WASHINGTON – Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole said Monday that he disregarded internal advice and decided not to tell the public in advance about aggressive new screening and pat-down procedures for airline passengers, fearing terrorists could try to exploit the information.
In an hour-long discussion with reporters, Pistole said media officials at the Department of Homeland Security had urged him to “get out ahead” of the potential controversy by formally announcing plans for enhanced body searches and the use of new X-ray and radio-wave imaging devices at 70 airports beginning in November.
But doing so would have provided a “roadmap or blueprint for terrorists” to avoid detection by using other airports where the new technology wasn’t in place, Pistole said.
Rather than publicize the changes, Pistole said he made a “risk-based” decision to roll it out first and “try to educate the public after we did that.”
The result has been a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers and passengers who claim the technology and aggressive searches are unnecessary, intrusive and a violation of their privacy rights.
Nevertheless, a CBS News poll last week showed that 81 percent of respondents support the use of full-body X-ray scanners, while 15 percent oppose them and 4 percent are undecided.
However, a new ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 64 percent of Americans support the enhanced screening machines, compared with 32 percent who oppose them. On the pat-downs, 48 percent see them as justified, while 50 percent say they go too far, the poll showed.
Several groups are urging fliers to boycott the new procedures on Wednesday, when millions of people will jam airports to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Passengers who refuse to go through the screening machines will have to undergo a pat-down search in order to board the plane. Children under 12 are exempt from the searches.
Brian Sodergren of Ashburn, Va., set up a National Opt-Out Day website earlier this month. He’s urging passengers to refuse the screening machines and undergo a pat-down.
“I certainly think there’s enough unanswered questions with the scanners that I think folks should opt out of them, as the TSA allows, on the 24th and every other day they travel,” Sodergren said in an e-mail.
Pistole, however, urged fliers to follow security protocol. He said it’s unclear how the protest will unfold, but that he worries for passengers who could “miss a flight because a group of people are blocking access or because they’re taking extended periods of time” with the protest.
“I feel bad for those people who would not be protesting and just want to get home to have time with loved ones,” Pistole said.
Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves said Monday that the team would use the scanners Wednesday if necessary.
“I’m all for civil disobedience,” Graves said. “But I guarantee you we’re going through the scanners because we’re getting to our plane on time.”