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Millions of holiday travelers nationwide are experiencing an all-too-intimate form of security screening that some say amounts to sexual groping -- a "pat-down" by government officials.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) initiated the approach to airline security Sept. 22 in response to the August terrorist bombing of two passenger planes in Russia.
"TSA policy is that screeners are to use the back of the hand when screening sensitive body areas, which include the breasts (females only), genitals, and buttocks," the policy says.
Female passengers say the experience is humiliating and men also are complaining of unexpected checks of their private regions.
When former Rep. Helen Chenoweth, Idaho Republican, was flagged as a high-risk passenger with a one-way ticket from Boise, Idaho, to Reno, Nev., she refused to be patted down and was forced to drive to her destination.
"That area is private," Mrs. Chenoweth told KBCI-TV, the Boise NBC affiliate.
"We have programs teaching children that these areas are private and yet we have our government patting us down. There's something wrong with that. To be patted down like that was just way over the edge and that's why I chose to drive and I will drive from now on," she said.
Jamie Sibulkin told the Boston Globe she requested that her search before a flight from Boston to Dallas be performed by a woman, who joked to the male screener he was "missing out." She said the screener waved a metal-detector wand in front of her chest, and "out of nowhere started touching my breast." She said she was told her metal-wire bra had set off the metal detector, so she didn't wear it on the return trip -- yet was screened again by a female screener who felt her breasts.
"They said, 'This is regulation.' I said, 'This is molestation,'" the 27-year-old woman said.
Retired Navy Rear Adm. David M. Stone, assistant secretary of homeland security for TSA, reminded the traveling public of the new rule Monday to detect explosive trace elements. He said all passengers have the right to private screening.
"A vigilant America may well have discouraged terrorist acts tied to high-profile events like the recent political conventions and the election," Adm. Stone said. "The holidays also are a period when increased vigilance is especially appropriate."
In the average week, 2.1 million passengers are patted down and 12 complaints are filed, said Mark Hatfield, spokesman for the TSA.
"Every complaint is important and we want to get to the bottom of the complaints and find out what has happened," Mr. Hatfield said. "But this is a very important security measure to address a specific threat, and until we can come up with a technological solution, this is an old-fashioned, low-tech tool in our arsenal to mitigate a threat."
An investigation of the Russian crashes found that two women wore the explosives on their torso under clothing. "Our metal detectors won't detect that type of explosive, so we are aggressively testing new technologies to combat this threat," Mr. Hatfield said.
In a report on WJLA Channel 7 News last night, unidentified screeners at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport said women were being selected for private screening based on breast size and strip-searched. The searches were required after screeners kicked equipment to set off alarms.
"In a sense, they were being raped," one TSA screener said.
Strip searches were being conducted in a stairwell, WJLA reported, but were moved to a supervisor's private office where the activities were recorded on a hidden camera.
Mr. Hatfield said the TSA will show "zero tolerance" in its investigation of the matter. "We will root out the individual," he said.
Ava Kingsford told the Christian Broadcasting Network that she, her husband and their infant drove 15 hours home to San Diego from Denver because she refused to be patted down.
"I thought I was done being patted down, and she says, 'I am going to feel your breasts now.' I said, 'I am uncomfortable with that.' I said, 'That's crossing the line.'
"They were yelling the same thing: 'If you don't let her continue the search -- and that entails feeling your breasts -- you will not board your airplane home to San Diego.'"
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