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Associated Press, Published November 19 2010

Resistance to airport screening goes viral

CHICAGO — Most Americans haven't yet encountered the new full-body scanners at airports, but concerns about safety and privacy raised by the new screening methods are reaching a fever pitch, fanned by viral videos and the 24-hour news cycle.

The media crush has made a YouTube hit of video of a San Diego man warning a security officer last Saturday, "If you touch my junk, I'll file sexual assault charges." Conservative commentator Glenn Beck and libertarian Rep. Ron Paul have echoed the theme that the new pat-downs amount to molestation.

Wags have even created fake Twitter accounts, purportedly from the Transportation Security Administration. One imposter, @TSAgov, dubbed the new method of frisking passengers as "freedom pats."

The way the TSA rolled out the procedures has been a public relations disaster, said blogger Steven Frischling, who specializes in aviation security. Travelers singled out for the new screening have what some perceive as a Hobson's choice: submit to the controversial scans, or allow an officer to touch private body parts. That's fueled the notion that the pat-downs are punitive, aimed at discouraging people from opting out of the scans.

"It's the erosion of civil liberty that's the issue here, not the technology," said aviation consultant Robert Mann. "There's no guaranteed right to air travel. But at the same time, there's no suggestion that you lose all your rights when you travel."

The images don't have to be current to fuel the debate. A three-year-old video showing a shrieking toddler being patted down gained notoriety this week because it reinforced a long-standing complaint: that TSA's officers enforce its policies inconsistently, and sometimes in defiance of common sense, aviation analysts said.

Despite the fury, TSA Director John Pistole refused to back down from the invasive new screening methods, telling a Senate committee on Wednesday that the measures would protect flyers.

As to the popular grumble that pat-downs and enforcement rules can vary from checkpoint to checkpoint, TSA spokesman James Fotenos noted that the agency's 50,000-strong frontline staff screens 2 million people daily. "Our officers receive extensive training in evolving security procedures to support TSA's security mission," he said.

Despite the outcry, the vast majority of travelers support the new screening methods, according to recent surveys. Aviation and security analysts predict the furor will die down once travelers become accustomed to the new scanners.

"If you cherry-pick isolated incidents that I really doubt occurred as they are being spun, you get the Glenn Becks and Bill O'Reillys and the Ann Coulters railing against the government," said Tom Mockaitis, a terrorism expert at DePaul University. "These are the same people who a year ago railed that the government wasn't doing enough to stop terrorists after the Christmas Day attack."


(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.