White House Says Travel Security Will Evolve

Senate holds hearing on airline safety after discovery of cargo bombs.

Transportation Security Administration Administrator John Pistole testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington on Nov. 16. Pistole is asking travelers not to boycott airport body scans, saying such actions threaten to create delays during a period of peak holiday travel. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The White House and the head of the Transportation Security Administration said Monday they will consider making some changes to controversial new airport security policies, but not anytime soon.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said he expects the security procedures will evolve over time. "Our goal must be to maximize protection and security and minimize inconvenience and invasiveness," he said.

The comments come amid a public outcry over full-body scans and enhanced pat-downs, and calls for a day of protest on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel days of the year.

TSA chief John Pistole urged passengers angry over safety procedures not to boycott airport body scans. He said the actions would only serve to "tie up people who want to go home and see their loved ones."

In television appearances Sunday, Pistole pledged to review security procedures in the wake of a public outcry. But he also said the TSA must balance people's demand for privacy with the need to protect passengers from those who would try to set off bombs on planes.

"We all wish we lived in a world where security procedures at airports weren't necessary," he said, "but that just isn't the case."

So far this controversy has spawned at least one YouTube folk hero and, as of this weekend, a Saturday Night Live sketch. The sketch, which has now been forwarded many times over, plays like a late-night TV ad for "adult services."

But for James Babb, one of the people behind We Won't Fly — one of two Internet campaigns calling on air passengers to protest security screenings this Wednesday — this isn't a laughing matter. "Nobody wants to be groped. Nobody wants to have nude pictures taken of their family," he said. "Who is going to stand by and allow that?"

Babb, a libertarian from suburban Philadelphia, said the full-body scans are invasive and enhanced pat-downs go too far. He and others are calling on passengers not to fly, and if they must, opt out of the scan.

"If enough of us do it, it will bog down their baloney security theater," he said. "They just don't have the manpower to put their hands in everyone's pants."

More than 15,000 people are now following Babb's campaign on Facebook.

"They have no need to search us. We are not suspects. We are not criminals," he said. "We are travelers and we have the right to not be invaded in that way."

For many, the greatest objection is to the full-body scanners, which produce a virtually naked image. The screener, who sits in a different location, does not see the face of the person being screened and does not know the traveler's identity. Those who refuse to go through the scanners are subject to thorough pat-downs that include agency officials touching the clothed genital areas of passengers.

Bill Wattenburg, a semi-retired government scientist who spent most of his career working on national security issues, said the TSA could have avoided all this if only it had done what he suggested in 2006.

"The minute that we heard TSA was going to put such machines in airports, a number of scientists and I sort of smiled because we knew instantly what they would be showing if they weren't a little bit clever about disguising the images," he said.

Wattenburg says he developed a plan to distort the scanner images like a fun-house mirror without compromising security. He sent the idea in for a patent and sent it to the TSA to no avail.

A TSA spokesman didn't respond directly to Wattenburg's claims, but he did say the agency is now working on software that will replace more detailed body outlines with a generic stick-figure-like image.

Meanwhile Rep. John Mica (R-FL), who is in line to become chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the TSA is behind the times when it comes to protecting Americans. "What they're doing really doesn't even address the current threat," he told All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block.

Pat-downs and body scans of travelers might catch some of the would-be bombers of past years, Mica said, but won't stop terrorists intent on putting bombs on cargo planes.

"They're so far behind the curve I don't even like to think about it," Mica said.

Mica is an advocate of making more use of private contractors to do the screening and security work at airports.

NPR's Tamara Keith contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press

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