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State, local lawmakers seek alternatives to TSA airport screenings

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2010

A coach-class rebellion against the Transportation Security Administration is brewing as state and local lawmakers challenge the agency's right to implement its invasive airport-safety protocols.

"I'd like to send Washington a clear signal that these aggressive pat-downs and body scanners may have crossed the line," said Sean Paige, a member of the Colorado Springs City Council. "We want to maintain airport security, but need to speak up for the passengers who come through our city."

He has asked the Colorado Springs airport's aviation commission and director to prepare a briefing on a proposal to replace the TSA with a private security firm. The council is expected to hear the results in January, Mr. Paige said.

Similar discussions are under way in Dallas and in Orlando, Fla., as local officials attempt to gain a measure of control over the safety-screening process. The TSA's decision to intensify its airport screenings in early November has passengers balking about having their rights violated in the name of security.

Airline passengers in about 70 of the nation's biggest airports may be required to pass through a body-imaging scan that shows an image without clothes. Those worried about radiation exposure or are uncomfortable with the idea of their nude image being rendered onto a screen may opt for a pat-down by a same-sex TSA officer.

Administration officials say the tighter measures are necessary to keep airlines safe from terrorist attacks, but critics argue that the procedures amount to government groping and may violate the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable search and seizure.

In New York, council member David Greenfield, a Democrat, introduced a proposal to prohibit the TSA from using the Advanced Imaging Technology body scanners anywhere in New York, including airports.

"We have turned TSA screeners at our airports into Peeping Toms for no legitimate reason," Mr. Greenfield told the New York Daily News. "This practice must be stopped."

The biggest legislative outcry has come from New Jersey, where state Sen. Mike Doherty has spearheaded a backlash against the TSA.

He leads a bipartisan coalition that has introduced resolutions, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, calling on their House and Senate representatives to challenge the procedures.

Mr. Doherty said he plans to introduce legislation Monday declaring that TSA agents have no immunity from New Jersey laws on child molestation, sexual assault and child pornography.

"Contrary to what these TSA agents and supervisors say, you never give up your constitutional rights. Never," Mr. Doherty said. "There are many laws on the books regarding child pornography and sexual assault, and that's what's occurring."

Other state lawmakers are expected to consider TSA-related resolutions and legislation, but, unlike New Jersey's Legislature, which meets year-round, most legislatures won't convene until January.

"A lot of bill-filing deadlines for the states are in January, so it's a little hard to put our finger on it just yet," said Meagan Dorsch, a spokeswoman for the National Conference on State Legislatures.

Several congressmen also have jumped on the issue.

Rep. Rush Holt, New Jersey Democrat and a physicist who held a briefing on scanning technology this year, has called for Congress to freeze funding for "backscatter" scanning technology until the Government Accountability Office can report on its safety and effectiveness.

"I appreciate the challenges we face in trying to prevent terrorists from boarding American airliners," Mr. Holt said in a Nov. 19 letter to TSA administrator John Pistole. "That same background also gives me an understanding of why TSA's current obsession with fielding body-imaging technology is misguided, counterproductive and potentially dangerous."

Rep. John L. Mica, the Florida Republican who is expected to lead the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee when his party takes control of the House next year, already has criticized the TSA's procedures and asked whether it's necessary for airports to use the TSA instead of private security firms.

Another issue involves the push for collective-bargaining rights for airport security screeners. The Federal Labor Relations Authority agreed last month to allow screeners to vote on their union representation, and collective bargaining has been for them a long-sought goal.

That concerns Mr. Paige, who remarked that "as a former member of the United Auto Workers, I can tell you that the quality of service may go down if collective-bargaining rights are granted."

One element of the debate that's rarely mentioned, he said, is whether local entities can figure out ways to do the job better.

"It's not just about [screeners] getting friendly, customer service or groping," Mr. Paige said. "It's seeing whether local airports can experiment and get the same level of security with different methods."

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