TSA Chief Defends New Patdown Procedure

TSA administrator says balance needed between privacy and security.

ByABC News
November 16, 2010, 1:39 PM

Nov. 16, 2010— -- The head of the Transportation Security Administration, John Pistole, today defended his agency's new, controversial patdown procedure, one that has been described by some critics as sexual assault. The new procedure involves screeners running their hands up the inside of passengers' thighs and touching around women's breasts.

"There is an ever-evolving nature of the terrorist threat," Pistole told a Senate committee holding a hearing on the safety of cargo.

Pistole said the government is not always ahead of the terroists and that his agency seeks "the proper mix" between passengers' rights and protecting airplanes.

"We want to be sensitive to people's sensitivity to privacy and their being while ensuring that everybody is secure on every flight," he said.

Pistole told fliers that he is concerned about their safety and privacy and asked them to "work together" with his agency.

The only people who undergo the more-intense patdowns are those who refuse to go through full-body scanners or those who somehow trip other dectors.

"It's a very small percentage of all passengers," Pistole said, adding that "our patdown approach is very similar to what is being used in Europe."

The testimony comes during a hectic week for the TSA, with critics ripping apart not just the patdown process but also the full-body scanners.

The government has reassured the flying public time and time again that any naked images of them at airport checkpoints would be destroyed immediately.

But now new attention is being focused on another agency of the federal government -- the U.S. Marshals Service -- that in at least one case has been keeping thousands of similar naked images recorded by its body scanners.

Back on Aug. 4, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) was given more than 100 of 35,000 images that an Orlando courthouse kept on its scanner. The privacy watchdog group had filed a Freedom of Information Act request and went to court to obtain the images.

Today, as the debate over the scanners and the TSA's new patdown procedure heats up, technology blog Gizmodo released some of those images.

"The public should absolutely be concerned," EPIC's Ginger McCall told ABC News. "Very detailed and graphic pictures of people's naked bodies could end up out there on the Internet."

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While the courthouse scanners aren't as powerful and revealing as the TSA airport scanners, McCall said her group's FOIA request proves that the government is capable of storing and transferring images. While the TSA says it does not store such images -- and McCall isn't suggesting that the agency necessarily is -- EPIC's request shows that the images have been improperly stored in at least one case.

"To the flying public, I would say they are trading away their privacy for the illusion of security," McCall said. "These machines are not effective at picking up powdered explosives and they are highly invasive and possibly create a radiation risk."

TSA machines have different safeguards which officials say prevent images from being stored or distributed.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Pistole on Monday defended the machines, saying they are safe, necessary and that images are never stored by the TSA.

Several private security experts also spoke about the necessity of such machines.

"The TSA, to me, gives credible assurances that that isn't going to happen," said Cathal "Irish" Flynn, a former FAA associate administrator for security who now runs his own consulting firm. "Could there be mistakes? Yes, I suppose so. But as I listen to them, they seem determined not to let that happen."