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At a Checkpoint, Terror Fears and Testy Travelers

Dan Barry|The New York Times
Tuesday, 23 Nov 2010 | 10:37 AM ET

Behind an unmarked door, in a cluttered break room of half-eaten lunches and morale-boosting posters, a dozen Transportation Security Administration officers listened to their airport supervisor deliver another much-needed pep talk that contained the reminder: “I get paid to be paranoid, and so do you.”

TSA Xray machines airport
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TSA Xray machines airport

The supervisor, Philip Burdette, the federal security director at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, quickly addressed the recent criticism that the agency’s stepped-up security measures had gone too far; that passing through a checkpoint for a routine flight to Newark was now like entering a maximum-security prison for a protracted stay.

“Pat-downs have changed because of what?” he asked, searching for answers that might then be shared with inquisitive, even annoyed, passengers.

“Threat?” someone softly volunteered.

“Threat,” Mr. Burdette agreed. “Especially after Abdulmutallab.” That is, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian whose alleged attempt last Christmas to blow up a Detroit-bound airplane with plastic explosives hidden in his underwear has transformed air travel in the United States.

The supervisor moved on to discuss reports of an organized opt-out day on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, one of the year’s busiest for travelers. Some protesters — who seem to be grossly overestimating the patience of their fellow passengers — plan to disrupt the flow at checkpoints by choosing the slower, more deliberate pat-downs instead of passing through the full-body scanners, which critics consider to be too invasive.

“That’s their right,” Mr. Burdette said. “I don’t know if it’s 10 people or 10,000 people. Just be professional. Assume you’re being videotaped.”

With that, Mr. Burdette reminded everyone to remain vigilant, wished them a “good shift” and opened the unmarked door to a pre-holiday flow of travelers oblivious to the many worries for their safety.

It can be argued that the T.S.A. has failed in customer relations, that in its zeal to anticipate every conceivable threat, it has forgotten to take a deep breath and calmly explain why it does what it does to us — for us.

For example, the agency recently intensified its pat-down procedures, but, for what it says are security reasons, has declined to answer basic questions that might allay concerns that the new pat-downs are glorified grope sessions. How are these different from the old pat-down procedure? No comment. How are the officers trained to conduct these pat-downs? No comment.

The void created by the unanswered questions is filled, then, by libertarian complaints about privacy and “Saturday Night Live” skits that mock front-line transportation security officers for following government orders, while administrators far removed from checkpoints in Baltimore and Seattle, Miami and Green Bay, Wis., struggle to make the right moves in a high-stakes game of Risk.

Patrick Smith, who writes the “Ask the Pilot” column for Salon.com, is among many who argue against treating people as potential terrorists — “bullying people,” he says — simply because they want to fly. He said the T.S.A. should streamline its checkpoint operations and reallocate officers to conduct more thorough scanning of luggage for bombs and explosives.

“We can’t protect ourselves from every conceivable threat, and we need to acknowledge that,” Mr. Smith said. “There’s always going to be a way for a resourceful enough perpetrator to skirt whatever measures we put in place.”

But Mr. Burdette said this type of thinking reflected post-Sept. 11 amnesia. He said each security measure, from the new pat-down procedures to the increased use of body scanners, was driven by intelligence, not by a desire to create busywork.

Mr. Burdette, 41, is a former Marine and counterterrorism investigator who keeps his hair short and his dark-blue suits crisp. As the supervisor of the 700 or so officers at B.W.I. who screen as many as 40,000 travelers a day — of whom fewer than 3 percent request pat-downs — he takes the morale of his troops seriously, and resents any smirking dismissal of them as burger-flippers in toy-cop uniforms.

This perception was once so pervasive, and the officers were feeling so beleaguered, that two years ago the T.S.A. changed their uniform shirts to blue from white, and issued gold badges to replace their badge-shaped patches. The agency also began an internal campaign called I.G.Y.B. — for “I’ve Got Your Back.”

For government benefits and a salary that starts at $12.85 an hour, these unarmed officers swallow the irritation of others, apply security methods that intensify by the day, stifle the awkwardness they might have about touching other people — oh, and be on alert for bombs, liquid containers holding more than 3.4 ounces, sharp objects, explosive ingredients and the next Abdulmutallab.

“I want them to think Abdulmutallab with every pat-down,” Mr. Burdette said.

It's their job

He walked down an airport corridor, past a shoeshine booth and a Dunkin’ Donuts, to the security checkpoint at Concourse A, where these extraordinary times continued to make their rude intrusion upon the day’s ordinary rhythms: shoes off; empty pockets; raise hands. It is the surrender of certain dignity in the quest for increased security.

The many people in line, grim-faced but uncomplaining, were met first by Jennifer Adams, 33, who assessed each traveler with a smile and a subtlety that suggested she was merely an official greeter. She joined the T.S.A. eight years ago, after earning a college degree in communications management, and has risen to become a supervisory behavior detection officer.

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What does that mean?

“I’m entrusted to report here and protect the homeland,” she said.

“Give a real answer,” Mr. Burdette advised.

“I look for anomalies in the behaviors of the flying public,” Ms. Adams said. A coat too heavy for the season. Averted eyes when asked about carry-on luggage. “Anything that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” she said.

Behind Ms. Adams stood another officer, Tradonna Pritchard, 23, who repeatedly but patiently instructed people to empty their pockets and, please, “remove your outer garments.”

Behind Ms. Pritchard loomed a full-body scanner, on the other side of which stood another officer, Kristin Wade, 27, wearing a wireless earphone that linked her to an officer in an enclosed booth who studied the scanner’s transmitted images. If that officer spotted a shadow that shouldn’t be there, he would notify Ms. Wade, who would then conduct a targeted pat-down for what is invariably a set of keys or a cellphone.

Four years ago, Ms. Wade was working as a waitress and a bartender. Now, she said, “I just try to stay alert and mitigate any threats that I see.”

Working beside and around Ms. Wade were nearly two dozen other officers, including a bomb analyst named Robert Poe, 60, who has some hearing loss from his years as an explosive ordnance disposal specialist with the Army, and Patrick Simmons, 50, who drives 100 miles to work every day from his home in Delaware.

Mr. Simmons said complaints from travelers had grown in proportion with the increase in security measures. But people understand, he said, “as long as you explain things to the public in a calm voice.”

He described himself as a former emergency medical technician and volunteer firefighter who is reminded of our collective vulnerability every time he crosses the seemingly endless Chesapeake Bay Bridge. “It could happen anywhere,” he said, the meaning of “it” crystal clear.

Yes, Mr. Simmons said, he has heard some travelers dismiss him as nothing more than an overpaid security guard. But he is proud to wear the T.S.A. badge. And while he harbors no desire at all to pat you down, he will. It’s his job.

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