Chaffetz chafes over search

Was he harassed or was he being obnoxious in tiff during airport screening?

Published: Thursday, Sept. 24 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Call it the showdown at the whole-body imaging machine.

Depending on who you believe, the Transportation Security Administration at Salt Lake City International Airport was either harassing Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, for fighting its use of "strip-search" machines or Chaffetz was being obnoxious.

"I'm sure they're not my biggest fans," said Chaffetz, who voted against allowing the TSA to form a union. "They're just harassing me."

Chaffetz gives his version of how the incident started.

"They told me to go to the far left (metal detector) lane, which is fine. There is one whole-body imaging machine, which is lane No. 2, the second one from the left," he said.

He said he sent four gray bins of personal items through the X-ray machine. "Two of them went through, and then they said, 'We need you to go through the whole-body machine….' I said, 'I'm sorry but I'm not going to do that.' "

Chaffetz has passed through the House — but not yet in the Senate — legislation saying such machines could be used only for secondary searches, and people may opt for a "pat-down" search instead because the machines essentially show the people as naked.

Chaffetz had told the House, "You don't have to look at my wife and 8-year-old daughter naked to secure an airplane." He says he didn't want the TSA looking at him naked either. He told the Deseret News the TSA has not lived up to promises to post signs about what the whole-body imaging machine does.

Chaffetz says he told a TSA officer, "'I know what that machine does, and I don't have to go through that machine.' That led to a whole series of questions … all kinds of questions about suspicions."

He adds, "I refused to go through." He said he was eventually put back in line for a regular machine, and told to go through it instead. "It didn't go off. And then they said, 'Well, you've randomly been selected to go through a pat-down."

He said, "I got in that lane and waited, and the guys came and gave me a full-body pat-down." When he was finally cleared to go, Chaffetz said he asked to talk to a supervisor.

"The guy said, 'Why?' I said because that's not what should happen here," Chaffetz said. He adds that he started to identify himself as a congressman, and before he did he said the officer said, "We know exactly who you are. I thought, 'My gosh, those guys are just harassing me.' "

Chaffetz said he believes that is because he has fought the whole-body imaging that the TSA has proposed to use more, and because "last week I voted in committee against their ability to form a union … it still passed."

He said the officer identified himself as one of four supervisors, but Chaffetz asked to talk to whoever was in charge overall.

He said he waited several minutes for a top supervisor to appear. When he thought no one was coming, he walked back over to the officer with whom he had talked.

"I said, 'Look, would you just give him my card please?' He said, 'No, I refuse to take your card.' I said, 'Refuse to take my card? Why won't you take my card?' 'Well, we know who you are.' " Chaffetz said he set down his card and asked for the employee's ID and number.

Chaffetz said when he walked away, the officer started laughing, so Chaffetz said he returned and said, "You can laugh about this, but I'm serious," and then walked away.

Others reporting about the incident to the Deseret News asserted Chaffetz was obnoxious with officers and escalated the situation, including throwing his card at officials and grabbing the ID badge of the TSA officer. He was then warned not to touch it or the officer.

About that, Chaffetz said, "I'm looking at that badge, and he thrust it out at me, like right in front of my face. So I went to hold it, and study it, and he said, 'Don't touch me.' I said, 'I'm not touching you.' "

The TSA itself is not offering its own official version of what happened. Instead it issued a written statement Wednesday saying simply, "This incident will be reviewed and TSA will respond directly to the congressman if he has concerns."

It added, "TSA's job is to keep the traveling public safe and using advanced imaging technology is 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 Deseret News filed late Wednesday a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any written notes or descriptions of the event filed by TSA officials, and any surveillance video of the episode.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com

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