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.
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.
"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."
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."
U.S. Marshals Save Images from Body Scanners
John DiScala, a blogger known as Johnny Jet, said the TSA should take note of this release and be careful.
"They need to realize if this was them, heads would roll. They need to do everything in their power -- and I mean everything -- to prevent this from happening," DiScala said. "There's already a grassroots effort to ban these machines when just a year ago almost everybody wanted them. It just shows how many people are comfortable with their bodies or being touched. It's a real fine line and they've only got one shot at this."
The full-body scanners, formally known as Advanced Imaging Technology, provide security screeners with what are essentially nude images of travelers. To ensure privacy, the TSA says, faces are blurred and the images are deleted once the TSA officer determines that the passenger is not a threat. The person viewing the images is in a remote location and communicates with the on-site officer via radio.
Passengers worried that their nude photos may end up on the Internet (or concerned about the radiation from the scanners) can opt to bypass the machines. But those travelers then must undergo a more-intrusive search, including the new patdown procedure in which a same-gender TSA agent touches the inside of passengers' inner thighs and women's breasts.
That new patdown alone has generated controversy as passengers, and even some pilots, have equated it with sexual assault. Pilot unions started to advise their members to have the patdown done in private.
Then, over the weekend, a 31-year-old software programmer was thrown out of San Diego International Airport after he got into an argument with a TSA screener about the new, more aggressive patdown.
"If you touch my junk, I'm going to have you arrested," John Tyner told the male screener. Tyner recorded audio of the whole 30-minute incident with the TSA on his cell phone's video camera, a video that has now had hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube and been replayed on major television stations.
Despite the controversy, security experts say such searches are necessary to protect travelers.
"The patdown is unavoidably intrusive, embarrassing, uncomfortable, but it's an unfortunate price of security these days to keep the components of bombs off planes," Flynn said. "It's a dangerous world, and the probability of an attack on flights on any given day are extremely low, but the results of one such attack by the terrorists can be of course catastrophic."
Airport Security Over the Top?
"The patdowns in my option are necessary," said Jim Welna, who served as the chief of police at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport for 17 years and spent four years working for the TSA. "It's a very thorough search, but there isn't an alternative to it given how the current system works. The current system treats everybody as an equal threat."
Welna said America needs to adopt some aspects of the Israeli security model, where everybody gets some attention and then a few get lots of attention. When the same standard is applied to everybody, he said, "you've diluted your ability to be thorough."