A grassroots effort that began with a single Web page exhorting air travelers to decline body scans has become a full-fledged Internet sensation that has the uncommon distinction of officially irking the Transportation Security Administration.
The idea behind National Opt-Out Day is simple: on the day before Thanksgiving, when screening lines stretch so far they seem to snake back on themselves like an ouroboros, Americans should opt out of what critics call "pornoscans." Instead, they should choose a police-style pat-down instead, which will take TSA screeners far longer to complete.
TSA head John Pistole initially called the idea "irresponsible" in a statement last week. At a breakfast meeting with reporters yesterday, he moderated his criticisms and warned there was the "potential" for slowdowns if the opt-out protest is widespread.
It may be. Few federal agencies have found themselves the subject of so much public obloquy in such a short time. TSA screeners have been mocked by the cast of Saturday Night Live, lampooned in verse by Grammy-winning musician Steve Vaus, and parodied in a cartoon video. Rush Limbaugh offered this memorable call to arms: "Keep your hands off my tea bag, Mr. President."
Members of Congress are pushing back against TSA's new procedures, and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was forced yesterday to say that TSA was not being inconsistent in its public statements. An ABC News poll found increasing public opposition to full body X-ray scanners. Last week's viral video featured John "Don't Touch My Junk" Tyner; this week's showed a young boy being screened with his shirt removed. (That video garnered more than 1.1 million views on YouTube and a response by TSA saying that "no complaints were filed" as a result of the incident.)
National Opt-Out Day began quietly enough, with a one-page Web site created by Brian Sodergren of Ashburn, Va. Then it began to rocket around Twitter and the loose confederation of anti-body screening Web sites including DontScan.us, StopDigitalStripSearches.org, and WeWontFly.com. The phrase returns over half a million hits on Google.
James Babb, who with George Donnelly co-founded the We Won't Fly grassroots group that's promoting the opt-out concept, says he's "just a regular dad" who began organizing locally a month ago after he learned the full-body scanners were coming to the nearby Philadelphia airport.
Their online effort was an instant hit. "By the third day of our Web site, we had to get a new server because it almost melted," Babb told CNET yesterday. "It totally went viral."
In a pre-Internet era, TSA could have weathered these criticisms, which would probably never have coalesced into a date and a strategy for what might be called strict civil obedience. But as the Thanksgiving travel season draws near, the reaction to TSA's new procedures has been visceral and sharply critical, aided by cell phone recordings of security line incidents, privacy and health concerns, and Web sites including the Drudge Report, which published a photograph of a hands-on examination of a nun with the caption: "THE TERRORISTS HAVE WON." (See CNET's earlier coverage.)
"If enough people (opt-out), the theory is that it'll bog down their bogus security theater," Babb says. "We don't think they have the manpower to put their hands in everyone's pants...The American people aren't going to do it. They're not going to be irradiated and they're not going to have their kids felt up."
That, simply put, is the difficult choice that millions of air travelers will face over the next month or so during the busy holiday season.
Not all U.S. airports have the whole-body scanners. Thanks to the federal stimulus legislation, however, TSA has been able to buy nearly 400 of the units and install them in approximately 70 airports around the country. Congress has given the TSA enough money to install 100 more machines by the end of this year, and the total is set to reach 1,000 by the end of 2011.
For its part, the TSA has continued to defend its new procedures, which offer air travelers a choice of either full-body scans or what the TSA delicately calls "enhanced patdowns." Pistole said in a statement this week that: "This has always been viewed as an evolving program that will be adapted as conditions warrant, and we greatly appreciate the cooperation and understanding of the American people." TSA also said that no changes were planned.
TSA says that approximately 34 million passengers have traveled by air since the new procedures began in late October and that less than 3 percent of travelers received the more stringent physical search that can include genital touching. If those numbers are correct, that means that about a million travelers were subjected to those procedures.
On MSNBC yesterday, Pistole said: "We are facing a determined enemy who has proven adept at building, concealing, designing bombs that are going to kill hundreds of people on one aircraft. And then they've also done the same on cargo aircraft to affect our economy."
Pistole is not alone in warning that a pat-down, ah, slowdown isn't exactly desirable. Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, calls it a "cruel way to protest for a valid cause." And the American Society of Travel Agents has said even a small number of opt-outs could cause huge delays.
Edward Hasbrouck, an author and consumer travel advocate who lives in San Francisco, says the TSA "has finally crossed the line of public tolerances for their outrages."
But, Hasbrouck adds: "That's merely a symptom of the problem that since day one, the TSA has taken the position that they should be outside the rule of law. They believe they should not be liable if they commit sexual assault." (He predicts lawsuits or prosecutions, especially in places like the San Francisco airport, where the local district attorney has promised to indict overly touchy screeners.)
"It's kind of neat to see America rising up for a change and asserting their rights as individuals, saying 'We're not slaves. You don't own us,'" says Babb, one of the opt-out day campaigners. "It's long overdue."