Facing Scrutiny, Officials Defend Airport Pat Downs
By ASHLEY PARKER
WASHINGTON — The official subject of the hearing Tuesday was screening air cargo. But senators seemed equally interested in hearing about a new procedure for airline passengers that involves a full-body pat down.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut and chairman of the homeland security committee, asked John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration, to explain why he believed the new pat-down procedures were “justified.”
Mr. Pistole said that while “reasonable people can disagree as to what that proper balance or blend is between privacy and security safety,” he believed that “everybody who gets on a flight wants to be reassured that everybody else around them has been properly screened.”
Aviation and travel news has been dominated recently by discussion of the method, which allows screeners to use the front of their hands to touch passengers’ inner thighs, buttocks and breasts. The pat down is required for passengers who opt out of passing through a full-body scanner, officially known as Advanced Imaging Technology machines. More than 300 of the scanners are in use at airports nationwide.
Mr. Leiberman called the pat downs “awkward” and “unusual,” but ultimately defended them, saying that had Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of boarding a Detroit-bound flight with an explosive device sewn into his underwear, been successful, “Congress and I daresay the public would have been demanding not just the body imaging equipment but pat downs.”
If Mr. Abdulmutallab “had opted out,” Mr. Pistole said, “thinking, ‘Well, I’m not going to receive a thorough pat down so I can get on that flight,’ if that had been successful on Christmas Day, I think we might be having a different dialogue here this afternoon and in the public.”
While Mr. Pistole did not provide specific numbers, he said only a “very small” percentage of travelers were patted down. The pat downs would occur, he said, if they had opted out of the scanner or if they had set off an alert another way.
Later, in response to questions from Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, Mr. Pistole said, “There will be no exceptions because of religion” if security officials decide a passenger must either go through the scanner or be frisked.
On Tuesday, the T.S.A. also announced a new policy to offer a “modified pat down” for children 12 years old and under who require additional screening.
The committee also heard testimony about enhancing measures for air cargo security after a thwarted terrorist attack last month involving parcel bombs smuggled onto cargo planes bound for the United States.
Committee members pressed Mr. Pistole and Alan D. Bersin, commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security, on the differences between procedures for air cargo and cargo that goes by sea.
For maritime cargo procedures, manifest information must be submitted to the Department of Homeland Security at least 24 hours before a container is loaded onto a ship headed to the United States. For air cargo, the manifest information has to be submitted only four hours before the cargo lands in the United States.
“Frankly, a system that says we want to know four hours before it arrives at our shores provides very little protection,” said Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine. “The flight may be already en route.”
Ms. Collins and Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, asked why the system for air cargo could not be changed immediately. Mr. Pistole said it was “a pragmatic issue” and asked, “The question is, Are the carriers capable of implementing that today?”
Mr. Levin said he did not understand the “practical problems” in making the change.
“This is easier than pat downs,” he said. “This is just slowing it down.”
On Tuesday, Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, introduced legislation that would require the complete screening of cargo-only aircraft. In 2007, Mr. Markey wrote a similar law, which requires the total screening of all air cargo transported on domestic passenger planes and all international passenger planes entering the United States.
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