Alaska considering options on pat-downs

/ Source: The Associated Press

Alaska is evaluating whether a compromise can be reached with the federal government over airport pat-downs that many passengers consider intrusive, Attorney General John J. Burns said Tuesday.

Burns told The Associated Press a balance must be struck between safety and "inappropriate contact." Flying isn't optional for many Alaskans; given Alaska's location, flying is often the most feasible option for getting to the Lower 48. Burns said the state is evaluating its options when it comes to full body pat-downs, including whether it has any say in the procedures carried out by the federal Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, and whether any compromise on the issue can be reached with the federal government.

"To many people, it is incredibly offensive to be pulled off and to have, you know, the violation of the body," Burns said.

The evaluation is not a directive from Gov. Sean Parnell, though Parnell is fine with Burns looking into the issue, the governor's spokeswoman said. Parnell's office also has received complaints about the TSA screening process.

Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman, said he knows of no plans by the agency to re-evaluate its current procedures.

The pat-down issue was brought to the forefront in Alaska last month after state Rep. Sharon Cissna, a breast cancer survivor who had had a mastectomy, was pulled aside for a pat-down search after a body scan. She refused and was denied a flight from a Seattle airport.

That set off a four-day odyssey that included Cissna taking a ferry to return to Juneau, where the Legislature is in session. It also turned her into something of a spokeswoman for others who considered the searches invasive.

Since her return, the Legislature has passed a resolution calling on the TSA to reconsider its use of full-body pat-down searches. It also calls on Congress to exercise greater oversight over the agency.

The TSA has defended the pat-downs and other screening techniques, saying they're meant to improve the agency's ability to keep the public safe. TSA has said body scanners, the likes of which Cissna went through before refusing a pat-down, are meant to show anomalies. Pat-downs are supposed to help agents determine what the anomaly is.

The agency, on its website, says travelers won't be asked to remove prosthetic devices but "Security Officers will need to see and touch" them as part of the screening process.

The scanners became prominent after a man was accused of trying of blow up a plane using explosives hidden in his underwear in late 2009.

Melendez said there are at least 500 machines in 80 commercial airports around the country. There are none currently at Alaska's largest commercial airport, in Anchorage, he said, and it's not clear if there ever will be: a decision hasn't been made on whether the TSA will seek to deploy scanners to all commercial airports, he said.

But there are machines in the Lower 48, which Alaskans have to go through to return home.

"It's not as if we have the option to simply ignore the TSA constraints," Burns said.