Is TSA Security Patdown Sexual Molestation?

New TSA search is far more physical than previous airport security checks.

November 15, 2010, 3:28 PM

Nov. 15, 2010— -- Just as Americans prepare to head home for Thanksgiving, the government is coming under fire for a new airport security patdown procedure that includes the touching of passengers' inner thighs and women's breasts.

From pilots' unions to viral online protests, Americans are telling the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that the government has gone too far in the name of security, equating the new searches to "sexual molestation" or "sexual assault."

Over the weekend, a 31-year-old software programmer was thrown out of San Diego International Airport after he got into an argument with a TSA screener about the new, more-aggressive patdown.

"If you touch my junk, I'm going to have you arrested," John Tyner told the male screener. Tyner recorded audio of the whole 30-minute incident with the TSA on his cell phone's video camera, a video now with hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube.

"It was probably not the most artful way of expressing my point but I was trying to keep it lighthearted; I did not want a big situation. I said it with a half smile on my face," Tyner told ABC News.

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A supervisor comes over, explains the groin check and tells Tyner, according to the cell-phone recording: "If you're not comfortable with that, we can escort you back out and you don't have to fly today."

Tyner responded "OK, I don't understand how a sexual assault can be made a condition of my flying."

"This is not considered a sexual assault," replied the female supervisor.

"It would be if you were not the government," Tyner said. He then adds: "I'd like only my wife and maybe my doctor to touch me there."

So will he fly again soon?

"I'm not planning on it. You know, I've had some people suggest that I'm probably on a no-fly list now," Tyner said. "But until these machines go away, I wasn't really planning on flying anywhere again anyway."

And it's not just passengers who are upset with the searches. Pilots are speaking out about the searches, with one going so far as to say he felt sexually molested, and vomited in his own driveway while contemplating going back to work, and being subjected to another patdown.

The uproar has been so strong that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and TSA Administrator John Pistole Monday defended the new practices saying such moves are necessary to protect the flying public.

Opt Out Day: Group Protests Searches

Napolitano also attacked an online "group" headed by Brian Sodegren, which is suggesting that the public purposely request patdowns the day before Thanksgiving, a move likely to clog security checkpoints on the busy travel day. (Sodegren said there is no intent or desire to cause delays.)

"It's the day ordinary citizens stand up for their rights, stand up for liberty, and protest the federal government's desire to virtually strip us naked or submit to an 'enhanced patdown' that touches people's breasts and genitals in an aggressive manner," his group, Opt Out Day, proclaims on its website.

Napolitano said she regrets the group's call for a protest and told the public to "use some common sense."

Sodegren told ABC News that people are fed up, some to the point of not flying anymore, because of these new procedures.

"What we have is the perfect storm of the pilots, flight attendants and now passengers rejecting the body scanners and enhanced patdowns in favor of a more reasonable approach," he said. "My main goal in starting this was to get the message out there, and from the support I'm getting, I think the message is getting out loud and clear."

Starting Oct. 29, the TSA implemented new rules allowing TSA officers to patdown passengers with the front of their hands, instead of the backs of their hands. The new procedures come as the TSA continues to deploy full-body scanners, formally known as Advanced Imaging Technology, at airports.

The full-body scanners provide security screeners with essentially nude images of travelers. To ensure privacy, faces are blurred and the images are deleted once the TSA officer determines that the passenger is not a threat. The person viewing the images is in a remote location and communicates with the on-site officer via radio.

Passengers can opt out of the scanner but are subject to a physical patdown by an officer of the same gender. A security expert who demonstrated the new procedure on a mannequin for ABC News explained the changes.

"You go down the body and up to the breast portion," said Charles Slepian of the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center. "If it's a female passenger, you're going to see if there's anything in the bra."

Besides privacy concerns, passengers have questioned the safety and radiation levels of the 450 scanners that have been phased in starting in March.

"These things, they've been examined six ways to Sunday," Napolitano said Monday. "The FDA, Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. Science and Standards Association, have all measured the radiation involved in an AIT. It's almost immeasurable, it is so small. It's the equivalent to maybe about two minutes worth of being in flight. You know, you're exposed to radiation when you fly in a plane anyway. So these things are really miniscule."

Those repeated statements by the government haven't quieted fears.

One privacy watchdog group had gone so far as to file a lawsuit in a federal court, seeking to have the machines removed from airports.

"These machines are not effective against powdered explosives, they create substantial health risks and they are a violation the privacy of American travelers," said Ginger McCall of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Even the pilots are protesting.

The head of Allied Pilots Association, a union representing 11,000 American Airlines pilots, wrote an e-mail to pilots earlier this month suggesting that they forgo both going through a full-body scanner and submitting to a patdown. But Captain Dave Bates, head of the union, went even one step further, suggesting that pilots request that patdown in private.

"There is absolutely no denying that the enhanced patdown is a demeaning experience. In my view, it is unacceptable to submit to one in public while wearing the uniform of a professional airline pilot. I recommend that all pilots insist that such screening is performed in an out-of-view area to protect their privacy and dignity," he wrote to his members.

"It is a source of continual astonishment to me that pilots -- many of whom, it should be pointed out, are military veterans who possess security clearances -- are not allowed to carry onboard their airplanes pocket knives and bottles of shampoo, but then they're allowed to fly enormous, fuel-laden, missile-like objects over American cities," he added.

Captain Mike Cleary, head of the US Airways Pilots Association, followed up saying the new searches are "intrusive and have been implemented almost overnight" and that one pilot was so traumatized that he couldn't do his job.

"The words this pilot used to describe the incident included 'sexual molestation,' and in the aftermath of trying to recover, this pilot reported that he had literally vomited in his own driveway while contemplating going back to work and facing the possibility of a similar encounter with the TSA," Cleary said.

Cleary advised pilots to have a fellow crew member on hand to witness a patdown.

But at least one security expert says this is just politicking by pilots who want their own pass through security and that such invasive searches are necessary.

"If you don't do an invasive patdown, you can miss something. Of all people, the pilots should understand that," said Douglas R. Laird, a former director of security at Northwest Airlines who now runs his own aviation security consulting company Laird & Associates, Inc. "I think they are playing politics."

Napolitano said that she recognized that the pilots had concerns, especially when they are the trusted individuals who ensure the safety of passengers once they are on the planes.

"Now the pilots have raised some objections, part of it is because they have to go through so many times -- it's not about radiation I think so much as, 'look, we're pilots, we control the planes anyway.'" Napolitano said, "They would like to have some kind of expedited way to get through security, recognizing they're actually going to be in the cockpit. And, you know they have a legitimate argument there. We recognize that, we're working with the pilots groups and we hope to very quickly be able to announce some things where pilots are concerned."

Laird flew out of airports in Denver and Los Angeles last week and watched screeners do the new patdowns. Yes, he said, they are very invasive but necessary.

"If you don't get up and really feel to make sure that there's nothing there, there's no point in doing it," he said. "For men and women both, you have to feel the crotch area to make sure there is nothing there. The only way to do that is to be intrusive."

He blames the TSA for doing a poor job of explaining the new searches to the public.

"The dilemma they are in is if they explain too much, they risk scaring the public," he added. "I think it's a small liberty to give up for the safety of all."

With reports from ABC News Jason Ryan