TSA director on security patdowns: Like it or lump it

The Transportation Security Administration is digging in its heels over the new patdown procedures for airline passengers who don’t want to go through revealing — and possibly radiation-exposing — scans. But the agency is losing the battle for public opinion — fast.

And the American Federation of Government Employees — one of two major unions vying to represent TSA — is worried the backlash could come down hard on screeners. There’s already been a few physical altercations between screeners and angry passengers, including an incident where a traveler in Indianapolis punched a screener.

“TSA must do a better job explaining these measures to the flying public,” AFGE National President John Gage said yesterday. “This absence of information has resulted in a backlash against the character and professionalism of [Transportation Security Officers] based on a few widely-reported but largely ill-founded claims repeated over and over again by the media. It is unacceptable for any passenger to verbally or physically assault any security officers, and TSA must act now — before the Thanksgiving rush — to ensure that TSOs are not being left to fend for themselves.”

TSA Administrator John Pistole told a Senate committee Tuesday that travelers who object to the Advanced Imaging Technology scans and patdowns have a third option: Don’t fly at all. Even someone who objects to the searches on religious grounds would be out of luck, Pistole said. “While we respect that person’s beliefs, that person’s not going to get on an airplane.”

TSA seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. After the government failed to detect the Undiebomber before his skivvies fizzled Christmas Day, the hue and cry went up that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE. But now that new measures are in place (Pistole said a patdown or scan would have caught Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, but the GAO said the jury is still out on the scans), people as diverse as the ACLU, Tea Party activists, Rep. Ron Paul, magician and Cato Institute fellow Penn Jillette, and hero pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger are saying enough is enough.

FedLine friend (and former Federal Times reporter) Mollie Hemingway last week wrote about her recent patdown on the Get Religion blog: “I joked that in some cultures I would be married to my screener by now. But it wasn’t funny. It was incredibly intimate and it actually made me uncomfortable. … After all, the new policies basically say that if you’re uncomfortable with the government taking naked images of you, you will be caressed or groped by strangers.”

TSA’s Blogger Bob is working overtime pointing out that four out of five surveyed Americans are fine with the new procedures and insisting their machines don’t store images. But privacy concerns and bathroom humor can be a potent mix, and will make it tough for TSA to counter opposition to its policies. Let’s review:

* A Conan O’Brien skit on Monday featured a fake TSA screener giving an audience member the creepiest patdown imaginable (video after the jump).
* The anti-patdown crowd now has a rallying cry — “Don’t touch my junk!” — courtesy of software programmer John Tyner.
* Taiwan’s Next Media Animation made a cartoon about the controversy that went viral, and featured a demonic-looking Michael Chertoff working for a company called “RapeScan”, a thinly-veiled parody of backscatter manufacturer Rapiscan (video also after the jump).
* And some online are trying to make next Wednesday — the uber-heavy traveling day before Thanksgiving — a national day of protest in which passengers opt out, en masse, of the body scanners to gum up the works. Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg wants to up the ante, and is encouraging male travelers to wear kilts and go commando — that is, wear no underwear at all, in true Scotsman style — to make TSA screeners as uncomfortable as possible.

Or maybe we just need TSA contractors to develop the kind of scanners California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger encountered in Total Recall, that see only bones and guns. Let’s get on that.

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