Regional airports and some local officials are joining the swelling protest against more intrusive “pat-down” screening measures at airport security checkpoints, eyeing new laws against so-called “naked X-ray” machines and perhaps even opting out of the Transportation Security Administration screening altogether.
“Our Constitution encourages local governments to stand up when the federal government goes too far,” New York City Council member David G. Greenfield, who is exploring a move to ban the X-ray machines from the city, told The Washington Times, “These naked X-ray machines … constitute an unreasonable search,” which violates the Fourth Amendment, he said.
The rebellion erupted as TSA Administrator John Pistole expressed concerns about a threatened nationwide passenger protest Wednesday that could worsen delays and spark chaos on one of the busiest travel days of the year.
“One of the great things about America is that people can protest,” Mr. Pistole told reporters at a Monday breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
“My real concern for this is that vast majority of travelers who are simply trying to get home to be with loved ones for the holidays, if they miss a flight because a group of people are blocking access or because they’re taking extended periods of time, I feel bad,” he said.
But Obama administration officials were standing firm on the security policies despite the outpouring of protest. Mr. Pistole said his agency was fully staffed and was hiring support workers where needed.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said.
Although he said no changes were in store in the short term, Mr. Pistole left the door open to reconsider and refine the program should the backlash continue to grow.
“What I’m doing is going back and [asking], ‘Are there less invasive ways of doing the same type of screening?’” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
New York is not the only locality questioning the new federal security program and looking to private security firms to replace TSA inspectors.
“We believe in private enterprise; that’s what this country was built on,” said Larry Dale, president of Sanford Airport Authority in Orlando, Fla., which recently joined 16 other airports that are not participating in the TSA program. Mr. Dale said the private screeners would provide “better accountability, better productivity and be more responsive to customers.”
“I have had some very unpleasant experiences” with TSA screeners “just from an attitude point of view,” he said, adding that the profit motive would ensure better performance and more positive treatment of passengers.
The Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines, designed to spot nonmetallic objects concealed under clothing, were rolled out last year by the TSA and have been installed at nearly 70 of the 450 U.S. commercial airports. Since Nov. 1, they have been paired with more intrusive pat-downs for passengers who either decline to go through the scanners or in whose clothing the machine detects something suspicious.
The delays, frisking and potential for abuse have sparked widespread outrage.
Mr. Greenfield said he was preparing legislation that would ban the use of AIT machines in New York’s John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports.
“The airports are on city property,” he said. He said the city could not ban screening, but did have the jurisdiction to forbid the use of the AIT machines within its borders.
A City Council official, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, told The Times that council staff members were reviewing Mr. Greenfield’s legislative proposal and would consider “a range of issues,” including whether the City Council had jurisdiction, before making a decision about whether to move a bill forward.
Mr. Greenfield said he and other council members also were encouraging the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the two New York airports and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, to opt out of the TSA system.
Under the federal legislation that set up the agency, airports across the country can have federally certified private firms handle their passenger and baggage screening under TSA supervision — employing the same technology and procedures that the agency does. Seventeen airports across the country have opted out. They range in size from one major international hub — San Francisco — to a series of much smaller airports such as Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming.
“We are encouraging them to look at the opt-out,” said Mr. Greenfield, of the Port Authority, adding that officials there were “considering it.” He said he hoped to start a grass-roots movement that would force federal authorities to reconsider their use of the machines.
“If other cities legislate … maybe they will have to listen,” he said.
A Port Authority spokesman referred queries to the TSA, which did not respond to a request for comment. But a senior Department of Homeland Security official authorized to talk to the media only on background told The Times that the federal law that gave TSA the right to regulate aviation security “would supercede any state or local ordinance.”
“All commercial airports are regulated by TSA, whether the actual screening is performed by TSA or private companies. So TSA’s policies — including advanced-imaging technology and pat-downs — are in place at all domestic airports,” the agency says on its website.
Nonetheless, other airports around the country are exploring the opt-out alternative.
Florida’s Mr. Dale said that, unlike the federal government, private companies “have to get [their revenue] the old-fashioned way, they have to earn it every day.”
He acknowledged that the screeners still would have to carry out TSA procedures as mandated, but added that he thought the measures were unconstitutional. “As a law enforcement officer, you can’t search people the way they do with these pat-downs without probable cause,” he said. “It is an unreasonable search.”
While standing by the policy, Mr. Pistole hinted to reporters that he regretted having rejected the advice of his media advisers to make the measures public before they were introduced.
“I wish I could say somebody else was responsible for that, but that was my decision,” he said.
“Rather than publicize the fact that we were doing this, I made an intentional decision that we would not do that. We would roll it out … and then try to educate the public once we did that,” he said. “My concern was … [advance notice] would then provide a road map or a blueprint to a putative terrorist.”