Head of TSA defends airport pat-downs

John Pistole told senators on the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee that he “insisted” on receiving the pat-down to “experience what that involves so that we would know before we rolled it out,” and added that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has gotten a pat-down as well. 

“Honestly, any member who has not experienced that pat-down [and] who would like to do that — I would not offer it — but an experienced qualified security officer would be glad to do that,” Pistole said. 

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Pistole has been at the center of growing public concern about the new pat-down techniques, which he described as “clearly more invasive” than the traditional screening airline passengers have been used to. But, he said, the invasiveness is justified by the level and types of threats to the airline industry to which he is privy. 

“Yes, it was more invasive than what I was used to,” said Pistole. “Of course, what’s in my mind … is what are the plots out there, how are we informed by the latest intelligence and latest technology and what do we need to do to ensure the American people that as they travel that we are being thorough.

“So yes, it is clearly more invasive. The purpose of that is obviously to detect the type of devices that we had not seen before last Christmas. I am very sensitive to and concerned about people’s privacy concerns, and I want to work through that as best we can.”

Pistole told a separate panel of senators on Tuesday that the pat-down technique is so thorough that, had it been used, it would have thwarted the suspected Christmas Day bomber, who allegedly hid an explosive device in his underwear.

He declined to go into specific details on Wednesday about what the pat-down technique entails, saying that he didn’t want to give “a road map to anybody” on how to defeat the technique.

Under new TSA rules, passengers are required to go through whole-body imaging systems. But because some people believe that the technology is too invasive, TSA officials give them the option of passing through a metal detector or receiving a pat-down, which some have said makes them feel like they’re being groped. 

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said he went through the whole-body imaging system and then received a pat-down before a recent flight. Pistole said he wasn’t sure how that would have happened under the current security guidelines in place at airports.

Pistole said he hopes that new screening technology will soon be available that will provide images of passengers that are more like stick-figures than the lifelike representation currently produced by whole-body imaging systems, which have spurred privacy concerns.

Nearly all of the senators at Wednesday’s hearing said they had received dozens, and in some cases hundreds, of phone calls from concerned constituents about the new screening procedures.