Raw Story focus: America's increasingly uncomfortable relationship with the TSA
It's Thanksgiving once again in the United States and across the nation Americans are packing their bags and heading for airports on their trek home. Over 1.6 million people are expected to fly over the next 36 hours, according to AAA, up 3.5 percent from last year.
But this year, things are a little different.
All across the nation, some 70 airports have put into use over 400 backscatter x-ray machines that can see beneath passengers' clothing. If the ticket-holder refuses, they're subjected to an invasive physical pat-down that even involves Transportation Security Administration employees groping breasts and genitals. And not even children are exempt.
The anger these new policies has caused is palpable.
In a nationwide protest happening today, dubbed "National Opt-Out Day," those upset with invasive new security procedures have asked others to join their plan to opt-out of full body scans and undergo a physical pat-down in public view, in hopes of creating delays and endless complications for security agents.
In addition, some of the protesters plan to use use flyers, T-shirts, and possibly even Scottish kilts to express their opposition to the new procedures.
"Think about it," wrote Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. "If you're a male, and you want to bollix-up the nonsensical airport security-industrial complex, one way to do so would be to wear a kilt. If nothing else, this will cause TSA employees to throw up their hands in disgust."
The organizers of OptOutDay.com declared November 24 to be the day when air travelers should refuse to submit to a full body scan and choose the enhanced pat-down.
"The goal of National Opt Out Day is to send a message to our lawmakers that we demand change," they wrote. "We have a right to privacy and buying a plane ticket should not mean that we're guilty until proven innocent. This day is needed because many people do not understand what they consent to when choosing to fly."
The day of protest is reportedly the brainchild of Virginia resident Brian Sodergren, who describes himself as "an ordinary citizen who is concerned about what is happening."
"I'm just one guy doing this is in his spare time," Sodergren wrote. "There's no organization behind it."
Another website, wewontfly.com -- over 17,000 "likes" on Facebook -- describes itself as a "grassroots consumer advocate" that is helping organize "Opt-Out Day" protests as well.
A TSA agent prepares to frisk an elderly woman. AFP
"TSA does not have the manpower to stick their hands in the pants of everyone coming through there," James Babb, We Won't Fly's co-founder, said. "We are encouraging people to not just opt out of the radiation scan but also opt out of the groping by not flying at all."
The message is not lost on America's majority, according to a recent Zogby poll that found 61 percent in the US are opposed to the new screening measures. Almost half the poll's respondents said they would be seeking alternatives to flying, simply to avoid the humiliation.
One traveler, at Lindbergh Field airport in California, became so fed up with the new procedures he stripped down to his underwear to avoid a pat down, NBC San Diego reported. He was arrested for refusing to put his clothes back on.
"TSA needs to see that I'm not carrying any weapons, explosives, or other prohibited substances, I refuse to have images of my naked body viewed by perfect strangers, and having been felt up for the first time by TSA the week prior, I was not willing to be molested again," he said in a statement released by his attorney Sunday.
Those concerns appear to have been heard loud and clear by government officials, but they've insisted that no policy change is in the cards.
Still, TSA chief John Pistole basically pleaded with Thanksgiving travelers to not boycott the full body scans. Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano as well, who published an editorial asking Americans for patience and understanding.
"Our best defense against such threats remains a risk-based, layered security approach that utilizes a range of measures, both seen and unseen, including law enforcement, advanced technology, intelligence, watch-list checks and international collaboration," she wrote.
To the contrary, Pistole has been mostly dismissive of the planned protests, saying civil disobedience would only "tie up people who want to go home and see their loved ones."
"We all wish we lived in a world where security procedures at airports weren't necessary," he said, "but that just isn't the case."
If the protests are in some ways successful -- and videos surface of disgusted TSA agents reaching up men's kilts, or coming across waves of unsanity individuals -- Pistole may have a host of unhappy security agents on his hands.
"It is not comfortable to come to work knowing full well that my hands will be feeling another man's private parts, their butt, their inner thigh," one TSA officer told the BoardingArea blog. "Even worse is having to try and feel inside the flab rolls of obese passengers and we seem to get a lot of obese passengers!"
Few delays reported as holiday travel begins
By mid-day reports from around the country were trickling out noting a distinct lack of delays at security checkpoints, with many Americans choosing to step through the x-ray machines rather than undergo a public frisking.
"[A]irports were quiet this morning with few people opting out of the controversial full body scanners despite promises to do everything from wearing 'Don't Touch My Junk' T-shirts to kilts with nothing underneath," ABC News reported.
At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the world's busiest airport, "security lines were moving smoothly at 11 a.m. (ET)," observed The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Earlier in the morning, NBC's Tom Costello reported that lines at Washington's Reagan National Airport "really are pretty manageable."
But that could still change, and as we've all learned from the Internet age, the right video can always make waves. At least two videos were trending on the Internet by mid-day showing a man and, separately, a woman, navigating TSA checkpoints in their skivvies.
One man, featured in a popular YouTube video, stripped down to a speedo and had "Screw Big Sis" written on his back. He told agents he'd taken off his clothing as "a security precaution."
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/v/9sL3uMWujmw?fs=1&hl=en_US expand=1]
Another woman, at LAX, decided to travel with an overcoat and a bikini.
View more news videos at: http://www.nbclosangeles.com/video.
In an attempt to quiet concerns about the new security screening procedures, Obama administration officials met with congressional staff behind closed doors Wednesday where TSA officials demonstrated the invasive pat-down methods used by agents.
"I feel bad for the girl they put in front of 50 people when they were doing a pat-down," a Republican staffer told CNN.
A Democratic aide, who attended the briefing, was less disturbed. "I don't think there was an emotional reaction one way or another," the staffer said. "They explained -- based on what we know and what the threat is -- we think this is the best way to mitigate the risks."
Chief advocate of the machines is former Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff, a hero to many in the GOP. As head of the Chertoff Group, the former Bush official effectively leads lobbying efforts on behalf of body scanner manufacturer Rapiscan and a consortium of smaller firms.
It was only after he told telling members of the press that x-ray scanners would likely have caught the so-called underwear bomber, captured last Christmas in a failed attack, that his profit motive in such a statement was revealed.
A TSA agent searches a woman's thighs for possible instruments of terror. AFP
The government began purchasing Rapiscan x-ray machines in 2005, under a Republican Congress and Republican presidency, at Chertoff's orders, and began using them in 2007. Their application has only accelerated under the Obama administration, at the behest of Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano.
During the past week, members of Congress have made their feelings about the screenings clear.
"This is such an affront, so much out in the open," Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) said during a Tuesday radio interview. "Government being so bold as to maul us in public and say they're doing it for our interests. If we tolerate this, there's something wrong with us. It's probably not fair to say this because so many people don't deserve it but -- we deserve some of this stuff if we don't do something about it."
Rep. Paul recently introduced the American Traveler Dignity Act to the House which would remove legal immunity from federal employees who subject an individual to any physical contact, x-rays, or aids in the creation of imagery of any part of a individual's body as a condition to travel in an aircraft.
In addition to Paul, other Republicans have rumbled about taking action against the TSA. Rep. John Mica (R-FL) sent a letter to more than 150 of the nation's largest airports urging them to use private contractors instead of the TSA. Already, Sanford Airport in Central Florida has opted to use private security instead of the TSA. Orlando International Airport will meet Dec. 8 to consider opting out of using TSA agents.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also said she is not a fan of the pat-down process. Asked by CBS' Bob Schieffer on Sunday if she would submit to a pat-down by a TSA agent, Clinton replied, "Not if I could avoid it. No. I mean who would?"
President Obama has defended the TSA body scans and pat-downs as necessary, even in the face of critics who've called on him to subject one of his own children to the process. The president, members of Congress, the military, law enforcement and airline pilots are not subject to the screenings.
"One of the most frustrating aspects of this fight against terrorism is that it has created a whole security apparatus around us that causes a huge inconvenience for all of us," Obama said.
"If he thinks this is an appropriate way for us to deal with security as he has defended, then I've said, 'OK, Mr. Obama, take your wife, your two daughters and your mother-in-law to Washington Reagan National Airport and have them publicly go through both the body scanner and the full enhanced pat-down in front of others," jeered former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, appearing recently on Fox News, where he is a paid contributor.
"If it's OK for your wife, your daughters, and your mother-in-law, then maybe the rest of us won't feel so bad when our wives, our daughters and our mothers are being put through this humiliating and degrading, totally unconstitutional, intrusion of their privacy."
The rhetorical challenge echoed conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who also suggested that Obama "take his daughter to the airport and have a TSA agent grope her".
"The American people have to do something," Paul told radio host Alex Jones on Tuesday. "They'll eventually have to boycott the airlines or whatever. Or throw the bums out: maybe Congress will get off their duffs in January and insist that we reign in the TSA."
With editing and research by Stephen C. Webster.