The topic for today's Senate Homeland Security hearing was supposed to be air cargo security.
But in the wake of growing public concern about the Transportation Security Administration's new procedures to screen air travelers, that's where the discussion kept returning.
CNET is providing excerpts from the transcript of the hearing, in which committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman calls the scanners "necessary for the security" of the American people and TSA Administrator John Pistole says his agency's screeners are "there to protect you and your loved ones." (See related article.)
As the Thanksgiving travel season draws near, the reaction to TSA's new procedures has been visceral and sharply critical, driven by cell phone recordings of security line incidents, privacy and health concerns, and Web sites including the Drudge Report, which published a photograph of a hands-on examination of a nun with the caption: "THE TERRORISTS HAVE WON." Yesterday's Colbert Report called them machines "that X-ray your X-rated parts," and a software engineer from Oceanside, Calif., became an Internet sensation after telling a TSA screener: "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested."
Thanks to the federal stimulus legislation, TSA has been able to buy approximately 373 whole-body scanners and install them in at least 68 airports around the country. A few weeks ago, with only a one-paragraph mention on TSA's Web site, the screening procedures were changed to offer air travelers a choice of either full-body scans or what the TSA delicately calls "enhanced patdowns."
Read on for the transcript excerpts.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I-CONN.): I want to ask you a question related to TSA that's very much in the news, which is the so-called pat-down procedures that follow and are associated with the use of the whole-body imaging scanners, which I recall because we held hearings on this subject after the Christmas Day bombing attempt. And most of us were calling for you to go to the whole-body scanners, either in the Amsterdam variety or what--what you've done.
And I--I wanted to give you an opportunity before the committee really to explain the pat-down procedures that have troubled people and why you think that they're justified.
PISTOLE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. There is an ever-evolving nature of the terrorist plot that has been well-described here this afternoon. The challenge for TSA and the whole U.S. government and our allies around the world is to develop both the best techniques and tactics, enabled by the best technology, to detect those plots.
As we've heard the various plots outlined here this afternoon, it is clear that we have to be one step ahead of the terrorists. And it's obvious that we are not always in that situation, as evidenced by the last three plots that would--could have been successful.
So it really comes down to a balance, where partnership on the one hand, working with the traveling public and the security safety issues on the other hand, and what is a proper mix? So what we try to do is understand--we want to be sensitive to people's concerns about privacy about their personal being and things, while ensuring that everybody on every flight has been properly screened.
We've recognized--I particularly recognize that reasonable people can disagree as to what that proper balance or blend is between privacy and security and safety.
That being the case, I think everybody who gets on a flight wants to ensure and be assured that everybody else around them has been properly screened and, oh, by the way, everybody else on that flight wants to make sure that I have been properly screened or you have been properly screened.
So how do we reach that balance? And that's what we--that is the challenge that we go through. I believe the advanced imaging technology is the best technology we have today to detect the nonmetallic device that was well-designed, well-concealed, such as we saw on Christmas Day.
What I am concerned about, and I know many share this concern, is if we have an individuals who opts out of the advanced imaging technology--let's say Abdulmutallab [CNET editor's note: this is a reference to last year's underwear bomber] had done that, if that had been the case in (inaudible). If he had opted out, thinking that, well, I'm not going to receive a thorough pat-down, so I can get on that flight, and if that had been successful on Christmas Day, I think we might be having a different dialogue here this afternoon and in the public.
But what I want to assure and reassure the public is we are concerned about your safety, your security, and your privacy. Let's work together in partnership to ensure that we can have the best way forward.
LIEBERMAN: Let me just take this a moment or two more. Just make clear, if you will, to the committee and public who may be listening, watching, how does someone get subjected to a pat-down procedure?
PISTOLE: There's actually a very small number or percentage that would actually have the pat-down. And it would really occur almost exclusively in situations where somebody has opted out of the advanced imaging technology or that they have alerted on that because there's something still in their pockets or they may be trying to carry some contraband on the flight.
LIEBERMAN: In other words, either they've chosen not to go through the scanner or they have gone through and there's some alert.
PISTOLE: There's alert, or through the walk-through metal detector and there's alert, and so there's some basis for doing that. There--so, and even with that, it is a very small percentage of all the passengers. So very few people, even though the information out there--the public out there, because it is a new technique, if you will--the other thing I've said here--I've been in Europe several times in the last few months and observed the pat-downs being done in many airports.
And it's very similar. Our pat-down approach is very similar to what is being utilized in Europe and, as we know, around the world. It's even much more thorough in other parts of the world.
LIEBERMAN: Yes. I know, Chris, you have a same-gender person, TSA employee, doing the pat-down. I presume they're put through training to--this is a difficult balance because, obviously, they are--this has to be a more intimate and intrusive investigation because of the choice that has been made earlier or what the machine has shown, but that they're--they're instructed in a way that will determine whether somebody is potentially dangerous but also, in doing so, try to do minimal harm to their privacy.
PISTOLE: Correct. They go through training. And the clearest outcome of that training is to be professional and to give clear guidance and a lot of clarity as to what they are going to do in terms of the actual pat-down and to make sure that the passenger understands that and responds to that.
There's been a lot of publicity out there about a certain individual who recently tried to travel but did not want to have that pat-down. And I think, if people get away from just the passenger to hear what the security officer was saying, very cool, calm, professional. And that's what we expect out of our security officers, to do this in a way that is professional.
And, again, the bottom line is, 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 of if not all the traveling public would say, "I want to go on that plane that has been thoroughly screened."
LIEBERMAN: Yes, I--I agree with you. I think you're doing the right thing. I think perhaps the reaction to the pat-down procedures got ahead of TSA's or the department's description of what you were doing and why you were doing it.
But if, God forbid, that bomb on Abdulmutallab's body had gone off on the plane over Detroit, Congress and I dare say the public would have been demanding not just the body imaging equipment but pat- downs. Because I understand the privacy sensitivities, of course. It's awkward; it's unusual. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of--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 it--this is unfortunately the world in which we live. It wasn't our choice. But--but we have to do everything we can to protect the traveling public. And I think that what you're doing here with the pat-down procedures is difficult; it's sensitive, but it's necessary for the security--homeland security of the American people.
SEN. ROLAND BURRIS (D-ILLINOIS): Mr. Chairman, I--I don't have much longer in the Senate, but we ought to look at these private contracts. And I'm concerned about the number of private contractors not only TSA but the other government agencies are going to, and then dealing with liability. [CNET ed. note: Roland Burris was appointed to President Obama's Senate seat and is succeeded by Republican Mark Kirk.]
Because I'm wondering where the liability is going to be if one of those passengers who feel that they have been over screened, just what the liability there would be. And, in terms of the underwear bomber, would patting down have caught the underwear bomber in your--your estimation?
BURRIS: Not the machine, but the patting down?
BURRIS: Because this--the--allegedly it was in a diaper type of arrangement.
BURRIS: So they are going that deep in terms of patting down individuals?
PISTOLE: The pat-downs are based on the latest intelligence and the information that we have. And...
BURRIS: There was no intelligence on this gentleman that was on the flight to Detroit. I mean, you know, he was on the plane.
PISTOLE: That's right. That's why we changed the policy.
BURRIS: So, OK. And our personnel have received--our personnel have received adequate training?
Because, Mr. Chairman, do we know what will happen, with the litigation coming out of this? Because the pilot's association and the flight attendant's association are getting ready to bring some type of action, as I'm getting information, because of the excessive patting down a flight attendant and the pilots. Is that the case, sir?
PISTOLE: That had been the case.
Pilots have, of course, not generally gone through the advance (inaudible) technology because they are allowed to keep their shoes on and that's a different issues. But I've had a number of conversations with representatives of the pilots associations and we are actively exploring options as it involves pilots because we're using a risk- based approach, and the question--it just begs the question: If you have somebody who's in charge of the aircraft who can put the aircraft down, as could be the case, then why do we have the screening for them?
So actually in the near future, I will be announcing some new policies on that.
BURRIS: That would help. There's also a question, Mr. Pistole, about the degree of X-rays that these individuals have to go through in the course of their day-to-day work and what that will do to their physical health, is it not, if--if they go through the X-ray machine rather than the excessive pat-down?
PISTOLE: Sure. And that's one of the concerns that I think has been raised. What I rely upon is the scientific literature and the studies that have been done using these specific machines, including FEA (ph), National Institute of Science and Technology, and Johns Hopkins. They've all done independent assessments of the advanced imaging technology machines, the amount of radiation, and I've seen several analogies, but one that sticks in my mind is going through one of these machines is similar to receiving about three minutes--is it seconds or minutes?--three minutes of radiation that you would receive at 30,000 feet on a normal flight.
So it's very minimal, well within the established scientific standards for safety, and we're always trying to update that independent validators, others who have opinions about that.
BURRIS: And how about the protection of the TSA personnel? I mean, if I get accused of, you know, grabbing a lady's breast or, you know, or the female gets too close to the male genitals--I mean, how are they protected now?
PISTOLE: OK, so it's always same gender security officers who would do that pat-down, and then people can request a private...
BURRIS: Well, have you a witness there with that pat-down?
PISTOLE: You're welcome to have a witness there present.
BURRIS: So the TSA person--can the TSA person request a witness employee to be there with her or him when he is patting him down or she is patting her down? Can they have a person there with them there to protect them?
PISTOLE: It's not our current policy, but unless it goes into a private screening area, the closed-circuit TV would capture virtually all of that because every checkpoint has C.C. TV-enabled.
BURRIS: I see my time is up. But I--I'm also concerned about our TSA personnel, and I listen to these people, "please take care of the TSA personnel." Some of them don't have health insurance. Some of them working part-time. And I'm listening to these complaints, and as the new administrator, I'm counting on you to take care of those people who are going to take care of us getting on these airplanes. Because we can't have disgruntled TSA personnel...
BURRIS: ... trying to protect us on these flights.
PISTOLE: I couldn't agree with you more, Senator. I appreciate your support. Thank you, sir.
BURRIS: God bless you.
LIEBERMAN: Thank you.
Thanks very much, Senator Burris.
SEN. JOHN ENSIGN (R-NEVADA): Are you going to, you know, allow certain groups to be exempted from that because of, you know, religious beliefs?
PISTOLE: Senator, we try to be sensitive to each individual and in groups that have particular sensitivities as to whether it's head-wear or certain garb or sensitivities about being viewed or touched and everything. So we try to be sensitive to those issues. At the same time, the bottom line is we have to ensure that each person getting on each flight has been properly screened. And so we have options such as, if somebody does not want to go through the advanced imaging technology, it is optional. They would just do the walk- through metal detector and then--and have a pat-down that would identify any possible items.
They can request private screenings. So if they don't want to be screened in public, they can go to a private area, have a witness with them.
And so we try to address those concerns in every way possible, recognizing, again, in the final analysis, everybody on that flight wants to be assured with the highest level of confidence that everybody else on that flight has been properly screened, and including me and you and everybody.
ENSIGN: I realize this is a difficult question for you, but--so are you going to make no exceptions, then?
ENSIGN: I know you're trying to responsibly accommodate.
ENSIGN: But within those reasonable accommodations, OK, let's just say that--that, listen, you know, my religious whatever does not allow me to be touched by somebody else, does not allow me to go through that screening. So what happens in those cases?
PISTOLE: So a very small percentage of people would have and will continue to receive pat-downs. So if somebody comes through...
ENSIGN: So they have to at least go through the pat-down, if not the screening?
PISTOLE: No, they--unless there is an alarm in the walk- through metal detector or they opt out of the advance imaging technology, they would in all likelihood never receive a pat-down. So it's--the pat-down is only a very, very small...
ENSIGN: No, no, I--let me--maybe not (inaudible) my question. If somebody is--a random screening. I just got randomly screened at the airport. For whatever reason, my number seems to come up quite often.
But if that, you know, happens and either the imaging, OK, was one of the options or, you know, the pat down--let's just say I don't--I don't want either of them because of religious--because of religious reasons. What happens to me?
PISTOLE: So while I respect and we respect that person's beliefs, that person's not going to get on an airplane.
ENSIGN: OK. And there will be no exceptions because of religion.