TSA Scrambles to Combat the Outcry Over Body Scanning

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Ted S. Warren / AP

A man undergoes a pat-down during TSA security screening

John Pistole, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) chief, may not be feeling particularly thankful this week. With the holiday-travel crunch looming, outrage over his agency's stringent new airport-screening procedures is nearing a boil, bringing threats of line-snarling protests, criticism from lawmakers in both parties and even a Saturday Night Live spoof that painted the airport-security gauntlet as a titillating outlet for lonely travelers. The satirical tagline? "TSA: It's Our Business to Touch Yours."

It's surely no laughing matter for the Obama Administration, which once again finds itself blindsided by a public-relations crisis. Pistole has spent much of the past week trudging around Washington to defend the protocols as a necessary inconvenience. In appearances before congressional committees and on television news, he has often adopted a conciliatory note, acknowledging the agency is aware of mounting frustrations and stressing its attempt to strike a balance between security and privacy. But it's clear that safeguarding the former trumps concerns about the latter. At least for now, "nothing will change," he told reporters during a breakfast meeting on Monday. Calling airline travel a "privilege," Pistole said that while TSA was striving to make the procedures "as minimally invasive as possible," passengers unwilling to submit to screening would relinquish their right to fly.

That position clarified a statement Pistole gave over the weekend, when he called the screenings "an evolving program that will be adapted as conditions warrant." This anodyne characterization was enough to spark a flurry of stories suggesting the agency was on the verge of changing course — a testament, perhaps, to the fervor of the policy's opponents, who range from civil libertarians to conservatives incensed that an overreaching government is now groping people in the name of safety.

Pistole, a 26-year FBI veteran who became TSA's administrator in July, on Monday defended his decision not to widely publicize the procedures ahead of their rollout, calling it a "risk-based decision" to avoid handing a road map to potential attackers. He argued that the outcry has been fueled, in part, by media-fed misperceptions over the new full-body scanning machines and enhanced pat-downs. Pistole noted that only "a very small percentage" of the 34 million Americans who have passed through security since the strictures were put in place at the end of October have endured the pat-downs, which can involve a TSA agent probing a passenger's chest, genitals and buttocks. While passengers can opt for one in lieu of a full-body scan, they are only forced to submit to a pat-down if they trigger an alarm or refuse to walk through one of the advanced X-ray machines now installed in 70 of the nation's 450 airports.

Those devices, which render a blurry outline of the passenger's unclothed form, have triggered a tempest of their own. Pistole stressed that the agent reviewing the scan does not come into contact with the passenger, and the agent conducting it does not see the image, in which the passenger's facial features are distorted. Since the controversy erupted, pilots have been waived from the screenings, and children under 12 are now exempt as well.

Even so, the screens have spawned no shortage of horror stories, including young children subjected to aggressive searches, a flight attendant and breast-cancer survivor who was asked to remove her prosthetic breast, and a bladder-cancer survivor whose urostomy bag (a device used to store urine) was broken when an agent failed to heed the passenger's warnings. (That passenger received a phone call on Monday from Pistole, who apologized for the incident.) But these cautionary anecdotes appear to be more the exceptions than the rule. Polls have found a majority of Americans support the scans, with a CBS News survey showing 81% approve of the use of full-body X-ray machines. A Washington Post/ABC News survey found nearly two-thirds of respondents in support.

Such figures don't mollify critics. "Nobody should be forced to choose between naked scans and groping by strangers in order to keep our airports safe," says Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office in Washington, which is sifting through a torrent of complaints in an attempt to assess whether the new policy is a violation of the Fourth Amendment statute against unreasonable searches. Scientists have clashed over the health impacts of absorbing additional radiation, opponents argue that the bill for the machines — which cost more than $150,000 apiece — outweighs the benefits, and some experts say the extra layer of protection does little to close existing loopholes in aviation security. Still, others deride the screenings as little more than "security theater," a performance designed to deter terrorists or make travelers feel safe that in fact provides few tangible benefits.

In fact, the body-scanning debate has only added to critics' contention that almost a year after a terrorist nearly detonated a bomb on a jetliner bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, the U.S. is still fighting a rearguard action against an enemy whose approach appears to be evolving. Over the weekend, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula heralded its strategy of using small plots carried out by solitary terrorists as a way of inflicting "death by a thousand cuts" on Western foes. Even the event cited as a catalyst for the new safety measures seems to illustrate their limitations. A March report from the Government Accountability Office questioned whether the new scanners would have detected the explosives hidden in the underwear of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be Christmas Day bomber. Nor do the new measures preclude the possibility of terrorists smuggling explosives in a body cavity, which one attacker allegedly did in 2009 in an attempt to kill a Saudi prince. (Pistole suggested reports from that incident may have been inaccurate.)

The outcry clearly has the attention of the White House. "Our goal must be to maximize protection and security and minimize inconvenience and invasiveness," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said at a Monday briefing with reporters. But the furor seems unlikely to subside anytime soon, with lawmakers vowing a fresh round of hearings to assess the efficacy of the new protocols.

"We seem to react to each previous incident by grafting on more security. That's been a pattern since 9/11. With this particular iteration, for some Americans it's just become a question of, Where does it end?" says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. Hoffman, who thinks the government bungled the implementation process by failing to explain the nature of and the need for the new strictures, cites this weekend's al-Qaeda boast as evidence that aviation security is in need of a rethink. "When you have the terrorist group you're doing this against crowing about their success, forcing us to spend exponentially greater amounts of money," he says, "we have to step back and ask the sensible question of, How much is enough?"