Telling the TSA 'No.'

TSA's well-publicized policy on full-body scanners and aggressive pat-downs has led to a cottage industry in making fun of the agency. ( illustration; AP photo)

If the rallying cry of outraged air travelers last fall was “Don’t Touch My Junk,” a simpler and softer call has risen from an Alaska state representative and breast cancer survivor.


It's a powerful word, Sharon Cissna told a Congressional subcommittee today. And each time she said it to a growing circle of TSA agents, airport workers and police in Seattle last month, she felt more confident.

“No,” the Democrat from Anchorage recalled saying, “I will not be physically touched. I will leave the airport. There will be another way to return to the state house in Juneau.”

She used the word horror to describe what had happened in November, when she was returning from surgery and her  prosthetic breast triggered  a whole-body imaging machine alarm. She likened the pat-down she received as a “feeling up.”

 As a girl she’d been touched inappropriately, she told the panel, and as a mental health counselor since 1962 she’s tended victims of abuse.

 So when she learned that to get on the plane  last month she’d have to undergo another patdown, she refused. She left the airport, and traveled four days — by car, ferry and small plane — to get home.

Cissna provided the most emotional moments for the first morning of testimony that a House subcommittee has called to probe the efficiency and safety of whole-body imaging machines.

The drama was provided by the jockeying between Democrats and Republicans over whether officials from the Transportation Security Administration would get to testify.
TSA officials objected Monday to having to sit next to the head of a privacy group that has sued the agency five times. Democrats were more sympathetic to the TSA’s discomfort.

Mid-way through the hearing the TSA agreed to send two officials to answer questions, but with 45 minutes left before the room was needed by another panel, subcommittee chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, announced the TSA would have to come another day. Ultimately, he agreed to accommodate the witnesses.

  There was much pointed testimony during a discussion of the scanners’ health and effectiveness.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said his group is battling the TSA to see  2,000 images of passengers’ bodies it believes the agency has kept,  contending that despite TSA statement to the contrary, the machines can store these sensitive pictures when set in a 'training' mode.

David Brenner, a Columbia University expert in radiation biology, estimated that  if the TSA gets to roll out as many x-ray machines as planned, the exposure to radiation could cause 100 cases of cancer a year.

(This was a statistical analysys based on the probability of contracting cancer from one scan: one in 10 million. The TSA's planned deployment of these scanners would create a billion scans a year, he figured. The amount of exposure is basically equal to what you'd get flying at 30,000 feet.)

Why, he asked, would we take that risk when an equally effective machine sends out radio waves, which pose no known risk?

Money, answered Stewart Baker, a former policy chief for the Department of Homeland Security. Since only one company provides the radio wave machines, he said, the price would surely escalate.

 None of the panelists said that the new technology, which will ultimately cost about $500 million, would have caught the liquid explosives hidden in the underpants of the so-called Christmas Day bomber, accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound plane in 2009.

The whole-body scanners aren’t perfect, but they are the best technology yet, Baker said. He said dogs might be better detectors of explosives, but every half hour they need to go out and play.

Since Cissna’s decision to never go through a whole-body imager again, she has heard from 28 people who’ve made that same pledge.

To that list add Michael Rowan, a property manager from Pennsville, N.J. who has three daughters.  “What father would put his child in a position to be humiliated and sexually abused,” he told me. Next month he’ll drive his daughters to Orlando to see their grandmother.

 To testify, Cissna   had to fly from Anchorage, but since that airport doesn’t use whole-body imaging she was comfortable.

 The way home is another matter. Her husband researched which East Coast airports don’t use the more revealing technology, or make those who set off alarms endure more invasive patdowns. They decided to fly out of New York State, which will require a train and bus to the plane, a two-day trip.

Apologizing for her words, she told me after her testmony, “I'm never going to be felt up again.”