Julia O'Malley

Julia O'Malley writes a general interest column about life and politics in Anchorage and around Alaska. She grew up in Anchorage and has worked at the ADN on and off as a columnist and reporter since 1996. She came back full time as a reporter in 2005.

As a reporter, she covered the court system and wrote extensively about life in Anchorage, including big changes in the city's ethnic and minority communities.

In 2008, she won the Scripps-Howard Foundation's Ernie Pyle award for the best human-interest writing in America. She has also written for the Oregonian, the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Press.

E-mail her at jomalley@adn.com.

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Without the airport pat-down, what then?

Rep. Sharon Cissna, D-Anchorage, disembarking from the ferry Matanuska in Juneau Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011. (Chris Miller / The Associated Press)Rep. Sharon Cissna, D-Anchorage, disembarking from the ferry Matanuska in Juneau Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011. (Chris Miller / The Associated Press)

State Rep. Sharon Cissna's now-famous run-in with the TSA last weekend was not where her problems with the full-body scanner began.

Her problems began in November, when she was returning home from a trip to Seattle. That was when she encountered the scanner for the first time. She went through. Agents told her there was an anomaly detected on her chest. They said they would need to do a pat-down. A female agent took her aside.

Cissna had breast cancer eight years ago and lost one of her breasts. She has never been private about her cancer. She even sent an e-mail to the Legislature before her surgery, saying the House of Representatives was about to have one less boob. Now she wears a prosthesis made of a foam or gel-like material in her bra.

Cissna explained all this to the TSA woman. The woman didn't care.

"She was giving me orders and being nasty to me about it," Cissna said.

This was not happening in a private place, Cissna said. It was happening in view of other travelers. Cissna's luggage rolled out the end of the X-ray machine and sat unattended. She kept asking that someone keep an eye on it. No one did, she said. The woman put on gloves and worked her way up her chest on both sides, pressing hard, Cissna said. Cissna was shocked. It was nothing like the light security pat-downs she experienced previously. The agent was "putting her fingers on and around the breast on both sides," she said. The woman touched under her bra and felt her mastectomy scar. Then she let Cissna go.

Cissna called the pat-down traumatic. Like many women, Cissna has a history that includes what she called a "violating experience." The public pat-down brought all those old emotions back up, she said. It bothered her for a long time and even caused some nightmares, she said. She decided she would never do it again.

Fast-forward to Sunday. Cissna said she forgot at first she wasn't going to go through a metal detector like she did in Anchorage. By the time she got to the scanner, there wasn't anything to do but go. And as soon as she did, a female TSA agent appeared in front of her.

"She opens her mouth and says, 'Now here's what's going to happen.' I said, 'No, no. ... Call the people you need to call, I will not be felt up.'"

And soon there was a crowd around her. Airport police, TSA, airport staff. They tried to persuade her: Just do the pat-down and get on your flight. You don't have to make this a big deal. Cissna refused. If she didn't get a pat-down, she'd have to leave the airport, they said. She said that was just fine.

Airport police did a background check and told her she was clear. Later, they described her attitude to Daily News reporter Sean Cockerham as "friendly and jovial." The airline refunded her money. But her luggage went on to Juneau.

She had her office put out a news release. The story was picked up, and then it went viral. By Friday afternoon, if you Googled "Sharon Cissna" and "TSA," you got 23,300 results. Anti-TSA groups made her a hero. Strangers sent her flowers. The state House of Representatives voted to send a message of support.

I asked Cissna if it felt invasive to have so many people talking about her mastectomy scar. She said no. She was glad that her experience got people talking about the way the TSA treated people.

Dwayne Baird, spokesman for the northwest region of the TSA, told me that the agency can't be specific about screening procedures because that would be a safety concern. People can opt out of the scanner, but that didn't mean they would avoid a pat-down.

I asked Cissna about safety. A person could hide explosives in her bra. How is the TSA supposed to deal with that? She didn't have an answer. Except that she thought they were dealing with it just fine using metal detectors. Maybe they could use explosive-sniffing dogs? Would it be OK with her if pat-downs were more private? No, she said. She didn't want someone touching her. What if Anchorage gets a body scanner?

"I wouldn't fly," she said.

Maybe that would work for her, but that seemed a little extreme for most people. Her pat-down was invasive, no question. At least that day in November, TSA had a serious customer service issue.

Most people, in fact the vast majority, get through TSA just fine. Is forgoing the new scanners and pat-downs for the sake of protecting privacy worth it if it compromises safety? What is the practical alternative?

Tell me in the comments below.

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