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Fliers liken pat-downs to sexual assault

Travelers who have undergone full-body put-downs by federal security agents describe a procedure that they say would be illegal sexual assault if it weren't being done by the government.
A Transportation Security Administration agent performs an enhanced pat-down Wednesday on a traveler at a security area at Denver International Airport in Denver.
A Transportation Security Administration agent performs an enhanced pat-down Wednesday on a traveler at a security area at Denver International Airport in Denver.CRAIG F. WALKER / AP
/ Source: and NBC News

If you refuse to go through one of the Transportation Security Administration's new full-body security scanners at the airport, don't be startled if a TSA employee grabs you by the private parts, according to travelers who have undergone security inspections that they claim would be illegal sexual assault if they weren't being done by the government.

If you're lucky, you simply get waved through the metal detector. If you're not, critics say, it's a Hobson's choice: You can pose for uncomfortably graphic full-body images in the new scanners, more than 300 of which are in use across the country, or you can get groped by the government. "If they refuse that, they will not fly," said Dwight Baird, a spokesman for the TSA. Door No. 3 is the exit.

That means "we're going to continue to get more and more violated," said Jennifer Lynn Woods of Salt Lake City, Utah, who said "I looked like somebody just about to cry" after she was randomly chosen for what the TSA calls an "extended pat-down" at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix this week.

During her inspection — which Woods said took place in a small cubicle in view of other passengers — an agent patted up her legs from her ankles and cupped her genitals. Then, the agent pulled her elastic skirt band away from her waist and looked down her skirt, she said.

"By the end of it, I had my arms across my face and didn't want to have anything to do with it," said Woods, who said the "humiliating" experience left her feeling like she'd been molested.

The TSA said it couldn't discuss exactly what happens in an extended pat-down for security reasons. But other travelers who've undergone one are under no such constraint.

"I think it's sexual violation," said Erin Chase of Atlanta, who was patted down when she flew out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport last week with her young child.

"The TSA person proceeded to touch the outside of my clothing, my buttocks — including my private parts in the front — and touched in front of my breasts," Chase said. "I think it's sexual molestation all the way around."

Judith Briles of Aurora, Colo., said she is always pulled out of the scanner line because she has two knee implants, which inevitably trigger an alarm when she tries to go through. So she's already had several intimately personal encounters with TSA screeners

"They're doing full frontal, where they run their hands over your breasts — they will cup your breast — and they’re going inside your collar," Briles said. "If anyone pulled what TSA is doing, they would be sued and fired for just blatant sexual harassment."

Briles called the procedure "a joke" and said that "taking off your clothes for a full-body massage would have more integrity."

Howard Bovers of Bend, Ore., said he, too, was appalled.

"I just think it doesn't require patting some poor guy in the crotch," Bovers said as he prepared to leave on a flight this week at Redmond Municipal Airport in Redmond, Ore. "That's ridiculous."

Baird of the TSA said travelers were exaggerating the intrusiveness of the inspections, which he said "have long been one of the security measures that TSA and virtually every other nation has used in its risk-based approach to help detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives."That's just fine with other travelers.

"If it's going to make us safer, then I'm OK with whatever action they may have to take," said McCall Greenwood, who flew out of the Boise, Idaho, airport Tuesday.

“It was fine," said Sharon Thompson, who was screened Wednesday at Elmira-Corning Regional Airport in Big Flats, N.Y.

"They explained it, everything that they we’re going to do," she said, repeating, "I had no problem with it."

There's one other group that also doesn't mind the new measures.

The American Association for Nude Recreation said it was offering a "Certificate of Achievement" for anyone who "proudly supports TSA body scanning measures."

"They're only bringing what nature gave them aboard," said Erich Schuttauf, executive director of the nudist group based in Kissimmee, Fla. "You can add the experience to your 'bucket list' as a virtual dipping of one's toe into taking a 'nakation' — that's a nudist vacation."