TSA airport checks: making sense of the furor

Civil liberties advocates, libertarians and some passengers are raising a storm of protest over stepped up screening of airline passengers at major U.S. airports. Some are calling for a “national opt-out day” on Wednesday, possibly causing airport hassles the day before Thanksgiving.

Yet most travelers appear to be taking the procedures in stride.

The Transportation Security Administration began the new measures a few weeks ago. They involve use of full-body scanning machines, and more intense pat-downs for those who decline to go through the machines, or for those whose scans show something needing another look.

The new measures were adopted in the wake of the “underwear bomber” episode last Christmas, in which a passenger tried to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underpants

Many travelers say the scans and pat-downs are not a big inconvenience and the stepped-up measures are unavoidable, the Associated Press reported.

“Whatever keeps the country safe, I just don’t have a problem with,” Leah Martin, 50, of Houston, told the AP at the Atlanta airport on Monday.

Administration officials say that fewer than 3 percent of passengers are receiving pat-downs

However the American Civil Liberties Union says it has received hundreds of complaints about the procedures.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a lawsuit against the TSA, saying the body scanners violate Fourth Amendment privacy protections and federal laws. The group says there are numerous technical security concerns about the equipment, and called on the TSA to suspend further installation and contracting for the machines until these problems are resolved.

EPIC has also filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Homeland Security Department, seeking records about possible radiation emissions associated with the full-body scanners.

Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., a physicist who chairs the Congressional Biomedical Caucus, has raised concerns about the health effects of the body-imaging technology.

However polls indicate that most of the public objections are about the more intrusive pat-downs. A majority supports use of the scanning machines, the same polls show, although that could change.

Two House Democrats, Rep. Bennie Thompson, Miss., and Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas, sent a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole urging him to reconsider the new pat-down procedures. The two lawmakers criticized the way the agency rolled out the new procedures, saying that “the TSA should have had a conversation with the American public” and should have ensured that “these changes do not run afoul of privacy and civil liberties.”

Ricky McCoy, a TSA screener and president of a union local in Illinois and Wisconsin, told the Associated Press that screeners have faced a difficult atmosphere since the pat-downs hit the news headlines. In several instances officers have been punched, pushed or shoved after they explained to passengers what would be happening, McCoy said.

“We have major problems because basically TSA never educated the public on what was going on,” he said. “Our agency pretty much just threw the new search techniques out there.”

Travelers with disabilities and people with medical devices or special health issues may be particularly negatively affected by the new procedures.

Laura Seay, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College who travels frequently for work, told the New York Times she wore an insulin pump and was disturbed to find that she would have to undergo a pat-down every time she flew because the device showed up on the full-body scanner. After experiencing that pat-down for the first time at Washington National Airport, she told the Times, “It definitely made me uncomfortable. I don’t think anything improper was done, but it’s very invasive and the thought of going through that every time I fly is discouraging.”

Some commentators are skeptical about the amount of attention being given to the issue.

“Somewhat lost in all the hullabaloo is the fact that two-thirds of Americans either rarely or never fly, but they don’t host cable TV or radio talk shows,” Philadelphia Daily News reporter Will Bunch notes in his blog. He wonders if the furor is related to “right-wing distrust of all things governmental, especially in the Age of Obama” combining with “left-wing suspicions about homeland security engendered during the Bush years.”

Josh Marshall, who runs the liberal TalkingPointsMemo blog, finds it ironic that right-wingers are jumping onto the issue. He observes that “the folks getting the most ACLU-ey about this are the ones who were the most gung-ho about warrantless wiretaps, torture, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and (hopefully to them) Syria and Iran too.”

The government has a complicated problem: how to balance real and pressing security needs, effective procedures, and the right to privacy and freedom to travel. President Obama, asked about the issue last week, said the TSA has to “constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety.” The agency, he said, also has to “think through, ‘Are there other ways of doing it that are less intrusive?'”

Photo: Denver airport.  Inha Leex Hale CC 2.0



Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.