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Intrusive Airport Searches: Screeners Authorized to "Pat Down" Private Parts

US News and World Report | November 29, 2004 Edition

Thanksgiving travelers may be in for a bit of a shock as they plod through security lines at nation's airports. Passengers chosen for secondary screening or whose clothing appears suspicious or bulky are now subject to frisking--in a pretty intrusive way. In late September, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began allowing security checkpoint screeners to manually pat down women's breasts and the genital and derriere regions of both sexes during searches. The point is to find hidden explosives while machines that might perform the job are still being tested. "I know it's not pleasant," says Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, "but until we get the technology, what are the options?"

The new policy reflects an increasing sense of urgency about the lack of explosives-detection equipment. Today, only a small percentage of carry-on luggage and passengers is tested for bombs. In its final report, the 9/11 commission said the TSA must give "priority attention" to checking passengers for explosives. In August, two Russian airliners crashed, almost certainly because of explosives two Chechen women had concealed beneath their clothing--underscoring the danger.

Complaints. The TSA policy says that passengers can request that the new screening be done in a private room and requires that the frisker be the same gender as the traveler. But graduate student Sommer Gentry, 27, says that male screeners at Boston's Logan International Airport tried to pat her down while a female screener at Baltimore-Washington International Airport roughly jabbed a metal-detector wand between her legs. "How can I feel safe," Gentry said, " when the TSA is ordering me to let strangers put their hands all over my most intimate places?" TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield says the new policy generates only about a dozen complaints a week, but there have been reports of passengers, mostly women, growing angry during searches.

The TSA is currently testing machines that could eliminate the need for such frisking, like "trace portals" that blow puffs of air at passengers to dislodge and sniff for bits of explosive material. But it will be a while before the machines are ready for widespread use. In the meantime, the TSA will continue the pat-downs and train screeners to explain the process more carefully. "These are very valid security measures," says Hatfield. "They get at a very specific potential threat." But that's not enough for Gentry. "I am now," she says, "an ex-frequent flier." -Samantha Levine

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