with having their rights trampled in the name of security. But allowing this to happen is very disturbing to me."

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Jeff Stollman, a security and privacy consultant in Philadelphia, is irked by "security theater" that offers no real protection against terrorism. "I suspect that a lot of the current controls don't really do that much to improve security," he said.

Matthew Gast, a technology writer at a San Francisco-based publishing company, believes it's wrong no matter what it's called. "I have not taken a flight since I was forced to allow a TSA agent to put his hands down my pants," he said. "It's the only time I felt unsafe in an airport."

Supporters of the TSA's more aggressive screening measures point out that no one has to fly, and that Amtrak, Greyhound and personal vehicles are still available.

But similar security searches are now being conducted on trains and in other public areas, including random screenings of mass-transit riders in Washington, D.C., New York and Boston.

The TSA has also indicated that it wants to move the perimeter of aviation security screening beyond the airport, to checkpoints on the road, according to Chris Calabrese, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. If these roving searches are tolerated within the terminal and are allowed to jump to the street, there's no telling what might come next. Conceivably, in the near future the TSA could set up roadblocks to randomly screen automobiles anywhere it pleases.

If so, it could prompt further outcries from the traveling public and more comparisons to a police state, say Calabrese and other privacy advocates.

Not all travelers have accepted these new procedures. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a suit against the government, claiming that the TSA violated the Constitution and five federal laws when it deployed body scanners for primary screening at U.S. airports. The case is to be heard Thursday in a Washington circuit court. There are also numerous proposed laws to curb the TSA's power by either defunding the body scanners or making dissemination of scanner photos illegal.

"It's very much out of character for the U.S. to embrace this type of suspicion-less surveillance," says Marc Rotenberg, EPIC's executive director. "But instead of branding it as part of a police state, let's simply put an end to it."

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance. His column runs weekly at seattletimes.com/travel. Contact him at celliott@ngs.org.

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