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TSA Chief Defends Airport Screening Procedures

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TSA Chief Defends Airport Screening Procedures

National Security

TSA Chief Defends Airport Screening Procedures

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Public objections to airport scanners have been putting pressure on the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA is using full-body scanners and enhanced pat-downs, as they're called, for those who decline to go through the scanners. TSA Leader John Pistole is defending these practices.

Mr. JOHN PISTOLE (TSA Administrator): The threats are real, and the best way to address those threats are by having the best technology and the best techniques. Reasonable people can disagree as to what that blend, or that mix, is between privacy and security, but in the final analysis, I think everybody wants to be safe and secure on that flight.

INSKEEP: Pistole was speaking yesterday on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. He also testified on Capitol Hill, and NPR's Brian Naylor listened.

BRIAN NAYLOR: John Pistole's appearance before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee came after several days of criticism of TSA's newly enacted screening policies. Those policies give travelers a choice of going through full-body scanners at the some 60 airports where they're installed, or submit to an invasive pat-down by a TSA officer.

Civil liberties groups have likened the full-body scanners to a virtual strip search. They produce images monitored by TSA agents in a closed room. The scanners have been going into service since the failed attempt last Christmas to bomb a Northwest jet bound for Detroit by a man with explosives hidden in his underwear.

Pistole says most travelers want to know the passengers on their flight are safe.

Mr. PISTOLE: If you have two planes that are getting ready to depart and one, you say everybody has been thoroughly screened on this plane, and you can either go on that plane - or we have another plane where we have not done a thorough screening because people didn't feel comfortable with that, I think most - if not all - of the traveling public will say, I want to go on that plane that has been thoroughly screened.

NAYLOR: For the most part, Pistole got a friendly reception from the Senate panel. Connecticut independent Joseph Lieberman.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): I understand the privacy sensitivities, of course. It's awkward. It's unusual. On the other hand, we get on those planes, and we want to have the confidence that nobody on the plane has evaded security in a way that will allow them to blow up the plane and kill everybody else on it. So this is, unfortunately, the world in which we live.

NAYLOR: Nevada Republican John Ensign was concerned, he said, by reports that some travelers could get out of the screening by citing religious objections.

Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): Let's just say I don't want either of them because of religious reasons. What happens to me?

Mr. PISTOLE: So, while I respect and we respect that person's beliefs, that person's not going to get on an airplane.

Mr. ENSIGN: Okay.

NAYLOR: The hearing was originally called to discuss last month's discovery of two printer toner cartridges that had been filled with explosives, and were shipped from Yemen on cargo jets.

Republican Susan Collins, of Maine, noted that air cargo manifests are handled much differently than cargo on board ships, which have to file their manifests with the Department of Homeland Security 24 hours before the ship is loaded at a foreign port.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): Air cargo manifest information is required to be submitted only four hours before the cargo arrives in the United States. That is a major difference.

NAYLOR: Pistole responded the department is working on the issue, but has run into obstacles from shippers.

Mr. PISTOLE: A number of the smaller carriers around the world are not fully electronic in terms of their communications. So how do we actually implement that? So, clearly the intent is there. It's how do we make it happen.

NAYLOR: Collins also asked why TSA wasn't using scanners found at some European airports that produce images in which the traveler is represented as a stick figure, with suspicious objects highlighted. Pistole says those scanners are now being tested, but often produce false positives.

He said they're probably the next generation of scanners, but that's little consolation to most fliers in the upcoming holiday travel season.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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