TSA Critics Call For Day Of Protest

The head of the TSA says he will reconsider the passenger screening procedures that have created a public backlash, but he warned the public not to expect changes anytime soon. Critics of the new procedures are planning a protest on Wednesday that could lengthen lines and disrupt holiday travel schedules.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

And we begin this hour with the growing public outcry over screening procedures now being used at many U.S. airports - specifically, full-body scans and enhanced pat-downs. The White House announced today that these procedures could change. And in a moment, we'll hear from a Republican lawmaker who says they can't change fast enough.

But first, NPR's Tamara Keith reports on efforts to stage a day of protest this Wednesday.

TAMARA KEITH: So far, this controversy has spawned at least one YouTube folk hero, the don't-touch-my-junk guy. And as of this weekend, a Saturday Night Live sketch.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")

Unidentified Woman: Do you want to feel contact in certain special places?

Unidentified Man: Then why not go through security at an airport?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEITH: The sketch, which has now been forwarded many times over, plays like a late-night TV ad for adult services.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")

Unidentified Woman: The TSA. It's our business to touch yours.

KEITH: But for James Babb, this isn't a laughing matter.

Mr. JAMES BABB (Activist): Nobody wants to be groped. Nobody wants to have nude pictures taken of their family. Who is going to stand by and allow that?

KEITH: Babb is one of the people behind the We Wont Fly campaign, one of two Internet campaigns calling on passengers to protest security screenings this Wednesday. He says the full-body scans are invasive, and enhanced pat-downs go too far. He and others are calling on passengers not to fly and if they must, opt out of the scan.

Mr. BABB: And if enough of us do it, it will bog down their baloney security theater. They just don't have the manpower to put their hands in everyone's pants.

KEITH: Babb is a libertarian from suburban Philadelphia. More than 15,000 people are now following his campaign on Facebook.

Mr. BABB: They have no need to search us. We are not suspects. We are not criminals. We are travelers, and we have the right to not be invaded in that way.

KEITH: For many, the greatest objection is to the images created by the full-body scanners. Bill Wattenburg is a semi-retired government scientist who spent most of his career working on national security issues. He says the TSA could have avoided all of this if only it had done what he suggested back in 2006.

Dr. BILL WATTENBURG (Scientific Consultant, Livermore National Laboratory): The minute we heard that TSA was going to put such machines in airports, a number of scientists and I sort of smiled because we knew instantly what they would be showing if they weren't a little bit clever about disguising the images.

KEITH: Wattenburg developed a plan to distort the scanner images like a funhouse mirror, without compromising security. He sent the idea in for a patent and sent it to the TSA, to no avail. A TSA spokesman we contacted didn't respond directly to Wattenburg's claim. But he did say that TSA is now working on software that will replace more detailed body outlines with a generic, stick figure-like image.

As for the opt-out day protest planned for Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano described it as counterproductive. Today at the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs said he expects the security procedures will evolve over time.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Spokesman, White House): Our goal must be to maximize protection and security, and minimize inconvenience and invasiveness.

KEITH: The advice from the airline industry: Wednesday is going to be a hectic day regardless of protests, and passengers should show up early.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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