Lawmaker who rejects airport pat-downs challenges TSA rules

Lisa DemerAlaska Dispatch News
Rep. Sharon Cissna, D-Anchorage, left, answers questions from members of the press after disembarking the Alaska Ferry Matanuska, in Juneau, Alaska Thursday, February 24th, 2011. Cissna's four-day ordeal began when she refused to be patted down by TSA agents in the Seattle-Tacoma airport following a full body scan that detected her mastectomy, which the TSA agent felt necessitated the extra security precaution of a full body pat down, Cissna's second in three months. She refused, and took a ferry from Prince Rupert, British Columbia to Juneau to return to her legislative duties. Cisna vowed Thursday to fight for the rights of travelers who have been subjected to what she considers intrusive airport searches by federal airport screeners.
Chris Miller / AP Photo

JUNEAU -- State Rep. Sharon Cissna made headlines around the country a year ago when she refused an airport security pat down in Seattle and said she'll never go through an invasive check again.

Now the Anchorage Democrat is pushing a package of four bills in an attempt to reform airport security across Alaska.

One would criminalize security pat downs -- or as Cissna calls them, "feel-ups'' -- that involve touching a passenger's genitals or breasts even through clothing. Another would place signs in airports warning travelers of the possibility of offensive searches or potential exposure to radiation from screening devices. A third would lead to health studies of screening.

Her last measure says state and municipal airports in Alaska must apply to opt out of Transportation Security Administration screening by the end next year. Airports would still have security, just not staffed by TSA.

"I've been flying for 68 years. I've never been on a plane where there was a terrorist," said Cissna, who turns 70 this year.

The airport security measures imposed since 9/11 go too far, she said. People are undeservedly singled out for extra checks if they have complicated medical issues that cause an anomaly to appear on digital body scanners, Cissna said. Medical devices with wires, implants and prosthetic devices all can lead to pat downs. That's been her experience. She had breast cancer and a mastectomy, and wears a prosthesis.

Instead, airports can use metal detectors and trained dogs to identify dangers, she said.

Cissna's complaints resonate with some even if her specific proposals raise concerns.

"I'm no TSA fan, I've got to tell you," said state Rep. Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He called it "a monstrous institution" that grew too big and too powerful.

He said agrees that TSA is too aggressive.

"I've seen it look absolutely abusive," Gatto said earlier this week. "Grandma, freckle-faced, gray hair, probably weighs 80 pounds, being patted down."


Cissna said she underwent a "horrifying" physical check in 2010 that was more invasive than a doctor's exam.

Last February, she was again singled out for extra screening after her prosthesis showed up on the screening device in Seattle. She refused to be touched by a TSA agent and couldn't board the plane. She made her way back to Juneau by rental car, small plane, taxi and ferry and became the new darling of the anti-TSA crowd. She said she's heard from more than 1,000 people around the country who feel airport security measures are too extreme.

Some question whether what Cissna is proposing would change the experience of passengers and do away with the most intrusive of the federal checks.

Cissna gives the example of San Francisco International Airport as successfully opting out of TSA screening. But security is provided by private screeners under contract to TSA who follow the same procedures.

"They go to the same training. They have the same equipment, the same uniforms," said San Francisco airport spokesman Michael McCarron.

A traveler wouldn't notice the difference, said state Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage and a member of two committees where Cissna's bills are being heard.

Contractors at commercial airports that opt out of TSA still use digital body scanners and pat downs, according to TSA. And no new airports are being allowed to opt out unless they can show an operational, cost or security benefit, TSA says. Some 17 airports have opted out or been approved to do so, but TSA has turned down requests from two others.


As to Cissna's proposals, the Transportation Security Administration doesn't comment on pending legislation, but the agency doesn't intend to do away with its basic tools, a spokesman said.

"Current intelligence tells us that terrorists are seeking to use well-concealed, nonmetallic improvised explosive devices, which are designed to circumvent metal detectors," TSA spokesman Kawika Riley said in an email. "Advanced imaging technology and pat- downs are two of the most effective ways to detect these types of threats."

The most radical of the four measures would create a new crime of "interference with access to transportation facilities."

It is similar to a tea party-backed Texas bill that unanimously cleared the House there last year. The federal government threatened to shut down flights, and the anti-groping bill, as backers called it, died in the Texas Senate.

Under Cissna's House Bill 262, TSA agents could be charged with a misdemeanor if they require a passenger to be patted down or go through a scanner that produces an electronic image revealing a normally hidden characteristic about the person's body. The devices used at the Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan airports produce an image of a generic human form, not a detailed depiction of the person being screened, but Cissna said she still has a problem with them and wants to make their use illegal in Alaska.

The bill had a second hearing Wednesday in the House Judiciary Committee, where even Cissna sympathizers said they were troubled by it.

"I don't want to provoke a confrontation with the TSA," Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, said. "I think most people want to travel. They don't want to be stuck in Alaska."

Gatto said Cissna has not proposed a good alternative for airport security if screeners can't touch passengers or look at body images on a digital scanner. Until she does, he's locking up the bill in his committee, he said.

TSA is switching to a "risk-based" approach, officials have said. At some point, travelers may not have to routinely remove their shoes to get through security.

Cissna said none of that goes far enough.

She missed Wednesday's meeting on her bill. She's traveling by small plane and car -- two days each way -- as she heads back to Anchorage for a constituent meeting, all to avoid airport screening.

Airport security bills

* HB 262: Makes it a misdemeanor for anyone, including a TSA employee, to pat down a passenger or make a passenger submit to a revealing electronic body image scanner. Sponsor: Rep. Sharon Cissna.

* HB 270: Requires signs in airports warning of the possibility of invasive pat-downs or exposure to radiation through a scanner. Sponsors: Cissna and Reps. Max Gruenberg and Chris Tuck.

* HB 319: Requires studies of the health effects of airport screening, including the potential for psychological trauma, physical effects and exposure to disease. Sponsor: Cissna.

* HB 321: Requires airports to apply by Dec. 31, 2013, to opt out of TSA screening. Sponsor: Cissna. • HB 348: Allows a passenger undergoing a private pat-down to have a witness present. Sponsor: Tuck

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