WASHINGTON – The head of the Transportation Security Administration refused to back down from using aggressive pat-downs and full body scans at airports, telling a Senate committee on Wednesday that the screenings are necessary to protect the nation’s fliers.
TSA Director John Pistole said the pat-downs, which include searches of passengers’ genital areas, and scanners that reveal nude images of their bodies, would have found the explosives on a would-be airline bomber last Christmas Day. In that plot, Umar Abdulmutallab boarded a flight bound for Detroit with explosives in his underwear that went undetected by metal detectors.
Pistole told the Senate Commerce Committee that the Detroit attempt caused TSA to develop the new procedures, which the agency intended to phase in until the thwarted Yemen package-bomb plot in October prompted more urgency.
A week before the Thanksgiving travel crush, some passengers and pilots have complained that the searches – particularly the pat-downs – are too invasive.
“I wouldn’t want my wife to be touched in a way that these folks are being touched. I wouldn’t want to be touched that way and I think that we have to be focused on safety, but there’s a balance,” said Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla. “I think we’ve gone to right field.”
But Pistole responded that “my job as administrator is try to find that balance, recognize the invasiveness of it and also recognize that the threats are real, the stakes are high and we must prevail.”
He also emphasized that most passengers will continue to go through metal detectors and that only a far smaller number will be directed to body scanners. A pat-down is ordered only for passengers who refuse the body scan or who trigger an alarm in a metal detector.
Pilots unions also are fighting the additional measures, saying pilots should continue going through metal detectors only. The Allied Pilots Association told its members that the cumulative effect of frequent full body scans could be harmful, given that pilots are already exposed to higher doses of cosmic rays during long flights at altitude.
Studies conducted on the full body scanners by the National Institute of Science and Technology and Johns Hopkins University concluded that radiation from the scans is minimal, Pistole said. The scanners expose a flier to the same amount of radiation as being in the air at 30,000 feet for three minutes, he said.