TSA official says controversial patdowns are 'more invasive,' but terror threat is bigger concern

By Steve Strunsky/The Star-Ledger

EPA/JIM LO SCALZOU.S. Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee for a hearing on TSA oversight in the wake of that administration's new pat down procedures, which some travelers find too intrusive, in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill today.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The head of federal airport security said he hears the mounting criticism of his agency’s new and aggressive pat downs and full body scans, and even admits he doesn’t like them. But today, he told federal lawmakers the flying public will have to get used to them — and that the policy won’t change.

In the end, fighting terrorism is more important, John Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, said during a hearing in Washington before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Pistole’s comments came during questioning from Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who asked whether he was sensitive to the growing concern over the scanners — which generate anatomically detailed images of passengers — and the new pat downs, in which TSA agents have been accused of placing their hands on passengers’ private parts. Many of the complaints have come from women.

"Does that worry you that maybe we’re at a point where this is not a vocal minority, that maybe we have overstepped?" Dorgan asked.

"Yes, I’m concerned about that ... but, no I’m not going to change the policy," Pistole said, noting that the threat of terror is real.

Dorgan then asked Pistole whether the administrator had been patted down himself, and what that was like. Pistole said he had and that it was "more invasive than what I was used to."

It was the attempted Christmas Day bombing last year of a Delta Airlines flight by accused "Underwear Bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab that prompted an accelerated rollout of the scanners, which are now in place at 70 airports nationwide, including Newark Liberty and John F. Kennedy International.

Newark Airport introduces full-body scanners

Newark Liberty International Airport unveiled their first full-body scanner on Thursday. The machine detects items that may be concealed under a passenger's clothing and allows TSA to screen without any physical contact. The technology is currently in 65 airports and uses harmless electromagnetic waves, so there are no big health concerns, but privacy concerns remain. (Video by Adya Beasley / The Star-Ledger)
Watch video
Pistole said the pat-down policy was toughened last month as a result of a series of security tests by outside agencies that were able to smuggle potentially harmful items onto planes.

"When they were able to get through security, it was largely because we were not doing thorough pat-downs," he told the committee.

The pat downs are given to passengers who set off metal detectors and to those who opt out of scanning. Those who opt for the pat downs are entitled to ask to have it done in a private place, authorities have said.

Fearing violence from passengers angered by the new procedures, the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing airport screeners, today called on the TSA to issue passengers pamphlets explaining their rights.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) a member of the Senate committee, said after today's hearing that he believed physical searches had gone too far, and that the first complaint about them came from his wife.

"She felt molested," Lautenberg said in an interview with Record. "It is a personal invasion."

Lautenberg said he believed improved electronic scanning technology TSA is developing should make physical searches of innocent passengers less common.

"If there is a risk that is not covered by electronics, then we have to figure out some way of discovering it that doesn’t include what I will call the hands on body," said Lautenberg, who is also chairman of the subcommittee that oversees homeland security appropriations.

The machines have generated controversy, in part, because of the revealing images they produce. Pistole tried to address those concerns, telling senators the agent who views the images is in another room and cannot see the passenger’s face. Also, no scans are saved by the equipment, so they cannot be sold or transmitted, and people entering the room where scans can be viewed cannot have cameras or cell phones.

He told the senators he hoped privacy concerns will fade as technology improves. For example, he said, the TSA is testing a new scanner that would still detect hidden objects, but produce an image more like a stick figure.

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