Amid news reports this week of TSA agents “groping” passengers in the name of security, public outcry against airport screening practices has intensified. In particular, Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines and the new TSA pat-down procedures have resulted in numerous reports of abuse.
Offended passengers describe being patted down by TSA screeners using the new palms-first, slide-down search technique which has replaced the former back-of-the-hand pat-down. Others report of attractive women being singled out to go through the AIT machines, where TSA screeners are able to peer through their clothing to see detailed images of the naked body.
In June 2009, the House passed my amendment restricting the use of AIT scanners as a primary screening device at U.S. airports. Support was overwhelming, with more than 300 of my colleagues from both sides of the aisle voting in favor of the amendment permitting the use of the technology only as a secondary screening device.
The measure, which amended a larger bill that stalled in the Senate, allows the machines to be used when further screening is warranted. If a passenger sets off the metal detector, engages in suspicious behavior, or appears on a watch list, secondary screening would be appropriate. However, until AIT machines are upgraded to protect passenger privacy, I oppose a blanket policy forcing every passenger to submit to an AIT scan.
Since the time my amendment passed the House, a new and equally troubling issue has arisen. TSA’s new “enhanced” pat-down procedure is an unwarranted invasion of privacy and dignity. This thorough pat-down of the entire body (including chest and groin areas) is the only alternative for those who opt out of AIT scans. In any other situation, this so-called pat down would constitute sexual assault – particularly when done to a minor child. A choice between a virtual strip search and a physical groping is no choice at all.
Even more frustrating — AIT machines are not even the most effective tool available. Certainly new technology improvements that use digital stick figures rather than the nearly naked image of a person’s body are promising. But such technology is years away from being operational at a large scale. More effective, less invasive options are available now. According to a recent Pentagon report, bomb-sniffing dogs are the most effective bomb-detecting resource currently available. We would be safer with more bomb sniffing dogs at our airports and fewer AIT machines.
Finally, it's time to get serious about gathering better intelligence to profile terrorists. We don’t have to profile based on religion, race, or ethnicity, but on characteristics and behaviors which repeatedly appear in terrorist profiles. Israel has successfully deployed this strategy for years in the face of more frequent and serious security threats. Through the use of extensive behavioral profiling, Israel manages to have one of the safest and most secure airports in the world. Passengers there suffer far less inconvenience and intrusion than passengers here in the U.S.
Passengers should not be forced to choose between being physically or verbally violated and being safe. It is possible to secure an airplane without sacrificing privacy. Not only are the measures I propose less invasive, they are also more effective. We can utilize metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs, and behavioral profiling to actually increase both liberty and security. I am committed to continue the battle I began more than a year ago. It’s time to reign in the TSA and reject the violation of our rights.