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Former Miss USA, Ralph Nader, Privacy Advocates Fight Full Body Airport Scanners and Invasive Pat-Downs

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The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to stop Transportation Security Administration’s full body scanning procedures by granting an immediate injunction. The full body scans are not mandatory for all travelers, but those who object are subject to “enhanced” pat-downs, extremely invasive manual checks. Civil rights activists argue these initiatives are inappropriate, ineffective, violate the Constitution, pose health concerns related to radiation exposure, and are insensitive to religious practices. We speak former Miss USA and actress Susie Castillo, who was recently subjected to an enhanced body pat-down and has become a vocal critic of such security procedures. We also speak with Ralph Nader and Amie Stepanovich of EPIC. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the issue of enhanced security screening in airports across the country. The Transportation Security Administration’s new body scanning technology is not mandatory for all travelers, but those who object to the full body scans are subject to, quote, “enhanced” pat-downs, extremely invasive manual checks. Civil rights activists argue these initiatives violate the Constitution, pose health concerns related to radiation exposure, and are insensitive to religious practices.

In an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN last fall, TSA administrator John Pistole refuted claims that body scanners emit dangerous levels of radiation.

JOHN PISTOLE: The radiation coming from those machines are equivalent to about three minutes’ worth of air travel by anybody, say, at 30,000 feet. So there’s obviously naturally occurring radiation, and that’s well within the established safety standards.

AMY GOODMAN: The Electronic Privacy Information Center, known as EPIC, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, has filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to grant an immediate injunction to stop TSA’s body scanning program.

To discuss this issue, we go now to Washington, D.C. We’re joined by Susie Castillo, an actress, a TV personality, former Miss USA. She was subjected to an enhanced body pat-down at Dallas Airport in April and has become a vocal critic of such security procedures. For her work on the issue, she is going to be honored tonight with a Citizen Activist Award that is presented by Ralph Nader at the EPIC Champion of Freedom dinner.

We’re also joined in Washington by Amie Stepanovich, a national security counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center who focuses on national security and domestic surveillance, has been involved in the lawsuit against the TSA’s body scanning program.

And Ralph Nader is on the phone with us, consumer advocate, corporate critic, former presidential candidate, who will be awarding Susie Castillo the prize tonight at the dinner.

Susie, let’s start with you. Talk about your experience. What happened to you in April?

SUSIE CASTILLO: Well, I was traveling for work, Amy, and I was actually coming back home to — I live in Los Angeles. And, you know, as a host and an actress, I have to travel for work. You know, if I want to pay my bills, that’s what I have to do. And I was actually in Rio de Janeiro hosting a show, and on my way back, I was chosen to go through the body scanner line, after waiting in a longer line that I visibly was seeing that passengers were going just through a metal detector. There were two lines: one going through the metal detector, the other going through this scanner. And I waited in the longer line to go through the metal detector, and when I got to the front of the line, I was asked to step into the body scanner line. And this was by a male TSA agent. And I said, you know, “Sir, I’m actually in this longer line because I don’t want to go through that machine.” And he said, “Well, you know, I’m asking you to step into this line now. You can opt out, but that means you’re going to get a pat-down.” And I had had a pat-down on my way to Rio at LAX, and it wasn’t that bad. It actually — it was quick.

And for whatever reason, you know, on my way back, when I was connecting at DFW, after going through customs and everything, this pat-down was completely different. I mean, my entire body, including my hair and, I mean, my private areas were touched several times. And, you know, all I can think of was, the week before, there was a video of a six-year-old little girl that was being touched inappropriately by a TSA agent, you know, during her pat-down. And apparently her parents said that she burst into tears afterwards. And I was just so enraged, because I do know my rights. I do know that it’s a violation of our constitutional rights. And, you know, this woman, she was — like I said, the violation that one feels when somebody is — when a stranger is touching you this way, when you know that you’re a citizen of a country that — where you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, and for whatever reason, when you’re in the TSA’s domain, it’s the other way around, I mean, I got really emotional, made a video, which I posted on my blog, and then it went viral a couple days later.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. I had a very similar experience, where everyone was going through the regular metal detector, and they chose me to step aside to go through the machine. And I said I didn’t want to go through that machine. And it seemed extremely punitive, what happened next. First of all, I had to wait for a very long time, and anyone who’s late for a plane knows how distressing that is. And then the level of intimacy of this body search — it’s happened to me several times. In one case, they had my arms up. They had my legs apart.


AMY GOODMAN: They said I wasn’t to move. And then the woman who was doing it, after touching every part she could possibly touch and find, parts people might not have known were there, she walked away. And having said several times to me to keep my arms out and not to move, I was standing there, spread-eagled, for many, many minutes, in the cold.


AMY GOODMAN: You know, you’re not allowed to put your jacket back on or anything. And finally, another TSA agent came over, with a smile, and said, “What are you doing there?” I said, “Well, she said I can’t move.” He said, “Oh, she left long ago. You can go.”


AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think you were chosen? And have you gotten more information, since you are leading this campaign?

SUSIE CASTILLO: No, I haven’t gotten more information. I don’t know why I was chosen. It was a very random thing, you know, when I was waiting in one line, and they just asked me to go in the other. And, you know, they also asked me before — I want to point out that at DFW, which is where this happened, the TSA agent was this — she seemed like a very lovely older woman who was simply doing her job, but it still doesn’t change the fact that — you know, that she touched me so invasively. And, you know, they do — they offer you a private room or something, where they can conduct the pat-down. And I’m thinking, if you’re offering me a room, then there’s something inherently wrong with this procedure that you’re doing. You know, if you’re saying, “Let’s step into a private area, where you’re not in public,” I mean, is it all necessary, is what I’m thinking.

And, you know, the more research that I do, just on my own, I’m finding out that TSA, at some airports, fails up to 70 percent of their internal tests, that federal marshals get through security — you know, they conduct their own tests, and they get through security with weapons and bomb paraphernalia all the time. And it’s just incredible that the failure rate is so high. They take a test, and their grade is a 30 percent. I mean, that’s a failing grade. Anybody who’s been to school knows that’s a failing grade. And yet, they’re allowed to continue what they’re doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Amie Stepanovich, you’re the national security counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Talk about the lawsuit right now that you brought.

AMIE STEPANOVICH: Well, in 2009, EPIC had received documents that showed that these machines can capture, transmit and store images. And we also received hundreds of pages of customer complaints, people who had gone through the body scanners, like Susie, and felt that they were invasive. They felt that they were treated wrong by TSA agents. And this is around the same time that the TSA decided that these machines are going to be primary mandatory screening for passengers. So as all of these things came together, EPIC felt that it was necessary to file a lawsuit to suspend the program. We said that the TSA had not instituted proper procedures in passing the rule that made the machines primary screening, and we said that the machines and their procedures violated several federal statutes as well as the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph Nader, you’re going to be presenting this award to Susie Castillo tonight at the EPIC dinner for her activism around this issue. Talk about your concerns about the machines, whether we’re talking about health concerns — what do we know about these enhanced machines that send the naked image of people into another room? They will often say, if you say you don’t like that, they say, “Don’t worry. The person is in another room.” Talk about your concerns.

RALPH NADER: Well, first of all, physicists have shown that the backscatter, which is the x-ray — there are two kinds, the backscatter and the millimeter — expose people to twice as much as what the TSA had been telling the public. There have been known malfunctions of these machines, where people, without their knowledge, have been exposed to even more of these harmful radiations.

But the Department of Homeland Security and TSA are really presiding over a chaotic situation. In New York, for example, you don’t take your shoes off. You take your belt off in many airports. Here, you don’t take your belt off, unless you get a pat-down, but you’ll have to take your shoes off. There’s still many, many, many cargo materials — they’re not really screening 100 percent of all the cargo, which is a real, far greater hazard. They were supposed to have finished that well over a year ago, and even that year ago deadline was delayed. So, that’s a big factor. There are general aviation planes, the private aircraft — you know, they take off every day, as we speak — they don’t go through any of these detectors to get on these smaller planes, the non-commercial planes. So, in the Department of Homeland Security, TSA, there’s a lot of chaotic reassessments here, and it looks like they’re going to start getting, quote, “reliable” passengers, after they interview them and look at their background and have them go through less intrusive passages to their planes.

The TSA obviously is reconsidering these very expensive machines, which were sold by corporate salespeople, including the former head of the Department of Homeland Security. So it’s a multi-million-dollar business. And you can tell, because there’s still a lot of metal detectors there being used, because they’re quicker, for one thing. When you get congestion at the airport, the other machines slow the situation down. The workers at these checkpoints are very upset, themselves. Sure, they’re just doing their job. But one of them told me the other day, “Anything you can do to make the situation more rational will lighten the load on us.” And they’re always — you know, when you talk to the employees, the TSA employees, they just shake their heads and their shoulders, like, you know, “What’s going on here? There’s no rhyme or reason.” So I think what we’re going to see is a change in policy — it may be gradual — into a more rational system, in large part because of the protests and the bad situations that have occurred there with little children and other people being — having their privacy seriously violated.

But all this comes, Amy, because TSA and Department of Homeland Security are excessively secretive. They are excessively inaccessible. Citizen groups like EPIC have been trying to meet with Secretary Janet Napolitano, and she just won’t meet with these groups. So you have a very autocratic department, which uses national security as the camouflage for what they’re doing. And as the old saying goes, if you don’t have sunlight, you’re going to have bureaucratic chaos and policies that don’t even further the objectives of what they’re talking about, to begin with.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, interestingly, the Republican-controlled House voted to cut funding for TSA officers, the men and women on the front line of aviation safety, a 219-204 vote, would cut the budget by $270 million. The amendment would cut TSA’s screening workforce by more than 10 percent. Can you talk about this as a legislative way to get at it?

RALPH NADER: Well, that’s their message. I mean, they don’t like to go through these machines either, members of Congress, so that’s their message of saying, “You better straighten out the situation here.” There are too many contradictions here. Why did Italy start using these machines? Now they don’t use these machines, because they say they’re inefficient and ineffective. So, again, they’re operating over there, in the Department of Homeland Security, in a massive bubble, and which makes them able not to listen to the scientists in the area, the technologists in the area, and the comparative data from other countries. But it’s the absurdity of making everybody take their shoes off, but there’s cargo going through without any inspection. There are private planes taking off without any screening. So I think that’s the message from the House. They’re squeezing them, in terms of the appropriations, to send them a message. They don’t want to do it publicly, because they don’t want to be accused of being against national security in a public hearing.

AMY GOODMAN: Ralph, I wanted to ask you about this new New York Times report, the FBI giving its agents new leeway to infiltrate organizations, search household trash, use surveillance teams, search databases in domestic investigations, now able to look into people and groups “proactively,” the government says, without firm evidence for suspecting criminal or terrorist activity.

RALPH NADER: Well, this is part of Obama-Bush, as I call it. It’s the extension of illegal activities, violation of constitutional rights, that were made worse under the Bush administration and extended and expanded under the Obama administration. So you’ve got a national security state that doesn’t think it has to obey the Constitution or federal statutes, and it’s just running amok. And that’s going to lead to more and more abuses, more and more fear among people, more and more innocent people being accused inaccurately. And here we go again.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, I want to go to a very different issue in the last 30 seconds: the government adding formaldehyde to a list of known carcinogens despite years of lobbying from the chemical industry. This report coming out now, just months after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration warned that a hair-care product, Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution, contained unacceptable levels of formaldehyde. The government also saying Friday, styrene, which is used in boats, bathtubs and in disposable foam plastic cups and plates, may cause cancer. One of the chief lobbyists against formaldehyde being put on this list were the Koch brothers. Could I get a quick reply from you?

RALPH NADER: The carcinogen aspects, long known, finally recognized by the Food and Drug Administration, opposed by these right-wing lobbyists, the Koch brothers, who, you know, $37 billion worth of money, they’re going to put a lot of it in the campaign. So this will put more spotlight on the Koch brothers, and deservedly so.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Ralph Nader, also Susie Castillo and Amie Stepanovich. And Susie Castillo, congratulations on your award tonight from the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

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