WASHINGTON — Nine years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans are fed up with stringent airport security measures.
Many travellers are up in arms about the latest anti-terrorism initiatives — full-body scanning and the so-called pat-down, in which security officials frisk body parts usually the sole terrain of lovers, spouses or physicians.
“People are getting groped in America’s airports,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
But John Pistole, head of the agency, defended the measures on Tuesday when he testified before a congressional committee into cargo security at airports.
His appearance came as a California man was nearing folk-hero status for refusing to allow a TSA employee to “touch his junk” after opting out of a full-body screening at the San Diego airport last week.
“It’s clear that we have to be one step ahead of the terrorists and it’s obvious we’re not always in that situation,” Pistole told a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s homeland security and governmental affairs.
“It comes down to a balance … we want to be sensitive to people’s concerns about privacy, about their personal being, while ensuring that every person on every flight has been properly screened.”
A pat-down, he added, would have caught last year’s Christmas Day terrorist who attempted to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner by detonating explosives hidden in his underwear. The device failed to fully detonate and the plane landed safely after passengers subdued the Nigerian man and doused his fiery pants.
Pistole didn’t face many tough questions from senators despite a growing hue and cry from Americans about the new procedures and concerns raised by some U.S. scientists that the X-ray scanners may be unsafe. The U.S. scanners, incidentally, are not permitted in Canadian airports, where so-called millimetre wave technology is used.
American pilots have also complained the initiatives are invasive and unnecessary.
Pistole assured the committee that several scientific studies have determined the scanners are safe, and added he would soon have an announcement that would ease the burden on pilots.
But just a week before the busiest travelling day of the year in the United States, travellers rights groups are fighting back. One group, Flyers Rights, has sent a petition to federal officials, urging them to reconsider full-body scanning — called “naked scans” by its many critics — and the body searches that ensue if passengers refuse to submit to scanning.
“The TSA has offered no credible specifications for radiation emitted by these machines, and multiple constituencies, including the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, are declining to be screened,” said Kate Kanni, the group’s director.
“The TSA has also implemented an ’enhanced’ pat-down procedure that includes touching the genitals as well as breasts and buttocks. It’s clear the intent behind this new pat-down process is to discourage flyers from opting out” of being scanned, she added.
A grass-roots group is also organizing National Opt-Out day, urging travellers to refuse body scans at airports next Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving when millions of Americans travel to spend the holiday with family. Such a move would create long delays at airports as any traveller opting out would have to undergo a pat-down.
Travellers have also been coming forward with stories of invasive pat-downs, including humorist Dave Barry, who was recently informed by TSA officials that he was suffering a strange affliction — “blurred groin.”
Barry, a syndicated newspaper columnist, was subjected to a pat-down when the body scan at the Miami airport raised alarms. He was pulled aside by security officials and placed in a “little pen,” he told National Public Radio this week.
“And after, I don’t know, three or four minutes of standing there I asked one of them why am I here?” Barry said. “And he said: ’You have a blurred groin.’ And I said: ’What?’ Because you hate to find this out at the airport.”
His groin was then subjected to a pat-down, a mandatory procedure for any passenger if the body scan images aren’t sharp enough.
“I had this kind of surreal conversation with one guy telling me what a big fan he is … and the other guy is groping me,” Barry said, adding that the TSA official who later insisted the pat-down wasn’t punitive “was not having his or her groin fondled at the time.”
John Tyner, a 31-year-old Californian, has compared the pat-down to sexual molestation. He was ejected from the San Diego airport last week when he refused both the body scan and a crotch frisking; his cell phone recording of the encounter has since become a YouTube sensation.
A photograph of a nun in a habit being subjected to a pat-down, meantime, has also gone viral.
Nonetheless several legislators expressed sympathy Tuesday with the TSA’s dilemma as it attempts to deal with privacy concerns while ensuring airport security during a period of time when terrorists appear to be stepping up their efforts on the aviation front.
“This is unfortunately the world in which we live; it wasn’t our choice,” said Joe Lieberman, an independent senator from Connecticut who’s the chairman of the committee.
“It’s difficult, it’s sensitive, but it’s necessary for the homeland security of the American people.”