The bare facts about “Opt-In” Day and a media-fabricated crisis that fizzled

Like most Americans, I was relieved that there were no major disruptions yesterday, which was one of the busiest air travel days of the year.

The day ended with a defiant TSA calling Nov. 24 Opt-In Day — a not-so-subtle dig at the activists who asked air travelers to opt out of the full-body scanners.

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“What some protesters threatened as an opt out day has turned into a TSA appreciation day,” the agency said.

The mainstream news media followed in lockstep. “Travelers at area airports Wednesday appeared to be opting out of the much-hyped National Opt-Out protest against the see-all body scanners,” wrote the New York Daily News.

To read the coverage, you would think this was nothing more than a media-fueled nonevent. But a closer look at the facts suggests that’s not necessarily accurate.

A few questions that remain after National Opt-Out Day lead to a different conclusion.

Did TSA change its screening procedures to make things move faster?

Probably. I asked TSA and the Department of Homeland Security repeatedly if it planned to do anything different on Nov. 24. It referred me to TSA Administrator John Pistole’s Congressional testimony, in which he insisted the agency wouldn’t change its screening techniques (a few days later, it changed the rules for pilots and flight attendants). Yesterday, I spoke with a Homeland Security representative, who reiterated: no changes.

But the view from the airport was quite different yesterday. Passengers reported that many full-body scanners had simply been turned off. The TSA denied it had turned off the machines to speed up screening.

Did any air travelers opt-out?

Yes. Even the TSA admits there were opt-outs on Nov. 24, although its self-reported numbers are selective and haven’t been subjected to any independent audit. I profiled one of them yesterday. But TSA had staffed up to sufficient levels and selectively turned off enough full-body scanners that the protests hardly registered.

But seriously, Opt-In Day?

No, that’s hyperbole. In order for it to have been Opt-In Day, you would have had passengers lining up in front of the turned-off scanners and insisting that they walk through or be patted down, in the interests of aviation security. Calling it Opt-In Day is pure spin.

And a few questions about the photograph, while we’re at it. This snapshot appeared on the TSA site.

Who shows up at the airport with a sign like this and asks their kids to hold it and happens to take a picture that happens to find its way to the TSA website? More spin, without a doubt. Yesterday was not TSA Appreciation Day.

What did the TSA miss?

A lot, unfortunately. Remember, this agency’s mission is to “protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.” Less than 10 percent of Americans travel by plane during the Thanksgiving holidays — the rest by car or train. The TSA yesterday had an opportunity to talk about how it protected the rest of the traveling nation, not just air travelers. It could have spoken about how Opt-Out Day was incident-free, and how it had fulfilled its mission by protecting all of us. Instead, it was fixated on protecting full-body scanners and pat-downs. How shortsighted.

Did the media fabricate National Opt-Out Day?

That all depends on how you define “media.” I’ve seen some pretty simplistic coverage of this story in the mainstream media, particularly on TV. (You can always tell they have no clue when they identify the TSA as the “Transportation Safety Administration”). But the outrage over the body scanners and pat-downs heard online, in what the Department of Homeland Security patronizingly calls the “alternative media,” has been largely legitimate. There was a lot of unhappiness. There was, however, no widespread agreement over how best to protest TSA’s practices.

By way of full disclosure, I should note that my own views on opting out have evolved. A year ago, I thought the full-body scanners were a non-story. Last spring, when TSA began aggressively patting down air travelers who refused the scans at select locations, I was willing to give the agency the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it would tweak the policy before rolling it out nationwide, I thought.

Earlier this month, when it became clear that it wouldn’t change, I called for people to refuse the “either/or” choice. But in the last two weeks, it’s become clear that protests don’t work as well as public pressure combined with litigation.

What do the opt-outers have to say for themselves?

They call it a “rousing” success, which is more spin. According to its organizers,

Ultimately, the hype built by the media for National Opt-Out Day turned the event into something that it could never be. They wanted the chaos at the airports, they wanted long lines and beyond-frustrated travelers because it would make a good story.

But the protesters claim to have made their point, and they note the agency has made numerous changes to its policies — while at the same time insisting that it hasn’t made any changes — after Opt-Out Day was announced in early November.

The TSA’s missteps are likely to become a major issue when the next Congress convenes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the agency curtailed or eliminated entirely by legislators.

Update (11 a.m.): A quick poll of 100 readers suggests no one really won yesterday.

(Photo: T homas Hak/Flickr Creative Commons)