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Monday, November 22, 2010

TSA Blinks! Passengers Rebel Against "Sexual Assault" Screenings

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Administration To Seek Balance In Airport Screening

Caught between complaints that airport screening has become too intrusive and threats of new terror attacks on aviation, Obama Administration officials say they are sensitive to criticisms that security measures go too far, but they are insisting that the measures now in place are justified by the risks.

With the Thanksgiving travel crush imminent, the chief of the Transportation Security Administration, John S. Pistole, said in a statement that his agency would try to make screening methods “as minimally invasive as possible.” But he gave no indication that the agency would reverse its move to full-body scanners, now deployed in 70 of 450 airports in the United States, and physical pat-downs for passengers who object to the scans.

“This has always been viewed as an evolving program that will be adapted as conditions warrant, and we greatly appreciate the cooperation and understanding of the American people,” Mr. Pistole said.

Security officials said the new procedures were the only way to detect explosives hidden under clothing. “We cannot forget that less than one year ago a suicide bomber with explosives in his underwear tried to bring down a plane over Detroit,” Mr. Pistole said.

The debate over the proper balance of security and privacy was unfolding as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group responsible for the Detroit airliner bomb last Christmas and for placing explosive devices aboard cargo planes last month, threatened similar plots to sow fear, disrupt travel and transport, and impose huge costs on the United States.

“This strategy of attacking the enemy with smaller but more frequent operations is what some may refer to as the strategy of a thousand cuts,” the Yemen-based group said in a new issue of its English-language magazine, Inspire, which resembles a glossy publication but is available for download on militant Web sites. “The aim is to bleed the enemy to death.”

The T.S.A., which screens about two million air passengers a day, began testing the full-body scanners in 2007, installed them more widely starting last year and accelerated their use after the failed plot last Christmas. If a screener spots something suspicious on a scan, which shows an outline of the unclothed body, or if a passenger prefers to skip the scan, the passenger must undergo a physical search that many passengers have found intrusive.

The furor began after Nov. 1, when the agency introduced the more aggressive pat-down procedure. Despite the storm of criticism from passengers, pilots and members of Congress, agency officials point to opinion polls showing that about 80 percent of the public supports the use of body scanners. About 1 percent of passengers have opted out of the scanner and undergone pat-downs so far this month, officials said.

Congressional leaders have promised to hold hearings on the issue.

Still, the administration has appeared to be caught off guard by the outrage of some passengers. Mr. Pistole agreed on Saturday to demands from pilots that they be exempted from the searches, after critics noted that a pilot who wants to destroy a plane hardly needs explosives to do so.

On Saturday in Lisbon, President Obama acknowledged public complaints but said he had been told by T.S.A. and counterterrorism advisers that “at this point” the measures “are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that she did not want to “second guess” security officials, but added that “everyone, including our security experts, are looking for ways to diminish the impact on the traveling public.”

On another Sunday talk show, CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Mrs. Clinton said she would not like to go through a security pat-down.

“Not if I could avoid it,” she said. “No. I mean, who would?”

On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Mr. Pistole, a 26-year F.B.I. veteran who took over at the T.S.A. in June, described the scanners and pat-downs as the last line of defense against terrorists who evade no-fly lists and the “behavior detection officers” looking out for suspicious conduct at airports.

“If they do opt out, we just want to make sure, for example, on Christmas Day,” Mr. Pistole said, in a clear reference to the underwear bomber, that “they receive a thorough pat-down so they don’t pose a risk to that plane.”

In a sense, the strategy trumpeted by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the new issue of Inspire represents a victory for Western counterterrorism. The group acknowledged that Sept. 11-style attacks may be impossible to organize without being detected by the expanded intelligence dragnet.

“Really, it’s a good marketing spin on a pretty desperate strategy,” said James Carafano, a security specialist at the Heritage Foundation.

But the magazine showed that Al-Qaeda planners have an increasing awareness that smaller-scale attacks, including those focused on air cargo, can cause enormous economic damage and public anxiety.

“It has a particular impact, coming as it does at a time when we’re arguing about how to prevent the kind of attack the same group tried at Christmas,” said Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism at Georgetown University.

Both Mr. Carafano and Mr. Hoffman said they would advise the administration to revise the screening procedures. Mr. Carafano said limiting the body scans and pat-downs to secondary screening, for travelers who raise suspicions, would be more sensible than expanding the costly scanners to all travelers.

Mr. Hoffman said the administration should move away from adding more layers of security for every passenger in response to every new plot and consider an Israeli-style approach to identify passengers who pose a particular risk, based on advance intelligence, questioning travelers and watching their behavior.

“We’ve had nine years of just grafting security measures one on another,” Mr. Hoffman said. “Maybe it’s time to step back, take a hard look and look for a new approach.”

T.S.A. Grants Airline Pilots An Exception To Screenings

At least one group of air travelers will get a break from the body scans and pat-downs that have provoked a national outcry.

On Friday, the Transportation Security Administration announced that it would let uniformed airline pilots skip the screenings, reversing an earlier policy that everyone had to go through the screenings as part of the agency’s efforts to prevent terrorist attacks. Pilots who are traveling out of uniform or not on official business will still be subject to searches, the agency said.

The full-body scans and pat-downs being performed at a number of airports have angered travelers, many of whom said the searches were invasive and likened them to virtual strip searches. Passengers have also raised concerns about the long-term effect of radiation exposure from airport scanners.

The agency said pilots would still have to pass through a metal detector at airport checkpoints and present two photo identifications that would be verified against a flight crew database.

The government ruling comes after an extensive two-year lobbying campaign by unions and organizations representing airline pilots. The groups made the argument that because their members had already been through extensive background checks by federal law enforcement officials, there was no need for the added security searches.

Those lobbying for changes in pilot screenings include Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger, who gained national fame last year after safely landing a plane in the Hudson River with over 100 passengers on board.

“Allowing these uniformed pilots, whose identity has been verified, to go through expedited screening at the checkpoint just makes for smart security and an efficient use of our resources,” John S. Pistole, the agency’s administrator, said in a statement.

Dwayne Baird, a spokesman for the T.S.A., said on Saturday that the ruling would apply only to pilots, and not flight attendants.

“They will still have to go through the same screening as everyone else,” Mr. Baird said.

Flight attendants and their unions have argued that they should also be allowed to bypass the pat-downs and screenings, as well.

“Flight attendants are subject to extensive background checks, so there is no reasonable explanation why this highly vetted group of aviation employees continues to be exposed to lengthy airport security lines which may affect their ability to report to the aircraft on time,” Patricia A. Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said in a statement this month.

Mr. Baird said he did not have any information on why flight attendants were not included in the new T.S.A. policy, even though they undergo the same background checks as pilots. He said he had no information about forthcoming changes for ordinary passengers.

Questioned on the protocol while at a NATO summit meeting in Portugal, President Obama acknowledged travelers’ frustrations. “What I’ve said to the T.S.A. 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,” he said. “And you also have to think through, ‘Are there other ways of doing it that are less intrusive?’ ”

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Sources: CNN, Denver Post, Meet The Press, MSNBC, New York Times, Politico, The Guardian, Youtube, Google Maps

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