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TSA faces rising tide of resentment over screening procedures

Public and political opposition to the Transportation Security Administration's enhanced airport security procedures started to snowball last week, fed by the national media's sudden prurient fascination with details about the agency's "strip-search" body imaging machines and "invasive" personal pat-downs.

Early in the week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters in Washington that her agency would keep an open mind about possible "adjustments" to security procedures, but in a column in USA Today, she urged air travelers and flight crews to be patient, reminding them that TSA only does what it thinks is necessary to protect security in the face of more creative terrorist threats. Later in the week, TSA Administrator John Pistole told a hearing of the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that despite the growing outcry, he does not anticipate making any changes to security procedures in the immediate future. Pistole told the committee that he had experienced one of the TSA's new, more aggressive physical pat-downs himself, which he described as "thorough" and "more invasive than I was used to." Passengers who decide they don't want to undergo a body-imaging scan with one of TSA's new airport devices have the option of enduring a personal pat-down instead, which will leave no areas off limits. (Separately, the TSA did make one small concession, announcing that the enhanced pat-downs would not be used on kids age 12 and under.)

The latest flap got started when a passenger flying out of San Diego took to Youtube to post an instantly popular cell phone video of his pat-down, in which he warned the TSA agent not to touch his private parts or he would have him arrested. (The passenger was subsequently not allowed to fly.) Elsewhere in cyberspace, a new web site (www.optoutday.com) was urging air travelers to participate in "National Opt-Out Day" on Wednesday, November 24 - one of the busiest travel days of the year - by refusing to go through body scanners and demanding a pat-down instead. Another site was posting passengers' stories about their unsavory airport security screening experiences (www.thousandsstandingaround.org). And two established consumer rights groups - the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center - have started collecting online complaints from travelers about their problems with airport security procedures (www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/tsa-pat-down-search-abuse and http://epic.org/bodyscanner/incident_report/ respectively). The U.S. Travel Association also created a new consumer web site asking for suggestions about ways to improve the screening process (www.YourTravelVoice.org).

While mass media and some politicians and bloggers railed about the TSA's allegedly unacceptable and perhaps unconstitutional violations of personal privacy at the airport, a new poll by CBS News last week suggested that average Americans aren't all that concerned. The telephone survey of 1,137 adults nationwide found that 81 percent support the TSA's use of the new full-body imaging machines to protect the security of air travel, while only 15 percent object to them. In an editorial, USA Today suggested the TSA should work to curtail "rude, curt or obnoxious treatment by TSA workers, particularly during pat-downs," and should review its many existing restrictions, like those requiring shoe removal and limiting carry-on liquids. The editorial also chided the airlines for "giving fliers big financial incentives to avoid checking their luggage," thus slowing down the security process with additional carry-ons. But it also said much of the latest furor comes from a "vocal minority," and urged readers to "calm down and remember that the security-line indignities are a necessary byproduct of an era in which terrorists remain fixated on blowing jetliners out of the sky."

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