TSA airport procedures divide lawmakers

Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole's appearance before a Senate committee Wednesday sparked a debate among lawmakers about airport security procedures that defied party lines.

Pistole was appearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to provide an update on new TSA programs designed to reduce airport wait times, like its new Pre-Check known-traveler program and its behavior detection efforts.

Some Democrats said that TSA was doing a great job, but Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said TSA's controversial pat-down hand searches made her not look forward to flying.

"I try to avoid a pat down at all costs," McCaskill told Pistole. "There are many times women put their hands on me in a way that if it was your daughter or your sister or your wife, you would be upset."

McCaskill said not only have her experiences with TSA pat-downs been invasive, but they've also been inconvenient because she often has to wait for a female TSA officer to check her.

"It's hard for me to get excited about flying now because of that extra requirement I have," of being a female passenger, she said.

"Why not more women?" she asked Pistole.

Another member of the committee from the other side of the political aisle, Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), offered a similar personal story.

Boozman told Pistole about an elderly doctor and personal friend who has received multiple TSA pat-downs. Boozman said the friend is a veteran who once saved Boozman's life. Hie said his friend was shaken up by his treatment by TSA employees at airport security.

Pistole countered that "there are some let's just say quite senior people" on the TSA's terror watch list.

Other members of the panel, both Democrats and Republicans, were more supportive of TSA. Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) offered sympathy for the agency's task of securing the national aviation system.

"You'll never please all of the American people while trying to keep them safe," Rockefeller said Wednesday.

Pistole agreed, saying that no government agency could every make people 100 percent happy.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) shared positive experiences she had with TSA agents.

State lawmakers in Hutchinson's home state tried this year to pass a bill to ban TSA pat-downs, but Hutchinson said she's never had a problem, either in her home state or at Washington's Reagan National Airport.

"I have been amazed at how professional the TSA (agents) I've encountered have been," she said. "I did have a situation where I had to have a pat down, but they were unfailingly polite. You could tell they didn't want to, but they have a job to do."

Pistole said that negative incidents involving TSA, like an 8-month-old baby being patted down, were "one-offs."

"When you have 1.8 million people…(who go through airport security) every day, we do have these, call them one-off situations," he said. "The vast majority of people go through effectively and efficiently. The goal is to reduce those one-offs so we can provide security in the most effective way."

Pistole told lawmakers that programs like TSA's Pre-Check program, where passengers provide information about themselves in advance for a chance at avoiding traditional screening methods, would continue to make improvements to the airport security process.

"We continue to evolve our security approach by examining the procedures and technologies we use, how specific security procedures are carried out, and how screening is conducted," he said.

TSA announced separately Wednesday that the Pre-Check program would soon be extended to Los Angeles International Airport, Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport and New Orleans' Louis Armstrong International Airport.

The program was originally tested at Boston's Logan International Airport and Detroit's Metro International Airport.