US holding firm on intrusive airport security

The US government is betting Americans would rather fly safe than untouched.

Last Updated: Nov 18, 2010, 15:18 PM IST

Washington: Despite a deluge of complaints over intrusive pat-downs and revealing airport scans, the government is betting Americans would rather fly safe than untouched.

"I`m not going to change those policies," the nation`s transportation security chief declared.

Responded a lawmaker: "I wouldn`t want my wife to be touched in the way that these folks are being touched."

The debate over where to strike the balance between privacy and security, in motion since new safety measures took effect after the 2001 terrorist attacks, has intensified with the debut of pat-downs that are more thorough, and invasive, than before, and the spread of full-body image scans.

A week before some of the busiest flying days of the year, some passengers are refusing the regimen, many more are complaining and the aviation industry is caught in the middle.

In Florida, the Orlando Sanford Airport, which handles 2 million passengers a year, now plans to replace "testy" Transportation Security Administration screeners with private contractors, and two veteran commercial pilots are refusing to fly out of airports using the procedures.

"The outcry is huge," Texas Republican Sen Kay Bailey Hutchison told the TSA administrator, John Pistole, at a Capitol Hill hearing yesterday. "I know that you`re aware of it. But we`ve got to see some action."

Pistole conceded "reasonable people can disagree" on how to properly balance safety at the nation`s airports but he asserted the new security measures are necessary because of intelligence on latest attack methods that might be used by terrorists.

Pistole was a senior FBI officer last Christmas when an al Qaeda operative made it onto a Chicago-bound plane with explosives stuffed in his underwear. The explosive misfired, causing injury only to the wearer.

As TSA chief since the summer, Pistole has reviewed reports that found undercover agents were able to slip through airport security because pat-downs were not thorough enough.

Given a choice between a planeload of screened passengers and a flight with no lines or security checks, he told senators, "I think everybody will want to opt for the screening with the assurance that that flight is safe and
secure”.

The new hands-on searches are used for passengers who don`t want the full-body scans, or when something suspicious shows in screening, or on rare occasions, randomly.

They can take two minutes per passenger and involve sliding of the hands along the length of the body, along thighs and near the groin and breasts.

PTI