TSA Defends New Screening Procedures

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Some dramas seem tailor-made for the Internet’s ephemeral obsessions, and the kerfuffle over the Transportation Security Administration’s new airport screening procedures is a perfect example. It’s got all the ingredients to feed a media circus: a whiff of government overreach, children prodded to tears, bold push-back, splashy protests, federal employees apparently frisking nuns–an irresistible  recipe seasoned by the immediacy of next week’s Thanksgiving travel crunch. With furor of the full-body scans and invasive pat-downs reaching critical mass, TSA Administrator John Pistole went before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Wednesday morning to explain why the new screening measures are a necessary evil.

Pistole was conciliatory but resolute: If you’re going to get on a plane, you’re either going to be photographed with advanced imaging technology–the “full-body scans” that render all-too-detailed impressions of travelers’ physiques–or endure an uncomfortably thorough pat-down.  “I am very sensitive to and concerned about people’s privacy concerns,” Pistole said. But “the bottom line is we need to provide the best possible security.” Nobody’s happy about these new security measures, in other words, but they’re here to stay.

While you’d never guess it from the hysterical media coverage, most people are…pretty OK with that. The breathless headlines and expert discussion forums provide a distorted picture of public perception. According to a CBS News poll, 81% of Americans approve of the decision to use full-body X-ray machines to weed out terrorist threats. Sometimes the screams of an aggrieved minority drowns out the rest of the public, and this may be one of those cases.

There is a painful repetition to these sorts of hearings. Senators can use them as an opportunity to etch their empathy with the public’s concern into the public record, which means thorough questioning can be crowded out by statements declaring solidarity with the American people. And this time, the message they wanted to convey was almost uniform: we know you’ve got a tough gig — “impossibly difficult,” according to Sen. John Rockefeller of West Virginia–but the people are mad, and isn’t there anything we can do?

Not really, Pistole explained. The department is doing its best to accommodate concerns about privacy invasion, but “the core mission of TSA is to keep the traveling public safe” in an age of increasingly sophisticated terrorist threats, he explained. Pressed by Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Pistole flatly stated: “Am I going to change the policies? No.”

(TIME’s Newsfeed blog has a good run-down of commonly asked questions about the procedures.)

The Senators basically accepted this. They were deferential to Pistole, lauded TSA’s vigilance, acknowledged the difficulty of balancing security and privacy–and registered their concerns once again. “We’ve got to do more. The outcry is huge,” said Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the committee’s ranking Republican. “There has to be a way to improve the airport security screening process to address the legitimate privacy concerns of the traveling public.” George LeMieux, the Republican Senator from Florida, was more strident. “I’m frankly bothered by the level of these patdowns. I wouldn’t want my wife to be touched in the way they’re being touched,” he said. “I think you’ve gone too far afield.”(LeMieux suggested TSA should consider profiling passengers; there was no reason, he argued, for a passenger who had never left the country or been arrested to submit to imaging on a flight from, say, Minneapolis to Fort Lauderdale. Sen. Jim DeMint also briefly bemoaned “political correctness” while thanking Pistole for his service.)

Pistole explained that he, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and other government officials submitted to pat-downs themselves before signing off on the procedure. “It is thorough…it was more invasive than I was used to,” Pistole acknowledged. “I am very sensitive to and concerned about people’s privacy concerns.” Posed the same question over and over, he reiterated this message throughout the hearing. (Pistole has had time to burnish his words; he faced a similar grilling yesterday, during a hearing before a House committee.)

The TSA administrator declined to provide some details about the nature of the pat-downs, citing security concerns. But he tried to allay fears stoked by the media rumor-mill. Children under 12 are exempted from the pat-down process, he said. (A viral tale about a three-year old bursting into tears after being prodded by an officer is, in fact, from two-year-old footage of a three-year old crying after her teddy bear was taken from her at a security checkpoint. And that viral snapshot of the nun-frisking–which the Drudge Report headlined, in typically restrained fashion, “THE TERRORISTS HAVE WON”–is actually at least three years old.) In fact, the pat-downs are rare, and happen either because of passenger preference or because the imaging triggered an alarm. And while no one’s disputing that the images are more revealing than one would like, Pistole stressed their anonymity; the TSA employee viewing the image is in a separate room as the passenger, and the officer performing the screening never sees the image. “We believe we’ve implemented adequate privacy protection.” He said better imaging technology, which would render passengers as as stick figure or “blob”–rather than a lumpy mass with breasts or genitals visible–could be available within months.”

Until then, feel free to bring your “Don’t Touch Our Junk” sign along when traveling over the holidays.