WASHINGTON — Airport travelers call it groping, prodding or just plain inappropriate — a pat-down that probes places where the sun doesn't shine. The Transportation Security Administration calls it the new reality of airport security.
Following the uncovering of a terrorist plot last month to blow up cargo planes en route to the United States, the TSA has instituted a new type of pat-down of passengers, a move that's part of a general tightening of air security. If a full-body scanning machine shows something strange or a passenger declines to go through the machine, an officer will perform a more personal search.
The examinations routinely involve the touching of breasts and genitals, invasive searches designed to find weapons and suspicious items. The searches, performed by TSA security officers of the same sex as the passenger, entail a sliding hand motion on parts of the body where a lighter touch was used before, aviation security analysts say. The areas of the body that are being touched haven't changed.
"There's nothing punitive about it; it just makes good security sense," the TSA said via its blog. "And the weapons and other dangerous and prohibited items we've found during pat downs speak to this."
But the new pat downs have prompted a growing backlash among pilots and flight attendants, civil liberties groups and security-weary passengers who say the touching goes too far.
"It's more than just patting you down. It's very intrusive and very insane. I wouldn't let anyone touch my daughter like that," said Marc Moniz of Poway, Calif., who is planning to accompany his daughter's eighth-grade class from San Diego to Washington in April.
In the latest escalation of the debate over the balance between security and passenger rights, privacy advocates have enlisted consumer rights activist and four-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who called the screening techniques "extremely voyeuristic and intrusive."
Brian Sodergren of Ashburn, Va., who works in the health care industry, is organizing an "opt-out" day to encourage passengers to say no to advanced imaging technology, known to industry insiders as a "virtual strip search." He's planning the protest for one of the busiest travel days of the year — Nov. 24.
Another activist group has launched WeWontFly.com, which says it has gotten more than 70,000 hits per day since going online just a week ago. The site asks passengers to say no to scans and pat downs and for TSA to remove its "porno-scanners" and "gropers."
"We're opposed to letting TSA treat us like criminals," said James Babb, 42, of Eagleville, Pa., an activist who is organizing the We Won't Fly campaign.
But while passengers can opt out of being put through the full body scanners, if they want to fly, they can't also opt out of the pat downs.
"It is irresponsible for a group to suggest travelers opt out of the very screening that could prevent an attack using non-metallic explosives," TSA Administrator John Pistole said. "This technology is not only safe, it's vital to aviation security and a critical measure to thwart potential terrorist attacks."
The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest union in the world representing 53,000 employees with 38 U.S. and Canadian airlines, said it is working with federal agencies to create an exception for pilots who have been subjected, they said, "to a long line of ever-increasing security measures that have frustrated and burdened."
Aviation security analysts say the chief change is the way TSA agents are touching passengers. Attorney Charles Slepian, founder of the Oregon-based Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center, a security consultancy, said full body scanners and frisks are useful for discovering knives or other hand-held weapons but are less effective for detecting terrorist devices, such as chemical explosives.
Other security experts say the enhanced physical examinations could be helpful in finding dangerous weapons hidden in underwear, such as the plastic explosives discovered on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian-born man who unsuccessfully tried to blow up a passenger plane to Detroit last Christmas Day.