Hiding Breast Bombs

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

November 25, 2004

WASHINGTON

It always makes me feel slimy and humiliated, as though I'm in one of those cheesy women-in-prison movies, with titles like "Caged," "Slammer Girls" or "Reform School Girls."

First you have to strip, unzipping your boots, unbuckling your belt and unbuttoning your suit jacket while any guys standing around watch. Then you have to walk around in some flimsy top and stocking or bare feet. Then you have to assume the spread-eagled position. Then a beefy female security agent runs her hands all the way around your breasts, in between, underneath - again with guys standing around staring.

Flying on business, I've gone through this embarrassing tableau two dozen times in airports all over the country in the last couple of months. I've been searched more than Martha Stewart. I watched a Transportation Security Administration screener brusquely insist that my friend take off her blazer even though she had on only lingerie underneath - a see-through camisole - and the man behind her was leering.

Airport screening procedures are more reactive than imaginative. There's an attempted shoe bombing, so all passengers must shed their shoes. Two female Chechens may or may not have sneaked explosives onto Russian planes, so now some T.S.A. genius decides all women are subject to strips and body searches.

I get flagged for extra security every time I buy a one-way ticket, which seems particularly lame. Doesn't the T.S.A. realize that a careful terrorist plotter like Mohammed Atta could figure this out and use his Saudi charity money to pop for round trips even if the return portion gets wasted?

In two articles in The Times, Joe Sharkey has chronicled the plaints of women angry about new procedures in airport security that have increased both the number and intensity of the airport pat-down, or "breast exam," as one woman put it.

He described the experience of Patti LuPone, the singer and actress, at the Fort Lauderdale airport, who resisted taking off her shirt and got barred from her flight, and of 71-year-old Jenepher Field, who walks with the aid of a cane, being subjected to a breast pat-down at the airport outside Kansas City, Mo. (Do we have intelligence telling us that grandmothers are part of Al Qaeda now?)

Even a stripper complained in an e-mail message to Mr. Sharkey that she found her experiences degrading: "On one occasion a screener flat out asked if they were fake."

Somebody tell me what quantity of explosive material they have found through these strip searches, because I've got a hunch it's zero. How many billions are they wasting on this?

Maybe we're not at the Philip K. Dick level of technology yet. But how about some positive profiling? If airport security can have a watch list for the bad guys, why can't it develop a watch list for the good guys? Can't there be a database of trustworthy American frequent travelers who are not going to secrete things in their bras? After all, no one is going to sneak anything in there without our knowledge. Can they at least get a screen?

I know it's not just women who are uncomfortable; a guy I know said a male screener at the Miami airport recently stuck a hand down the front of his pants, making him feel "totally manhandled." And I heard the sad tale of a red-faced Washington businessman who took off his shoes, only to show the room the red painted toenails he had forgotten to wipe off.

Barry Steinhardt of the A.C.L.U. told Court TV that the new procedures are not only "an open invitation for harassment" - there are not enough female screeners, so sometimes men are doing the pat-downs of women - but they're also "not particularly effective."

I've never wanted to complain because I assume there are inconveniences that go along with greater security. But I would feel less creepy if I thought this were part of an effective overall strategy of protecting the country. I don't.

Iraq is draining money we should be spending protecting ourselves. Only 3 to 5 percent of containers coming into ports are checked, and only a tiny percentage of air, rail and truck cargo is inspected. Congress is turning homeland security money into another avenue of pork. Tom Ridge is still making fuzzy ads telling people to have a plan of action and referring them to his Web site, which hasn't gotten much beyond duct tape.

If we were buttoning up the borders and making the airlines safer, unbuttoning in public would be more bearable.

E-mail: liberties@nytimes.com