MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Now, we're going to hear from the head of the Transportation Security Administration about new screening procedures at airports. There's been a loud and angry backlash against the latest policies and technologies, from full body scanners to enhanced pat-downs.
John Pistole is the TSA administrator and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.
Mr. JOHN PISTOLE (TSA Administrator): Thank you, Melissa, glad to be with you.
BLOCK: And you've been hearing concerns, of course, both about the intrusiveness of these measures and also the health effects of some of the scans, concerns voiced by passengers, also from pilots and flight attendants. Did you anticipate that level of backlash?
Mr. PISTOLE: There have been a number of reactions, I think informed perhaps by individuals' experiences and perspectives. We are really looking at this from two perspectives. One is the partnership that we seek with the traveling public in particular. And then, also, the security aspects. The bottom line is we know the threats are real, as we've seen, really, since 9/11 and before. And so what we try to do is work the best balance between security and privacy and safety and security.
BLOCK: In terms of finding that balance, though, the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, calls the full body scans a virtual strip search. How do you justify that level of scanning or enhanced pat-downs, which many people find invasive?
Mr. PISTOLE: 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.
BLOCK: I gather TSA has now backed off a bit on screening for young children, is that right?
Mr. PISTOLE: Well, we did not do, frankly, a very good job of communicating initially that there would be an exemption, if you will, from the thorough pat-down for children 12 and under. That was under review when the policy came out and so we have clarified that that does not apply to children 12 and under.
BLOCK: Twelve and under are exempt, but children above that age would still be subjected to a pat-down if necessary?
Mr. PISTOLE: Well, possibly. And, Melissa, I would just point out that those receiving a pat-down are as a result of having alarmed - after they walk through a metal detector and not resolve that alarm or they opt out of the advance imaging technology. And so there's a need to resolve that, because what we don't want to face is a Christmas Day type bomber who says, I'm going to opt out of the advanced imaging technology and I'm not going to receive a thorough pat-down, so I will be able to get on that flight and kill as many people on that flight and others on the ground, perhaps.
BLOCK: What about the concern, especially voiced by pilots who go through scanners all the time, and they're concerned, some of them, about radiation from specifically the backscatter imaging technology. They say, we're not the threat, why should we be subjected to this added health risk? What's happening there? Is there any resolution of that?
Mr. PISTOLE: There are two issues there, Melissa. One dealing with the safety issues and both the FDA and the National Institute of Science Technology, along with Johns Hopkins have all done independent research on this to assess the amount of radiation. And what they have found is that it is a very low radiation risk, equivalent to maybe a couple minutes of air travel at 30,000 feet.
One of the things that I did when I came on as an administrator back in July, was to use a risk based intelligence driven process. Part of that means, do we use the same screening technology and approach for everybody? And I don't think that that makes sense from a risk-based perspective. So I think we'll have a positive outcome with the pilots in the not to distant future.
BLOCK: In other words, that they would not be subjected to the same level of screening as passengers?
Mr. PISTOLE: Well, I would say an alternate type of screening and there's a number of options we're looking at in that regard.
BLOCK: I did want to question, though, Mr. Pistole, you know that there are other scientists who question the radiation levels that you're using, say they actually are higher, and they say pilots could be at some risk, given the number of times they pass through these scanners.
Mr. PISTOLE: Right. I've seen the studies. I'm not familiar with the specifics of those studies, but again, the studies from the organizations that I mentioned earlier and the agencies believe that everybody traveling can have confidence in the safety of those machines.
BLOCK: Do you think, John Pistole, that we are always fighting, essentially, the last battle in this regard? For example, the enhanced screening measures that we're talking about really gained steam last year after the attempted Christmas Day bombing, we started having to take off our shoes when Richard Reid, the would-be shoe bomber tried to light his shoes on fire. How do you get out in front of evolving terrorist threats rather than just responding to what's happened in the past?
Mr. PISTOLE: The challenge is, Melissa, is to always be forward looking, as you mentioned, while also addressing previous plots. Because what we don't want to happen is they use the same technique, the same approach because we have become lax. Well, they've already tried that, so we don't need to focus on that. We know that whether it's al-Qaida or other terrorist groups are coming up with creative solutions. So we want to be always looking forward while informed by the past. So the best intelligence in a risk-based approach is what we do on a day-to-day basis.
BLOCK: But how do you do that? And doesn't it seem that these measures are reflexive?
Mr. PISTOLE: Well, they are in a sense that we want to make sure there aren't additional cartridge toners out there with a pound or more of PETN in them. So we want to make sure we're addressing that - while informed by the latest intelligence to say what the might terrorists be doing? How can we be informed by that intelligence and what actions can we take informed by that intelligence?
BLOCK: I've been talking with John Pistole. He's the head of the Transportation Security Administration. Thank you very much.
Mr. PISTOLE: Thank you, Melissa.
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