Airports brace for possible protests

Normally, this is one of the most difficult days of the year for air travelers — the Wednesday when everyone seems to be rushing home to spend Thanksgiving with family.

But there could be more reason than usual to dread the trip to the airport this year, as Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and peers across the country brace for protests at security checkpoints.

Activists from both the left and right have declared Wednesday to be National Opt-Out Day and are urging airline passengers to decline to go through the whole-body imaging machines installed by the Transportation Security Administration at BWI and many other U.S. airports.

By "opting out," however, passengers will be required to undergo the enhanced pat-down recently introduced by TSA to detect concealed devices that might have escaped under the previous inspection regimen.

The objective, according to organizers, is to slow down the security screening process by forcing the TSA to conduct more of the time-consuming pat-downs. TSA opponents have expressed the hope that the resulting delays will prompt airlines to press the agency to back off some of its more controversial procedures.

TSA Administrator John Pistole urged Americans not to participate in the boycott. In a teleconference Tuesday, he said that the agency is "obviously focused" on the potential protests. Pistole said that if large numbers of people intentionally slow down the process, that can't help but have "a negative impact" on people who are trying to reach their planes on time.

Jonathan Schaeffer, a self-described "libertarian activist" from Riverdale Park who is attempting to organize a protest at BWI, said he's aware that he and his colleagues could be blamed for any delays that result.

"I think tomorrow certainly is going to be huge delays, and it's going to upset a lot of people," he said. "I'm sure we're going to get the flak, but I'm sure that everyone's willing to accept that for the heightened consciousness that will bring."

Schaeffer, who is affiliated with the Maryland Campaign for Liberty, said he sent out a Facebook invitation to a protest only Saturday and is already expecting 15-20 people to meet in Linthicum Wednesday evening and car-pool to the airport. Once at BWI, they plan to gather petition signatures and to distribute pamphlets and copies of the Constitution.

While none of the protesters expect to be traveling, he said, they will be encouraging passengers to refuse to go through the imaging machines — an action that will trigger a manual pat-down by a TSA officer instead.

Pistole said that if passengers then refuse a pat-down as well as the imaging, they will be asked to leave the checkpoint without proceeding to the gate.

"Hopefully they will just leave and not block all the other passengers," he said, If they don't leave, he said, that would then be a matter for the local airport police.

Pistole noted that to even get to the checkpoint, the passenger would have to have purchased a ticket at an average cost of $378.

If protesters are looking forward to confronting authorities, the officers on the front lines feel little but apprehension, according to one TSA officer familiar with the airports in the region.

According to the officer, TSA employees are feeling the strain of being accused of groping passengers and of being denounced on talk radio.

"We have been described as thugs, goons, molesters, perverts," the officer said, adding that the recent controversy is having an impact on passengers' attitudes.

"People are coming into the airport primed for a fight," said the officer, who asked not to be identified because officers are not allowed to speak to the news media without permission. Since the posting earlier this month of a YouTube video in which a man threatened a TSA officer with arrest if "you touch my junk," the officer said, some passengers seem to want to be "the next folk hero."

The officer objected to the common depiction of TSA employees as low-skilled, poorly trained workers — "former McDonalds employees in government costumes," as one Sun reader called them in an email.

According to the officer, many of the agency's workers come from a military or public safety background.

The employee said that under the TSA's new pat-down protocols, the officer must run hands up the passenger's thighs to make sure there is nothing such as a detonator cord running up the leg.

"We do not take the palms of our hands and touch people's genitals," the officer said. The only exception comes when the imaging machine operator detects an "anomaly" in the groin area. That, the officer said, triggers a "resolution pat-down" to determine what the item is.

The officer said it's not a task security officers relish. "Every job has things you don't like about it," the officer said. "The idea of doing a resolution pat-down is very distasteful for us."

The officer said, and Pistole confirmed, that TSA employees at the checkpoints are constantly being tested by government officials seeking holes in the security screen. It was after such testers were "very successful in getting through security" with various devices that the agency decided to change its pat-down procedures, Pistole said. He said the common factor in the breaches was "a lack of a thorough pat-down."

In an earlier statement, Pistole recalled last December's attempted bomb attack on a plane about to land in Detroit by a Nigerian man believed to have ties to al-Qaida.

"On the eve of a major national holiday and less than one year after al-Qaida's failed attack last Christmas Day, it is irresponsible for a group to suggest travelers opt out of the very screening that could prevent an attack using non-metallic explosives," Pistole said.

But Karen Winterling of Howard County called the TSA security measures "horrifying."

Winterling, president of the Howard County Republican Club, said she wasn't sure whether she could make it to the airport for Wednesday's protest, but she said she fully supports the effort.

The TSA, she said, is playing hardball with the American people "because they can."

"The government has gotten too big and too powerful, and it's just another way of breaking down our spirit," Winterling said.

Other opponents of the TSA's use of imaging technology have expressed concern about its potential health effects — suggesting that the machines could expose fliers to dangerous levels of radiation.

But Mahadevappa Mahesh, associate professor of radiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said the technologies used for whole-body imaging pose no significant risks.

One type of the device, known as millimeter-wave technology, uses radio waves to detect items under clothing and emits no X-rays whatsoever, Mahesh said. The millimeter wave machines are the type now installed at BWI.

The other technology, so-called "backscatter" machines, use such a low level of X-rays that one would have to go through the devices 1,000-2,000 times to get as much radiation as a standard medical chest X-ray, Mahesh said. That makes it "quite safe," even for small children and pregnant women, he said.

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