Published: Friday, Sept. 25, 2009 10:35 p.m. MDT
A labor union leader says Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, was not harassed by Transportation Security Agency officers during a run-in this week at Salt Lake International Airport, and that Chaffetz is the one who chose to stand in line for a "strip-search" machine and then complain loudly.
"Congressman Chaffetz was treated as any other passenger," said Sharon Pinnock, the membership and organization director of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents some local TSA workers.
But Chaffetz reaffirmed Friday to the Deseret News his earlier assertions that the TSA harassed him and ordered him to go through the machine that he has fought against in Congress.
"It's laughable that they would say I would choose to go through that line. Why would I do that?" he said. "This adds to my suspicion that they are harassing based on my bill against whole-body imaging, and my vote against allowing the TSA to unionize."
The spat began Monday when Chaffetz said the TSA ordered him out of a line for a regular metal detector and into the line for what he has called the "strip-search" machine.
The union says that is not how things started. It says Chaffetz himself chose to get in line for the Image Testing Machine, which Pinnock said he could have avoided completely.
"It does seem odd that Congressman Chaffetz would choose to use an image machine that he would like to see banned," Pinnock said.
Chaffetz has passed legislation through the House, but not the Senate, that would allow use of the machines only for secondary searches and would allow people to choose a pat-down search instead.
"We are hard-pressed to understand his thinking on this since he previously had been given a tour of the ITM lane (prior) to this incident and knew quite well what the process could involve," she said.
Chaffetz said when he refused to go through the "strip-search" machine, he was questioned at length and suspicions about him were raised.
He said he was eventually allowed to go through a regular metal detector lane. Even though he did not set it off, he said he was told he was "randomly" chosen to also go through a "pat-down" search.
The TSA in a statement after the initial controversy said anyone can choose not to go through the whole-body imaging machine, but standard procedure is when they refuse they must go through a metal detector followed by a pat-down search.
Chaffetz said after he cleared the pat-down, he asked to talk to a supervisor. When he attempted to give one his card showing he is a congressman, he said the supervisor quickly said before he identified himself that he knew exactly who Chaffetz was.
Chaffetz said that because of that, "I thought, 'My gosh,' those guys are just harassing me'?" because of his vote against letting the TSA unionize and his fight against whole-body imaging.
But Pinnock said the officer "who administered the pat down had just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, and did not recognize the freshman congressman" — so they were not targeting Chaffetz for harassment.
"Furthermore, the screening TSO (transportation security officer) was partnered with a TSA Supervisory Job Monitor who ensured procedures were properly followed," she said. "These TSOs involved should be heralded for doing their jobs, not admonished for following procedures.
"TSOs do not set the rules for passenger screening — they are there to enforce the rules," Pinnock said.
Chaffetz, meanwhile, said Friday, "I have flown 1.4 million miles on Delta Air Lines and never ever have been pulled out of one line and put into another. But it happened the first time after I voted against allowing the TSA to unionize."
He added, "Maybe that's coincidence. … But I don't think so." He added he has not complained about the officer who did the pat-down, but about others.
Ironically, Chaffetz called the Deseret News Friday from Washington, D.C., just after he had passed through airport security there to come home.
"I've never had a problem with airport security in Washington, and until this week never had in Utah," he said.
The Deseret News has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the TSA seeking surveillance video and written reports of the run-in.
Since the Deseret News first reported the story, it has appeared in news media nationwide.
In many interviews with the media, Chaffetz has stuck to his story that the TSA tried to make him go through the machine and harassed him.
He did acknowledge reaching out to touch the ID badge of a supervisor (who he said thrust the badge in his face), but was told not to touch it or the officer. He said he touched neither.
The AFGE has been the only union to represent TSA employees since the agency's inception, and it has more than 11,000 members in 34 locals across the country, including some in Utah.
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