TSA chief defends body scanners

Transportation Security Administration administrator John Pistole defended controversial full-body scanning techniques that have endured withering criticism from Republican leaders in Congress.

Speaking at a Department of Homeland Security conference in Washington Friday, Pistole said the body scanners that have attracted attention in recent months were TSA's best option for preventing non-metallic explosive devices.

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And they are not new, he added. 

"There was a lot of interest last fall [in the scanners], even though we've been using them for about three years," Pistole said his 20-minute speech.

Critics have said the scanners caused an invasion of privacy, but Pistole said they were vital to protecting airline passengers. 

"They are the best possibility we have right now of detecting Christmas Day … type explosives," he said, referring to a thwarted 2009 bombing attempt on a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit.

Earlier this month, Republicans called the body scanners, and pat-downs used for passengers who refuse to be screened, "thoroughly useless." 

"The equipment is flawed and can be subverted," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said during a March 16 meeting. "Our staff has subverted it. [TSA Administrator] Pistole said 'GAO is very clever.' Well what the hell does he think a terrorist is?"

The TSA scanners have also come under fire for concerns about exposing travelers to radiation, which Pistole made no mention of in his remarks Friday. TSA has maintained the scanners are safe, and a study released this week shows the radiation risk is minimal.

Elsewhere in his speech, Pistole made the case for a proposed "trusted traveler" program, which allow frequent flyers to provide personal information in order to avoid long airport security lines.

Under the proposal, passengers would provide fingerprints, credit information and other personal data. In exchange, they would receive an ID card they could show to bypass security lines on flights.

"The question is, do we spend more time and money on a cookie-cutter approach, doing the same thing over and over, or rather do we spend more time on those we don't know and expedite those we do," he said.

Pistole said the program would rely on data that airlines have been collecting for nearly a half-century.

"The airlines have over 40 years of information on some of you experienced travelers," he said.