Becky Bohrer, Associated Press
AUKE BAY, Alaska — An Alaska state lawmaker vowed Thursday to fight for the rights of travelers who have been subjected to what she considers intrusive airport searches by federal airport screeners.
A jubilant Rep. Sharon Cissna arrived by ferry in Auke Bay, just outside Juneau, after a four-day ordeal that began with her refusal to submit to a full-body pat-down at a Seattle airport ordered by Transportation Security Administration agents.
Cissna said travelers are "accidentally being abused by government," and it's an issue that must be dealt with.
Cissna, D-Anchorage, is a cancer survivor who has had a mastectomy. She underwent the full-body scan at the Seattle airport but was singled out for a further pat-down search, her second within three months.
Having vowed to never endure the pat-down procedure again, she decided to take a rental car and small airplane from Seattle to Prince Rupert, B.C., and from there, a two-day ferry ride to Juneau.
Her case is from far isolated and has turned the petite 68-year-old into an unlikely hero, applauded on Facebook and the state House floor for her stand.
"I feel really proud of Sharon," House Democratic leader Beth Kerttula said. "I think she stood up for thousands of Americans who are saying, why, when a woman has had a mastectomy, does she have to go through this?"
Since new screening measures took effect last year, the American Civil Liberties Union has reported receiving more than 1,000 complaints from travelers – including breast cancer survivors – who said they endured intrusive pat-downs. Among other things, the travelers claim TSA agents patted their genitals and ran fingers through their hair or along their bras or waistbands.
At least one federal lawsuit has been filed over the pat-downs. The plaintiffs in the case, pending in Washington, D.C., include a breast cancer survivor from California and a Kentucky man that the lawsuit says was presumably singled out for a pat-down due to an enlarged testicle.
"In terms of privacy issues, this is an outpouring the likes of which we rarely see, and it transcends all walks of life and political views because it is so personal," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst and privacy expert for the ACLU. "It is a personal encounter between government and individuals that traumatizes many people."
He said the issue underscores the need to invest more in law enforcement and intelligence efforts to pursue potential threats, and shows TSA must invest in different, less-invasive technologies.
TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird did not speak specifically to Cissna's case. But he said the agency takes passenger privacy seriously and builds privacy protections into its security methods. Baird said pat-downs, along with other screening techniques, are meant "to improve our ability to detect explosives hidden on a person and keep the traveling public safe."
He said that full-body scanners – the likes of which Cissna went through at a Seattle airport on Sunday – are meant to show anomalies. The scanners became prominent after a man was accused of trying of blow up a plane using explosives hidden in his underwear in late 2009.
If an anomaly is detected, Baird said, "we have to resolve the issue." A pat-down is one way of doing that.
The agency, on its website, says travelers won't be asked to remove prosthetic devices but "Security Officers will need to see and touch" them as part of the screening process.
The TSA insists it tries to make the process as comfortable as possible, allowing for passengers singled out for pat-downs to be screened privately and to have a travel companion with them. It has made cards available as a way for travelers to more discreetly inform TSA agents of any medical conditions or disabilities they have. But the cards don't exempt screening.
In response to Cissna's case, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has asked TSA Administrator John Pistole to clarify the agency's screening policy for passengers with special medical needs.