Alaska lawmaker strikes at TSA in unusual ad

In a new television ad, Alaska Rep. Chris Tuck warns travelers about full-body scanners at airports.

Story highlights

  • State representative warns travelers about full-body scanners at airports
  • Democrat Chris Tuck reminds Alaskans they can opt for a pat-down
  • The TSA denies the scans violate travelers' privacy or that images are stored
  • "It's really the process that's unnerving," Tuck says
In Alaska, the "You Can See Russia From Here" state, state Rep. Chris Tuck is more concerned about what the U.S. government can see.
Tuck, a conservative Democrat, this week is appearing in an unusual television ad warning travelers that new full-body scanners at Alaska airports will enable airport screeners to "see through your clothes," and advising passengers they can instead opt for a pat-down.
"If you don't want inappropriate pictures of you or your children taken and stored, or if you're concerned about the possible health effects, then all you've got to say is 'I opt out.' It is your right," Tuck says, standing in front of the state seal.
"Instead they will pat you down, and if they touch you inappropriately, call the airport police. This is still a free country," he says in the 30-second spot.
Tuck told CNN he is concerned about both the privacy and health impacts of the full-body imagers, and about the government's slow encroachment on people's constitutional rights. "There's fear that some of these pictures are going to be distributed on the Internet," he said.
But the Transportation Security Administration says the ad is flawed on several accounts.
The body imagers now installed in Fairbanks, and soon to be installed at three other Alaska airports, all use software that displays a generic body outline to protect people's privacy. All use harmless radio waves instead of low-level radiation. And none record images, said TSA spokesman Greg Soule.
"As we have said all along, our machines in airports do not have the ability to and will not ever save images," Soule said.
Tuck, a second-term state representative, videotaped his ad last week, placed it on YouTube, and is spending $2,060 in leftover campaign money to air it on television newscasts this week. The audience has been receptive, he said. Fellow state legislators and a schoolteacher called "congratulating me and thanking me," he said.
Told of the TSA's statement that the imagers in Alaska use harmless radio waves and display only a generic body outline, Tuck called it "good news," but said his concerns remain because Alaskans also travel out of the state, where the older body scanners are in use.
"That's great that they're using that (privacy) technology up here in Alaska, but people are still traveling out of state, and it's the return flights that they need to be aware of," Tuck said.
"It's really the process that's really unnerving," he said. "You have people holding their arms out like they're criminals and being treated like criminals. And it's the whole psychological effect that we're imposing on society, and instilling fear and ... breeding suspicion of one another."
Tuck said he created the announcement to alert travelers that they can refuse to stand in front of the imager, and opt for a pat-down instead. Most travelers do not know they have that option, he said.
Indeed, a federal appeals court in July said "many passengers ... remain unaware of this right (to opt for a pat-down), and some who have exercised the right have complained that the resulting pat-down was unnecessarily aggressive."
The Alaska Legislature has a history of bucking the Transportation Security Administration. Earlier this year, state Rep. Sharon Cissna, a breast cancer survivor, famously chose to catch a small plane from Seattle to Canada and ride a ferry to Juneau rather then submit to either the full-body imager or the pat-down. After that incident, the state legislature overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on the TSA to reconsider its use of pat-down searches and urging the U.S. Congress to "exercise greater oversight" of the TSA.
"Here in Alaska, it's really import for Alaska residents to have the ability to fly," Tuck said. "You can't go to the doctor without flying. You can't leave your village without flying. In some cases children go to school with flying."
"I get a little upset with people accusing me, or being suspicious of me, as a citizen trying to travel," Tuck said. Tuck said when he travels, he asks for a private pat-down to prevent bystanders with camera-phones from taking his photo being patted down.
"I don't want people thinking of Chris Tuck as a criminal with my hands in the air being frisked by someone with a badge and a uniform. That's not the image I want to put out," he said.
The TSA did not comment directly on Tuck's ad. But it defended its screening practices.
"While there's no silver bullet, imaging technology is a valuable tool to detect potential threat items concealed on passengers," spokesman Soule said in a statement. "We routinely find prohibited or illegal items on passengers, which illustrates our ability to detect threats concealed under clothing -- such as explosives. ‪‪The use of imaging technology has led to the discovery of more than 300 dangerous or illegal items hidden on passengers."