Transportation Safety Administration chief John Pistole and several senators from both parties defended the new, enhanced airport security screening procedures as necessary in the face of a persistent and evolving terrorist threat in a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
Pistole, calm and confident in the face of an increasing public outcry against the procedures, talked extensively about the repercussions of last year’s attempted December 25 bombing being the impetus for the enhanced screenings before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, TSA’s oversight committee.
“We know the terrorists’ intent is still there,” Pistole testified. “We are using technology and protocols to stay ahead of the threat and keep you safe. (Several near-misses by terrorists on airplane bombings) got through security because we were not being thorough enough in our pat-downs.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said prior to Pistole’s testimony that she believed TSA was in a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” situation, because people would be hopping mad at TSA if Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Adbulmutallab had succeeded. She went on to say the new advanced imaging technology–which has caused uproar because of its leave-no-secrets imaging and potential health risks–is more of a blessing than a curse.
“I’m wildly excited that I can walk through a machine instead of getting my dose of love pats,” Sen. McCaskill said.
Both senators and Pistole acknowledged the public concern that has made mini-celebrities out of some passengers who have opposed the new imaging scans and enhanced pat-downs. Pistole, a former FBI agent, went so far as to say he submitted himself to the pat-downs and found them to be “more invasive than what I was used to.”
Senator George LeMieux of Florida agreed they were invasive, saying they had gone too far and that he “wouldn’t want (his) wife to go through these pat-downs.” He even suggested looking more at the Israeli model of behavioral profiling in airport screenings, which has been largely successful but also criticized as racist.
However, Pistole defended the pat-downs because of the next generation of “non-metallic” explosives currently being used by terrorists.
In an effort to address privacy and health concerns from travelers, Pistole said TSA is working on developing next-generation imaging equipment that will only show screening agents “anomalies” on top of stick figures, rather than detailed naked figures.
Currently, all passengers going through airport security are asked to submit to a full body image scan when it is available, Pistole said. The body scan images are seen by a single agent in a closed room who cannot see the face of the person in the machine and who cannot bring any cellphones or cameras into the image viewing room. If passengers refuse the body scan, they are offered a private pat-down, which is based on a thorough–some say invasive–technique used by police nationwide. Pistole emphasized that children under the age of 12 are excused from the enhanced pat-downs.
“We are on the last line of defense of the U.S. government,” Pistole said. “I hope (these screening techniques) are a deterrence.”