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'Invasive' airport pat-downs not going away for the holidays

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she wouldn't like to get one, 'but everybody's trying to do the right thing.' The TSA's John Pistole cites the determination of terrorists to take American lives.

November 22, 2010|By Jim Puzzanghera, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Despite the uproar over intrusive pat-downs for some airline travelers, the policy will not change heading into the holiday travel season, the head of the Transportation Security Administration said.

"Clearly, it's invasive; it's not comfortable," John Pistole said of the pat-downs in an interview Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union with Candy Crowley."

But he said the agency was trying to strike the right balance between privacy and security to protect the nation from potential terrorist attacks, such as the failed bomb plot last Christmas by a man who authorities said had explosives hidden in his underwear.

"No, we're not changing the policies … because of the risks that have been identified," Pistole said. "We know through intelligence that there are determined people, terrorists who are trying to kill not only Americans but innocent people around the world."

The TSA this month began more aggressive pat-downs, including checking sensitive areas such as the groin and breasts, for signs of weapons or explosives on some travelers. The searches have sparked outrage, as has the TSA's alternative — greater use of full-body scanners that the American Civil Liberties Union has said amounts to a "virtual strip search."

An Internet-based campaign has called for airline passengers to refuse the full-body scans on Wednesday, the busy travel day before Thanksgiving, opting instead for pat-downs, which could cause huge delays at airports.

Asked Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" if she would submit to one of the new pat-downs, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said: "Not if I could avoid it. No. I mean, who would?"

But Clinton said Obama administration officials were trying to find the right way to respond to terrorists "getting more creative about what they do to hide explosives in, you know, crazy things like underwear."

"I think that we have to be constantly asking ourselves, 'How do we calculate the risk?' And, you know, sometimes, we don't calculate it correctly. We either overstate it or understate it," she said. "Now, if there is a way to limit the number of people who are going to be put through surveillance, that's something that I'm sure can be considered. But everybody's trying to do the right thing."

President Obama said Saturday that he had asked his counter-terrorism team each week if the measures were "absolutely necessary."

"With respect to the TSA, let me, first of all, make a confession. I don't go through security checks to get on planes these days, so I haven't personally experienced some of the procedures that have been put in place by TSA," Obama said at a news conference after the NATO summit in Lisbon.

Still, he said, "I understand people's frustrations. And 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?"

Pistole said the new procedures were necessary to stop terrorist attacks, but he admitted the pat-downs were "more intrusive."

"To some people, it is demeaning," he said. But Pistole said very few passengers experienced pat-downs — only those who set off alarms while going through airport screening machines.

"So you just have to make sure you take everything out of your pockets," he said. "So if there's no alarm, there's no pat-down."

Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the incoming chairman of the House transportation committee, said the TSA procedures needed to be "refined." He has called for airports to consider private screeners.

"We've got them headed in the wrong … direction as far as who they're screening and how they're doing it," Mica said of the TSA.

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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