Was Utah Lawmaker Targeted by Airport Security?
Updated 3:50 p.m. ET
Incidents involving grumpy or impatient lawmakers at airport security checkpoints are nothing new, but now a House Republican claims that Transportation Security Administration officers unfairly targeted him because he voted against granting them collective bargaining rights.
The union representing some of the officers says they followed proper procedure and that an officer who had recently completed military service in Iraq did not recognize the freshman lawmaker.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has emerged as one of the most vocal and active Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He recently voted against a bill the panel approved that grants collective bargaining to transportation security officers.
Chaffetz also dislikes TSA's use of body-imaging machines, which perform a full-body scan to detect weapons or other illicit devices hidden under air passengers' clothing. Passengers have the right to refuse screening by the machines, but Chaffetz said most airports -- including his hometown Salt Lake City International -- do not clearly inform passengers of that right.
"You don't need to see my wife or children naked in order to secure an airplane," Chaffetz said in an interview Friday. He introduced a bill earlier this year that allows TSA to use the machines only as a secondary screening device. The House passed the bill as part of the TSA Authorization Bill, but the Senate has yet to vote on it.
Flying back to Washington from Salt Lake City on Monday, Chaffetz passed through security at Salt Lake City International Airport's Delta Airlines Terminal 2. Some Utah news outlets reported that he acted obnoxiously and used an obscenity in an exchange with officers. The lawmaker confirmed in a Thursday interview with KSL-TV that he cursed, but in an interview with The Post, he disputed reports that he touched an officer.
He said he only wants to clear the record and ensure that airport security checkpoints clearly post information about the option of undergoing a body imaging screening.
"I’m basically on a plane every three to four days. Nobody wants those planes to be more secure than me," Chaffetz said.
After showing his identification to an officer at the front of the security line, he was directed to stand in a lane without a body imaging machine. But another officer then directed him to stand in a lane with the machine, according to Chaffetz. When he refused, the officer asked why.
“I know what that machine does, and nobody needs to see me naked in order to secure that airplane,” Chaffetz said he told the officer.
"Getting in the [body imaging] line is 100 percent optional. But they don’t let you know it’s optional, and when you exercise your right you’re treated with the greatest of suspicion."
But Sharon Pinnock, members and organization director for the American Federation of Government Employees, said Chaffetz chose to use the lane with the optional body-image machine.
“It does seem odd that Congressman Chaffetz would choose to use an image machine that he would like to see banned,” Pinnock said. “We are hard-pressed to understand his thinking on this since he previously had been given a tour of the ITM lane to this incident and knew quite well what the process could involve." AFGE's Local 1120 represents some Salt Lake City transportation security officers.
Chaffetz's spokeswoman Alisia Essig said he stands by his claim that an officer asked him to step into the lane and that he did not choose it himself. She also confirmed that he had received a tour of the lane.
The lawmaker later proceeded through a metal detector and was patted down by an officer. After being cleared, Chaffetz asked to see a supervisor to inquire about previous requests that the security checkpoints clearly state a passenger's right to refuse the body imaging machines. The officers initially refused Chaffetz's request.
“Any citizen, regardless of their station in life, should be able to get that information," Chaffetz said.
When officers asked why he wanted the supervisor's information, Chaffetz mentioned he was a member of Congress.
"And then the officer said, 'Oh, we know exactly who you are,' ” Chaffetz recalled, realizing at that point that the officers "were just jerking me around.”
After waiting a few minutes for the supervisor, Chaffetz tried to give his business card to an officer who refused it. He left it on the officer's desk and walked away.
TSA said it would work with Chaffetz to address his concerns. In a statement, the agency called the body imaging machines "an important tool to mitigate known threats."
"This safe screening option is always 100 percent optional to all passengers. Passengers who do not wish to receive imaging technology screening will use the walk-through metal detector and undergo a pat-down procedure," the agency said.
In her statement, Pinnock said officers followed proper procedures.
“The TSO who administered the pat down had just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, and did not recognize the freshman congressman. Furthermore, the screening TSO was partnered with a TSA supervisory job monitor who ensured procedures were properly followed," she said.
Chaffetz has spoken with TSA officials in Washington and Salt Lake City since the incident and has been assured that officers do not typically respond in such a fashion. He has no plans to take further action, but remains suspicious.
“I’ve flown 1.4 million miles on Delta. I’ve never been pulled out of the line to go into the body imaging machine," Chaffetz said.
| September 25, 2009; 2:13 PM ET
Categories: Congress, Workplace Issues
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