Pat-downs anger RDU fliers

News Observer | December 14, 2010
By Bruce Siceloff

Local airport and federal security officials are fielding protests from Triangle travelers who say they have been traumatized by officers administering intimate pat-downs at security checkpoints.

"My wife in tears told the screener and the witness she would not let them abuse her," Willie Johnson of Raleigh said in a complaint filed Nov. 15 on the Raleigh-Durham International Airport website. "No citizen should be subjected to humiliation, stress and fear just to fly."

Two dozen travelers have contacted RDU to register objections in the six weeks since the Transportation Security Administration began a new, more invasive style of pat-downs. TSA officials say they have received about 2,000 complaints nationwide.

Several RDU passengers described indignities suffered at the hands of grim-faced officers, and others said they would never fly out of RDU until the security practices are changed.

Breasts, buttocks and genitals get hands-on treatment when transportation security officers rub airline passengers through their clothing. The agents sometimes slip gloved fingers inside the edges of underwear, to touch bare skin.

They're feeling around for plastic explosives that might elude discovery by metal detectors and other screening, TSA says.

"We are sensitive to the concerns of all passengers and work to balance those concerns with the very real threat that our adversaries will attempt to use explosives to carry out attacks on planes," said Jonathan Allen, a TSA spokesman.

Survivors of sexual assault feel especially vulnerable during the new security screening, advocates and local travelers say. Rape crisis counselors say the pat-downs trigger post-traumatic stress reactions - making survivors of rape and abuse feel like victims all over again.

"When somebody is a victim of sexual violence, their personal autonomy over their own body has been violated," said Jennifer Marsh, director of the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which has heard from victims affected by the pat-downs.

"A lot of times during the screening, they have the same feelings they experienced during their assault, because they don't feel like they're in control of the situation, and because of how they are physically being touched," Marsh said.

The agency began the more invasive pat-downs in late October, for travelers who opt out of high-tech scanning machines that create naked-body images - and for those who trigger alarms in the scanners or in metal detectors.

Most stoic; others irate

Many travelers accept the scanning and touching as a necessary inconvenience to keep air travel safe. Some give high marks to the agents who frisk them.

"They told me exactly what they were going to do before they did it," said Daniel Chung, 28, of Raleigh, after a Nov. 18 flight out of RDU. "For safety purposes, if that's what it takes, who am I to say different?"

But critics say TSA agents are not well trained for this delicate duty.

"They're coming into very intimate contact with people like rape victims whose trauma may still be very fresh for them," said Jay Stanley, an American Civil Liberties Union policy analyst. "A couple of training sessions for TSA agents is not sufficient to allow them to handle this kind of situation with the sensitivity and dignity that American people deserve."

TSA agents let travelers walk through the metal detector repeatedly until they track down all the coins, keys and buckles that trigger the alarm.

But there's no second chance with the body scanner to resolve false alarms - images that, after a pat-down, turn out to be nothing. Allen, the agency spokesman, would not explain why.

Tim Ely, a retired Army officer who once commanded a military police unit in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, filed an online complaint after a Nov. 20 confrontation at RDU. He was subjected to an intimate pat-down because of a false alarm from the body scanner.

After an agent groped around his genitals from in front and from behind, Ely challenged him to explain what sort of anomaly had turned up on his full-body scan.

"He said there was something suspicious hanging from between my legs," Ely, 63, wrote in his RDU online comment. "I told him that something suspicious was my [genitals], you dummy."

Feelings of humiliation

Calvin Powers, 46, of Raleigh, said his experience before boarding an RDU flight Nov. 23 humiliated him.

"He started running his hands all over my body," Powers said in an interview. "He went all the way up to my crotch and put pressure on the underside of my testicles.

"He stuck his hands down my pants, inside the waistband of my underwear. I could feel the latex gloves on my skin, and he went all the way around my body."

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, based in Pennsylvania, called on TSA last month to stop the intimate pat-downs, citing rape victims' concerns. Last week, center officials said TSA has promised to improve agents' training.

Passengers can ask to be screened in a private room, and they can have a traveling companion present to witness the pat-down, Allen said.

"Our officers are trained to treat all passengers with dignity and respect, and to fully communicate with each passenger to ensure they understand the process throughout screening," he said.