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Third Party and Independent activists united in opposition to full-body scanners and enhanced pat-downs

by Damon Eris, published

It may seem like the current uproar and ongoing revolt against the Transportation Security Administration’s newest security protocols came out of nowhere, but opposition to full-body scanners has been building for some time.  The breadth of the opposition is perhaps most clearly apparent in the unified position of third party and Independent activists from across the political spectrum.   

Just under a year ago, the advanced imaging technology could be found in use at fewer than two dozen airports, where they were deployed for their initial public testing phase.  However, following the failed bomb plot by the so-called “underwear bomber” on Christmas Day 2009, there were increased calls for heightened airport security measures.  In a Quinnipiac University poll from January 14th, 2010, 63% of respondents stated that the government's anti-terror policies put too much emphasis on protecting civil liberties and not enough on ensuring national security, and a whopping 84% supported more widespread use of airport body scanners.  The TSA obliged and, over the course of the year, installed and unveiled new full-body scanning machines at airports across the country in at least two different waves, one this spring and another in late October.  

From the very beginning, opposition to the scanners made for strange political bedfellows: the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association were early opponents of TSA plans to deploy the scanners throughout the country. The breadth of the opposition is even more apparent when one considers the positions of third party and Independent political activists.  Independent, Green, Libertarian, Pirate Party and Constitution Party activists are united in their opposition to the TSA’s new security protocols.  

Mary Starrett, the Communications Director of the conservative Constitution Party, published an early and robust diatribe against the scanners in late January.  Pulling no punches, Starrett argued that:

     “X-rays zapping us at airports and government buildings across the country . . . are being touted as another small step toward a more secure America.  In truth, they represent a giant leap toward slavery.”  

Starrett elaborated a series of arguments that are by now familiar to anyone who has been following the controversy.  They are unconstitutional and violate the Fourth Amendment.  They likely pose a significant health risk, and they represent an unreasonable breach of personal privacy.  

Over the course of the year, opposition has only grown, as more and more travelers have been confronted with and had to pass through the machines.  Former Green Party presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, has urged Congress to hold rigorous hearings to review the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration’s use of full-body scanners.  In addition to broaching the issues raised by Starrett, Nader questioned the effectiveness of the machines in a letter to the members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs from September 7th, in which the longtime consumer rights advocate wrote:

     “Many security experts have concluded that scanning devices can be easily defeated by concealing explosives in body cavities. A March 2010 GAO report concluded that it was unclear whether scanning devices would have detected the explosives hidden in the underwear of a man who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airplane last Christmas.”

Shortly thereafter, Bradley Hall published an article at the website of the US Pirate Party warning that body scanners and advanced imaging technology were being purchased in large numbers by US law enforcement agencies, and could well be deployed far beyond the confines of the airport security perimeter.  

     “US law enforcement agencies are among the customers of a Massachusetts-based company that is selling full-body scanners to be mounted inside vans and used on streets,” he wrote on the basis of a report by Forbes.  Hall indicated the high potential for the abuse of such machines by drawing a comparison with airport body scanners.

     “The body scanners currently being expanded to most major US airports have caused some controversy among privacy advocates. While the Department of Homeland Security initially claimed the machines would not have the ability to store nude images of passengers,” he continued, “the Electronic Privacy Information Center discovered earlier this year that the machines being installed at airports have a setting that allows them to store and transmit the images.  There have been several high-profile cases of screening technology being abused.”

Of course, in recent weeks, the number of high-profile incidents revealing the controversial nature of the scanners and surrounding protocols has skyrocketed.  This is due, in no small part, to the fact that anyone who chooses to opt out of a full-body scan is subjected to an invasive physical search referred to by the TSA as “enhanced pat downs.”  Given that the US government’s so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques are in many cases indistinguishable from traditional forms of torture, it should come as no surprise that the DHS/TSA’s “enhanced pat downs” are being compared to sexual assault and molestation.  One can only wonder what they will “enhance” next.     

Mark Hinkle, the Chair of the Libertarian Party, has called for an immediate end to the program and protocol.  

     “The TSA should end the strip-search machine program immediately. We've reached a point where our government has no qualms about humiliating us,” Hinkle states in a press release from earlier this month.  He continues, “The fact that I want to travel on an airplane does not make me a threat, and it does not allow anyone to conduct a warrantless search under my clothing.”

Independent citizens’ groups aimed at resisting and shutting down the program are being founded on an almost daily basis. There are Fed Up Flyers, We Won’t Fly, Don’t Scan Us, Fly with Dignity, and finally Opt Out Day, which is calling for a nationwide boycott of the scanners on one of the most hectic travel days of the year, November 24th.  

The widespread political opposition to strip-search scanners and enhanced pat-downs has finally resulted in some movement among Democratic and Republican party lawmakers to investigate the controversial programs.  Bipartisan groups in the New Jersey and Idaho state legislatures have begun efforts to ban the use of the machines in their respective states, and the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has announced that there will be a full committee hearing on Transportation Security Administration oversight today.