- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The new, more intrusive security pat-downs at airport checkpoints - derided by critics as the “grope check” - would have caught last year’s would-be underwear bomber, the chief of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told Congress on Tuesday.

The pat-downs, and the advanced imaging technology machines to which they are an alternative and supplement, may have privacy advocates and some passengers up in arms, but TSA Administrator John Pistole told a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee they would have caught Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who last Christmas Day tried to set off explosives hidden in his underpants on a Detroit-bound airliner.

“That’s why we introduced the new procedures,” Mr. Pistole told Sen. Roland Burris, Illinois Democrat.

Mr. Burris and other senators questioned Mr. Pistole repeatedly about the new pat-down procedures, in which screeners gently but firmly stroke passengers’ bodies, including the breasts and inner thigh, and about the new machines, which show operators the outlines of passengers’ bodies underneath their clothing in an effort to spot nonmetallic items they may be concealing.

“I remain concerned about the intrusiveness of advanced imaging technology” (AIT), said Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, the ranking member of the committee.

She called on TSA to “consider software that respects travelers’ privacy by automatically identifying objects that may be threats using featureless images of travelers, rather than having a TSA officer review detailed images of passengers.”

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog group, is suing in federal court to stop the use of AIT machines, charging that their use is an unconstitutional search and arguing that the government violated a host of regulatory laws in the way the machines were introduced.

The TSA says the new machines - installed so far at 68 of the 450-odd airports in the United States - cannot store or transmit images. The agency says the operators sit in a walled-off area where they cannot see the passengers.

If passengers opt out, or if the machines detect something suspicious under their clothing, they will be subjected to the new pat-down.

Those procedures also have aroused concern from many passengers.

A video posted online over the past weekend by John Tyner, a 31-year-old California software programmer, recorded an encounter at the San Diego airport. The video, in which Mr. Tyner tells a TSA screener “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested,” has gone viral, being viewed thousands of times.

A Virginia man has set up a Web site calling for passengers on one of the busiest flying days of the year to opt for the pat-down as a form of protest against what he calls “naked body scanners.”

“National Opt Out Day,” on Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving, is the brainchild of Brian J. Sodergren, who told The Washington Times he had been overwhelmed by the media and public interest in his site, set up just eight days ago.

“There’s no organization behind it,” Mr. Sodergren said. “I’m just a guy who got fed up with reading day after day about the horrors people had to go through just to get onto an airplane.”

“You always have to balance privacy and security,” Geoff Freeman of the U.S. Travel Association told The Times. “Travelers are saying we haven’t got the balance right.”

He said the association, which represents the travel and tourism industry, had been receiving hundreds of unsolicited communications from travelers about the new security measures and on Wednesday would launch a major initiative to gather public input.

In a statement e-mailed to The Times, Mr. Pistole called the idea of a protest day “irresponsible,” saying AIT technology is “vital to aviation security and a critical measure to thwart potential terrorist attacks.”

Mr. Sodergren responded that the day calls for “civil obedience, not civil disobedience.”

The TSA gives you two options,” Mr. Sodergren said. “I am urging people to take one.” He added that he would not advocate people protesting against the pat-down as Mr. Tyner had done. “I am urging people to follow the rules,” he said.

A San Diego TSA official told reporters Monday that Mr. Tyner had violated federal law and federal regulations and could face civil penalties, including a fine up to $11,000.

“This country desperately needs to have a debate about privacy versus security,” Mr. Sodergren said, adding that he hoped Opt Out Day would encourage people to have conversations about airport screening procedures around the Thanksgiving dinner table.

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