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VOL. 125 | NO. 229 | Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Protests & Pat-Downs

‘Security theater’ or necessary measures? ‘Opt-Out Day’ targets TSA’s rigorous screening process

By Sarah Baker

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Thanksgiving weekend will undoubtedly be a busy one for Memphis International Airport – serving 2.5 percent of its annual passenger count in the six-day span – but also for Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents.

An airline passenger is patted down by a TSA agent at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. New requirements at some U.S. airports require passengers to pass through full-body scanners that produce a virtually naked image. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

Possibly complicating travel plans is a movement called National Opt-Out Day, which is set for Wednesday – traditionally the nation’s busiest air travel day.

Organizers encourage passengers to decline the controversial TSA Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) devices and opt for a full pat-down screening.

The effort to get passengers to boycott the full-body scan is “an educational outreach campaign, designed to get people to better understand what they are now consenting to when they purchase a plane ticket,” according to the National Opt-Out Day website (www.optoutday.com).

Depending on how widespread the effort is, it could mean additional headaches for the 25,000 travelers who typically pass through Memphis International during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

“On the eve of a major national holiday and less than one year after al Qaida’s failed attack last Christmas Day, it is irresponsible for a group to suggest travelers opt out of the very screening that could prevent an attack using non-metallic explosives,” TSA administrator John Pistole said.

Organizers say the rationale behind choosing Nov. 24 was solely for awareness with no intent to set back travelers.

Mitigating the possible disruptions at Memphis International is the fact that 65 to 70 percent of those travelers are connecting passengers – meaning they do not pass through the lobbies or security stations, said Larry Cox, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.

Nationally, the number of Americans traveling for the Thanksgiving weekend will increase 11.4 percent from 37.9 million in 2009, with 42.2 million travelers taking a trip at least 50 miles away from home, AAA recently projected.

So the TSA’s new screening procedures are about to be put to the test.

The TSA does nothing to improve national security, said U.S. Airways Pilots Association (USAPA) president Dan Cleary and Allied Pilots Association (APA) president Dave Bates, who collectively represent 16,000 pilots.

In a letter to the American pilots, Bates said U.S. airline pilots already receive higher levels of radiation in their everyday environment than “nearly every other category of worker in the nation, including nuclear power plant employees.”

Pistole said the body scanning technology is not only safe – as the amount of radiation from the scan is thousands times less than what is emitted from a cell phone – but it is vital to aviation security.

“After coming to TSA with 26 years of law enforcement experience at the FBI, I understand the serious threats our nation faces and the security measures we must implement to thwart potential attacks,” Pistole said.

Art Carden, assistant professor of economics and business at Rhodes College, called the TSA “security theater” that does not actually reduce the probability of a terrorist attack, but simply makes Americans feel safer.

“The best way to get rid of terrorism is to get rid of federal government airport security, let the airports and the airlines take care of that and then concentrate efforts on detection and intelligence and getting people a little bit farther up the terrorism supply chain,” Carden said.

“If we’re really and seriously interested in saving people’s lives, we would recognize that every time we make it a little bit more expensive to fly, we encourage people to drive, and driving is much more dangerous than flying.”

Opt-Out Day organizers also encourage travelers to voice their opinion to the airlines and their representatives in Congress, while also filing a complaint with the TSA and outside groups, if necessary.

“If everybody who took part in National Opt-Out Day were to call the police and file a formal complaint against the TSA after they go through security that would really snarl things up,” Carden said.

But while the federal government is not immune from criminal law, by choosing to fly you are consenting to undergo some sort of search, said Blake Ballin, attorney with Ballin & Fishman.

“Certainly, there are going to be lines that are drawn, TSA agents don’t have a blank check – they can’t just start touching people however they want,” Ballin said. “But as long as it is reasonably related to a security pat-down, I think you’d have a hard time saying that a person didn’t consent to this kind of search.”

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