Alaska lawmaker seeks to change TSA search policies

ANCHORAGE, Alaska Thu Feb 24, 2011 10:32pm EST

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - State lawmaker Sharon Cissna was little known outside Alaska when she left on a trip to Seattle, but when she returned home on Thursday, she had become a symbol of resistance to airport patdown searches.

The 68 year-old Democratic state representative refused to submit to a hands-on search at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Sunday.

A breast-cancer survivor, Cissna objected to a request by Transportation Security Administration agents to probe the area of her body scarred by her mastectomy. She had already passed through a full-body scanner.

Because she could not board the flight back home without submitting to the patdown search, Cissna instead waited to take a ferry that sails north along Alaska's Inside Passage.

When she arrived at the Alaska capital of Juneau on Thursday after the two-day boat trip -- instead of a two-hour flight -- she received a hero's welcome from a crowd of well-wishers gathered at the dock

Her legislative office was deluged with bouquets sent by supporters from around the United States.

"It was wonderful. I'm having a hard time getting to my office because of the flowers," Cissna told Reuters.

The lawmaker also had strong words about enhanced screening procedures at U.S. airports.

"It's a form of torture, and we cannot let that happen to our people," she said.

Civil libertarians say security screenings have become too invasive, and many of them have treated Cissna, who represents a Democratic-leaning Anchorage district, as a symbol of resistance to enhanced searches.

The federal government last fall put in place more thorough screening methods that involve full-body imaging scanners and physical patdowns for airline passengers.

The change followed a thwarted bombing of U.S.-bound flights in October 2010, and the Christmas Day 2009 attempt by a Nigerian man to set off a bomb in his underwear on a flight to Detroit.

Supporters of the stepped-up screening procedures say they help protect travelers from terrorist attacks.

Cissna told Reuters she had endured a patdown in the past. "I can say it was really violating," she said.

She plans to advocate for the TSA to be more sensitive to people with special medical needs or past histories of sexual abuse.

"That's what this whole thing is about -- making sure that we're taking care of our people," she said.

Other Alaska politicians have supported Cissna. Her colleagues in the Alaska State Legislature on Wednesday passed a "sense of the House" resolution declaring that "no one should have to sacrifice their dignity in order to travel."

And U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican and the state's senior senator, sent a letter on Wednesday to TSA Administrator John Pistole asking the agency to clarify its policies about searches of passengers with special medical conditions.

"This kind of invasive probing should not be the price of travel," Murkowski wrote.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Jerry Norton)

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