Days before one of the year’s busiest travel holidays, the TSA’s administrator stood firm on the use of new airport screening measures that have spurred an outcry from Capitol Hill and the public.
Echoing a new government refrain, John Pistole, who heads the Transportation Security Administration, said Monday that the TSA would consider modifying its screening policies to make them “as minimally invasive as possible” but indicated the advanced-imaging body scans and pat-down methods would remain in place in the short term.
Pistole, who spent 26 years with the FBI, told reporters he rejected the advice of media aides who advised him to publicize the revised security measures before they took effect. Terrorist groups have been known to study the TSA’s screening methods in an attempt to circumvent them, he said.
“I wish I could say somebody else was responsible for that, but that is my decision and it was a risk-based decision,” Pistole said about the move to roll out the new measures quietly earlier this month.
“Our press people actually made a strong argument of why we should get out ahead of the story and, generally, I’m always in agreement on that,” Pistole said in response to a question by The Hill at a roundtable breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.
“In this instance my concern was … that we not publicize that because it would then provide a roadmap or blueprint to terrorists.”
For the past week, Pistole has been at the center of a heated national debate over the new pat-down techniques, which he described last week to two panels of senators as “clearly more invasive” than traditional screening measures. Several key lawmakers have asked Pistole to revise the TSA’s new rules before the Thanksgiving holiday.
Pistole said he spoke on Friday with House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who had asked the agency to “reconsider” using the methods. Thompson said the TSA should have “had a conversation with the American people about the need for these changes.”
In a new effort designed to cultivate greater public understanding, Pistole said airports would begin broadcasting a new public service announcement this week. In the message, the TSA head will ask the public to work with the agency to make the security screening go as smoothly as possible.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) introduced legislation last week — the American Traveler Dignity Act — that would remove legal immunity for TSA or other federal employees who subject individuals to any physical contact, X-rays or body imaging. That would apply even if an individual consented to the search.
Paul called the advanced screening “one of the worst things they’ve done out in the open in a long time.”
“They can poke you, prod you and take pornographic pictures,” he said. “If you did it, you’d go to jail.”
In protest of the screening measures, one group has organized a “National Opt-Out Day” for Wednesday, one of the heaviest air-travel days of the year. Pistole said the TSA plans to be fully staffed, but added he is worried the protests — passengers opting to be patted down instead of undergoing a body scan — will slow the screening lines and make other passengers miss their flights.
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), the ranking member of the Homeland Security panel who will likely become chairman in January, was among those on Monday who defended the new screening methods as necessary.
“I have a great regard for John Pistole,” King said in a statement to The Hill. “While these new TSA procedures are unpleasant to some people, the harsh reality is that we need them.”
TSA officials are advising passengers to arrive at airports two hours early in case of long screening and check-in lines. The TSA’s website has a separate section explaining what people should expect from the pat-downs.
Under the new TSA rules, passengers are required to go through advanced imaging systems, or full-body scans. But because some people believe the technology is too invasive, TSA officials allow people to receive a pat-down instead. Stories have surfaced of a cancer survivor who had his urine bag spilled on him while being screened, as well as a video of a young boy screened without his shirt.
TSA officials have tried to combat these videos and reports by informing the public of their rights to a private screening and spelling out the details of individual situations. In a statement, the TSA said that the young boy’s father had voluntarily removed his son’s shirt to make the screening process go faster, and stayed by his son’s side the entire time. The screening officer then helped the boy put his shirt back on, TSA said.
Pistole said the Department of Homeland Security has been working on the new screening measures since Christmas last year, following the arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, whom officials allege attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound flight. Last week, Pistole told senators the newly modified screening methods would stop someone hiding explosives in his or her underwear, as Abdulmutallab was.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs defended the new security screening policies on Monday, but added there was an effort to revamp them so they would be “minimally invasive” while still providing adequate security. He was echoing comments made by President Obama over the weekend in Portugal.
“I understand people’s frustrations,” Obama said. “What I’ve said to the TSA is that you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety. And you also have to think through, Are there ways of doing it that are less intrusive?”
Peter Schroeder contributed to this article.
This article was originally published at 11:02 a.m. and updated at 8:31 p.m.