A passenger is patted down while going through a security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010, in Atlanta.
For 30 years, Marcia Miller has flown across the country to Toledo, Ohio, to join four generations of her family for Thanksgiving dinner. But scared off by newly ramped-up airport security measures — including full-body scans and, in some cases, “enhanced” pat downs by TSA workers — Miller has decided instead to dine alone in L.A.
She is opting out.
“Am I really supposed to let a total stranger rub my private parts because I bought an airplane ticket?” said Miller, who runs the jewelry and fashion website, ILoveAccessories.com. “Would you allow your daughter to be patted down by a stranger and not feel like punching the person that did it? It leaves scars... just like a rape leaves scars.”
Miller has some company in both her personal protest and her fear of the Transportation Security Administration’s new methods.
A grassroots group of fliers who say they are fed up with airport “feel ups” and who call TSA X-ray machines “porno scanners” are cooking up a Thanksgiving Eve revolt that, they vow, will turn the nation’s heaviest travel day into “holy hell.”
Fueled by two new websites — OptOutDay.com and WeWontFly.com — as well as by several awkward, security-point frisking videos that recently went viral, movement members are vowing to unleash a surreal spate of Nov. 24 disruptions just as millions of Americans fly off for annual family feasts. Atop the protesters’ tactical list: urging passengers to “opt out” of full-body scans, forcing TSA employees to instead administer “enhanced,” hand-sliding, pat downs that can include feeling a person’s inner thighs and buttocks.
One X-ray glimpse typically takes TSA employees about 30 seconds, but the more-intimate, physical searches — implemented by the federal government three weeks ago — can last several minutes per passenger. If a large enough portion of travelers choose to “opt out” of the scans, security lines could potentially coil to record lengths at multiple airports — and travelers may miss their flights.
While John Pistole, head of the TSA, called the planned, collective opt-out “irresponsible,” a TSA spokesperson promised Wednesday that the agency will be “well prepared” and “fully staffed” to handle any such actions.
Protesters have their doubts.
“TSA is not going have the manpower to stick their hands in the pants of every man coming through there,” said James Babb, a 42-year-old advertising consultant from the Philadelphia area who co-founded WeWontFly.com. “We are really encouraging people to not just opt out of the radiation scan but also opt out of the groping by not flying at all.”
Time to end TSA?
Even lawmakers are considering whether it is time to "opt out."
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who helped write the bill creating the TSA, now says it might be time to eliminate the government agency, NBC's WESH-TV reports.
Mica, who will chair the House Transportation Committee in the new year, has sent letters to 150 airports suggesting that they dump TSA screeners and hire private security. Florida's Orlando Sanford Airport, which handles 2 million passengers a year, already plans to replace "testy" TSA screeners with private contractors.
The federal law that created the TSA gives airports the right to use private screeners, as long as they follow the Department of Homeland Security's rules and guidelines.
"As TSA has grown larger, more impersonal, and administratively top-heavy, I believe it is important that airports across the country consider utilizing the opt-out provision provided by law," Mica wrote in the letter.
According to e-mails Babb has received this week via his website — which he says gets 70,000 hits per day — some male flyers plan to arrive at nearby airports on Nov. 24 wearing kilts but no underwear. Others are vowing “nude protests” inside local terminals and some demonstrators say they will show up at security checkpoints with “lingerie models” in tow — perhaps creating an angry yet circus-like atmosphere among the milling crowds.
Babb’s motives are personal — he wants to spare his two young daughters, he said, from the unnecessary radiation of TSA scanning machines and from what he believes to be inappropriate touching by TSA workers. Many other travelers, meanwhile, argue that the new screening techniques are trampling their civil liberties. At OptOutDay.com, the site’s author calls Nov. 24 “the day ordinary citizens stand up for their rights ... and protest the federal government's desire to virtually strip us naked.”
“For those I care about, I’m urging them to just not participate, to just not fly that day,” Babb said. “I hope to see deserted airports. But if you want to do it, I say have some fun with it, be creative. Wear the kilt. Leave your phone on record. You could be the next YouTube star. These (TSA) people need to be humiliated. What they are doing is inexcusable.”
Privacy vs. security
After years of steadily tightening airport crackdowns on liquids, metal jewelry, shoes and laptops, the “privacy-versus-security debate has reached its toughest point since Sept. 11 (2001),” said Roger Cressey, a security expert who served in senior cyber security and counterterrorism positions in the Clinton and Bush administrations.
“Up to this time, most Americans have been very willing to go along with everything. There have been annoyances, there have been inconveniences, but people have never viewed it as a personal affront. What’s different about this, though, is the public viewing,” said Cressey, now a partner at Good Harbor Consulting in Arlington, Va.
On one hand, Cressey contends the latest TSA machines and maneuvers are “necessary” because anti-American terrorists continue to “innovate and adapt” their strategies to thwart U.S. security regimens in order to try and bring down an aircraft. He points to the attempt last Christmas by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate an underwear bomb aboard a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. However, Cressey also suggests that TSA screeners consider performing the enhanced pat downs behind barriers, away from the eyes of other passengers.
“They (the protesters) are trying to make a point and I think point is valid,” Cressey said. “This is an opportunity for the government and the citizenry to have an honest dialogue about what the right security procedures are in this threat environment. And if this opt-out day leads to a better dialogue, then that’s a good thing.”
TSA officials say they don’t expect a large-scale, national protest next Wednesday. Instead, TSA anticipates only a small increase in “opt outs” and believe the entire topic is an overblown issue propelled by the media and by Internet chatter. Further, the TSA points to polls conducted by CBS, the Wall Street Journal and Gallup consistently showing that about 80 percent of American travelers are in favor of the stepped-up security.
One of those supporters is David Dandola, a resident of Boca Raton, Fla. who flies commercially two or three times a month. He’s grown tired, he said, of hearing fellow passengers complain about what usually is a five-minute TSA screening process and he insists the techniques are an important piece of U.S. anti-terror defenses. Dandola believes the “opt-out” protesters are both misguided and selfish.
“It is not fair to the majority of the traveling public who, I believe, would rather be safe than sorry to be delayed by a few wishing to make some type of statement by slowing or interrupting the screening process,” Dandola said.
But “opt-out” promoters like Babb argue that the increased security tools and touches have finally pushed many Americans beyond teeth-gritting acceptance and straight into rights-waving rage.
“All these things we are doing are going to draw attention to the groping and the irradiating, to what the TSA is doing,” Babb said. “The TSA’s days are numbered. Dirt is being thrown on the coffin as we speak.”
Information from NBC's WESH-TV and the Associated Press was included in this report.