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Enhanced pat-downs necessary for now, TSA chief says

By Tom Cohen, CNN
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TSA chief: Pat-downs will continue
  • Air travelers upset over more rigorous screening, touching
  • Pistole says small number of travelers have to undergo enhanced pat-downs
  • Screening tries to balance public safety with personal comfort, Pistole says

Washington (CNN) -- Enhanced security pat-downs that have been vilified by travelers as legal groping are here to stay, at least for now, the federal official in charge of transportation security told CNN on Sunday.

John Pistole, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, said he understood public discomfort over having a stranger touch the buttocks, breasts and genitals in trying to find possible hidden explosives, but he called the extra screening necessary.

"We're not changing the policies, because of... the risks that have been identified," Pistole said on CNN's "State of the Union." "We know through intelligence that there are determined people, terrorists who are trying to kill not only Americans but innocent people around the world."

Travelers who set off metal detectors at airport security are asked to undergo extra screening. If they refuse to go through an enhanced visual device that shows the body through clothing, they are required to submit to the thorough pat-down in order to fly.

Incidents such as last December's failed bombing of a U.S.-bound flight by a man with explosives in his underwear and the recent detection of explosives in air cargo packages from Yemen prompted the enhanced screening.

But the more thorough pat-down process has generated alarm and anger, with some travelers complaining they were given little warning of the procedure and that they felt violated by the touching of private parts.

Critics, including conservative Republicans who generally oppose government regulation, say the enhanced screening is a knee-jerk and excessive reaction.

"I don't think the roll-out was good and the application is even worse," Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, said Sunday on "State of the Union." "This does need to be refined. But he's saying it's the only tool and I believe that's wrong."

Democrats also acknowledged the difficulty of the issue. Asked if she would submit to an enhanced pat-down, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the CBS program "Face the Nation": "Not if I could avoid it. No, I mean, who would?"

On the same program, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, said, "I don't think any of us would want to undergo that," but added that "most people understand that we've got to keep airplanes safe."

Clinton called for continuing study of the security situation to come up with the proper balance between protecting the public from terrorists and avoiding excessive screening.

"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," she said.

Pistole also spoke of seeking a balance between safety and public comfort.

"I think it is situational, frankly," he said on CNN. "So for you, you may say, 'I want this level of security because I want to know that everybody else on that plane has been screened thoroughly.' Somebody else may say, 'Well, I would rather manage some risk and say I don't want that thorough of screening, so I would rather take a higher risk.' "

For the TSA, he said, "it comes down to how do we give the highest level of confidence to everybody on that flight that everybody else has been properly screened, including you and me?"

Pistole noted that few passengers face the enhanced pat-down -- only those who trigger an initial safety alarm in the metal detector or document-screening, and then refuse to go through the advanced visual screening.

"The advanced imaging technology is designed to detect non-metallics," Pistole said. "So you just have to make sure you take everything out of your pockets. So if there's no alarm, there's no pat-down."

He also complained of "horror stories" about the enhanced pat-down that he said are "frankly inaccurate, either misinformation or whatever."

At the same time, Pistole acknowledged that travelers received little warning of the enhanced screening procedures, and therefore those who faced the more thorough pat-down were likely caught by surprise.

"That's my responsibility, because I did not advertise this, if you will, and say we are going to do this new type of pat-down, because I did not want to provide a blueprint or a road map to the terrorists to say, 'here's our new security procedure, so here's all you have to do to,' " Pistole said.

Mica and other conservatives call for easing the use of enhanced screening for travelers who clearly pose no security risk. Mica cited Israel's use of passenger profiling based on travel history, age and other factors to determine more likely security risks.

Pistole, however, said the United States doesn't use the same kind of profiling, and he also noted that travelers who trigger a security question in Israel also undergo a rigorous pat-down.

"That is top-notch security," Pistole said. "The question is, do we profile here in the U.S.? No, we don't. So how then do we use intelligence that informs the decisions and judgements? And given what we saw from last night in terms of this new Web publication that describes in detail how the cargo bombs were done, how the design concealed, and how they are using technology to disguise and defeat the screening mechanisms we have in place; look, it's a difficult question."