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TSA Screening Scrutiny Builds: Privacy, Security Balance Debated

November 22, 2010 at 4:11 PM EDT
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As holiday travel begins this week, controversial full-body scans and security pat-downs will be used in airports across the country. Margaret Warner leads a debate on the balance between privacy and security with Kate Hanni of FlyersRights.org and Clark Kent Ervin former Department Of Homeland Security inspector general.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The Obama administration acknowledged today the government will consider the public’s concerns and complaints as it evaluates rigid new airline boarding security checks. Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Criticism of new, stricter airport screening measures provoked a round of mixed signals from federal officials today.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano voiced empathy for passengers’ concerns , but said there are no current plans to back away from the procedures.

U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: Most Americans are not used to a real law enforcement pat-down like that. So, as we move forward, of course we will listen to concerns; of course we will make adjustments or changes when called upon, but not changes or adjustments that will affect the basic operational capability that we need to have to make sure that air travel remains safe.

MARGARET WARNER: On ABC, Transportation Security Administration Chief John Pistole seemed to suggest the agency was open to some revisions.

JOHN PISTOLE, administrator, Transportation Security Administration: We are constantly adapting. So, what I am doing is going back and looking at, are there less invasive — less invasive ways of doing the same type of screening?

MARGARET WARNER: But, on CNN he said:

JOHN PISTOLE: In the short term, there will not be any changes.

MARGARET WARNER: Later in the day, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the government’s position is evolving.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: I think we are trying and TSA is trying desperately to strike that balance. That will evolve. And, again, the evolution of the security will be done with the input of those that go through the security.

MAN: I think the TSA is — is out of control.

MARGARET WARNER: Uproar over the new screening measures seemed to mount this weekend, as the Thanksgiving travel week kicked into high gear.

Two methods are at issue: first, at some U.S. airports, the use of full-body scanners, which reveal images of the naked body and subject travelers to a small dose of radiation; second, for passengers who refuse the scans, intrusive full-body pat-downs that involve touching the most private areas of a passenger’s body.

Reaction has been mixed.

MAN: I would rather do the full-body scan than having somebody handling me.

WOMAN: I’m not looking forward to being patted down, but it doesn’t really bother me.

MAN: I think it’s just fine. I don’t have any problem with it whatsoever. It’s a good thing. If it keeps us secure, that’s fine.

MARGARET WARNER: Since the scanners are found in just 70 of the nation’s 450 airports, and not at every gate, a majority of travelers are not yet subject to them.

Still, horror stories are circulating the Internet. This video of a father taking off his young son’s shirt for a pat-down has become a YouTube sensation. “Saturday Night Live” took its shot.

ACTRESS: The TSA, it’s our business to touch yours.

MARGARET WARNER: And, while supporting administration policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday she’s glad she’s not had to endure it.

BOB SCHIEFFER, host, “Face the Nation”: But would you submit to one of these pat-downs?

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. Secretary of State: Not if I could avoid it, no.

(LAUGHTER)

I mean, who would?

MARGARET WARNER: On Saturday, President Obama said he understands travelers’ frustrations, but the measures are critical to assure airline safety.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The procedures that they have been putting in place are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bomber.

MARGARET WARNER: Last Friday, the TSA agreed to let pilots skip the scans and pat-downs with proper identification. Today, Delta asked that flight attendants be exempted, too.

Two Web sites are urging passengers to opt out of the scans on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. That could snarl traffic on the busiest travel day of the year.

And we get two views now on the merits of this screening approach and the outcry. Kate Hanni is the founder and executive director of the passenger advocacy group FlyersRights.org. The Web site posted an open letter to Secretary Napolitano protesting the measures. And Clark Kent Ervin is former inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration. He’s now director of the Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Program, and he sits on an advisory council for Secretary Napolitano.

Welcome to you both. Kate Hanni, let me begin with you.

TSA Chief John Pistole, Secretary Napolitano say these new measures are absolutely necessary to — to deal with the emerging threat that is posed on airlines. What is your response to that?

KATE HANNI, FlyersRights.ORG: Well, we don’t believe that the body scanners are effective at catching the kind of bombs that terrorists would most likely be using, which would be cavity bombs or bombs hidden below one-tenth inch of skin.

We’re concerned about radiation issues. We feel that these measures are absolutely un-American and too intrusive for the flying public to handle in an ongoing basis. Most people have not been through the scanners or the pat-downs yet. They’re about to find out over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday just how horrifying it is.

And our group is receiving about 1,000 e-mails and hot line calls a day from people who are saying they simply won’t fly if these are the only two options available to them.

MARGARET WARNER: Clark Kent Ervin, what do you say to that? I mean, what evidence is there that these measures are effective, for not only the current threats, but emerging ones?

CLARK KENT ERVIN, former inspector general, Department of Homeland Security: Right, Margaret.

Well, certainly, it’s the case that there is no technology other than these full-body imagers, body scanners, that are effective at detecting explosives. The metal detectors that have been in use since the ’70s do not detect explosives. They’re just gun and knife detectors. They’re metallic detectors.

There is nothing right now better than these full-body imagers that can detect explosives. It’s pretty clear from those who have looked at this issue, experts, that the Abdulmutallab case would have been detected by whole-body imagers.

And I think the key issue here, though, is that two related, but different things are being conflated. You know, Secretary Clinton said that she wouldn’t subject herself to a physical pat-down if she didn’t have to. And the point is, most people don’t have to.

It’s only if, as your piece pointed out, you go through a metal detector and you alarm that you have to go through a pat-down, or, if there is a body scanner at the checkpoint, you refuse to go through the body scanner.

Most people who are given the choice elect the body scanner. Eighty percent of the people in polls say that they would make this choice. And I think that every legitimate effort has been made by TSA to minimize the security, the privacy risk by muting the image. The person looking at the image is some removed from the checkpoint. They’re not stored.

And, also, as far as radiation is concerned, both the FDA and Johns Hopkins have certified that the radiation risk is really minimal. If there were an alternative right now, it would be deployed, I’m quite confident. But the fact of the matter is that there’s nothing better.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that point, Ms. Hanni, that people can go through the scanner, if that’s one of the options presented to them, and that the TSA has taken great steps to make sure that the individual’s identity can’t be associated with the image?

KATE HANNI: Well, we don’t believe that.

We do believe that the images have the ability to be stored or that a TSA agent could take a photograph very easily of someone’s naked body and store it. But that — but that’s really beside the point.

The issues just addressed, I disagree with, and our group disagrees with it, and many experts disagree with it. The Rapiscan scanners, in particular, had an FAQ on their Web site that clearly stated that these units would only go one-tenth inch of skin, which means that any cavity bomb, which is the most likely bomb that would be used by a terrorist, could not be detected.

And the Government Accountability Office did a report that stated that it was unclear whether or not these machines would ever have detected a bomb like Abdulmutallab, which begs the point, why are we implementing that, instead of some other technologies, like biometric data, which was available at the time that they were rushing to implement these scanners, was run all the way up the flagpole by many experts at TSA, who — who went all the way up to the highest levels and said, you know, we really should be looking at expanding global entry domestically or Fly Clear, or, you know, the retinal scans and the fingerprints, in order to create a low-risk group of travelers that can smoothly move through security and possibly deal with the higher-risk travelers, and — and using the scanners and pat-downs as a secondary method of screening?

MARGARET WARNER: OK. You have used a number of terms there I will quickly try to explain.

Rapiscan is the company that makes a lot of these scanning machines and global entry and these CLEAR cards were — are — are organizations that — or you have the ability, if you’re willing to subject yourself to a lot of security screening in advance, to go through based on your fingerprints or your retinal scan.

Clark Kent Ervin, back to you. What about this point that, whether or not — and I don’t know that we can settle it tonight — that this could have caught the underwear bomber, the next step is hiding the bomb in a body cavity, and that this wouldn’t catch that anyway; if terrorists know that this kind of technology is being used, they will just move on to the next level?

CLARK KENT ERVIN: Well, that’s right, Margaret.

It is the case that this technology wouldn’t detect a bomb hidden in a body cavity. That’s right. So, what that means is, we have got to work overtime to develop other technology that can detect explosives in body cavities.

Trace detection, for example, has the promise — holds the promise of being able to do that. There’s technology right now in the labs at the Department of Homeland Security that can do it. I think we need to urgently develop that technology and deploy it. It’s more effective and it’s less intrusive, and the time to accelerate these efforts is right now.

But, as I said earlier, as to other bombs, the kind of bomb that Mr. Abdulmutallab had, this technology is the only technology that can detect it right now. And as to the point that was just made about our focusing, instead of the screening procedures, on people who are most likely to pose risk, the problem with that is, it sounds wonderful in theory, but we can’t do it in fact.

We don’t know who is the person to focus on. We don’t know who the most risky people are. People can pass background checks. People can have clear records as far as terrorism is concerned. People can submit biometrics and such. And those people can still be the people who actually would carry out terror attacks.

And, so, in the absence of perfect intelligence, we have got to deploy the best technology that we have got.

Now, I think TSA didn’t roll this out in the most adroit fashion. Certainly, some screeners have not been as sensitive as they must be to the traveling public. But security is a right, too. And al-Qaida is determined to attack us as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

And we are where we are. We have got to deploy this technology now, it seems to me.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Hanni, briefly — and we don’t have a lot of time left — there’s been this flurry. We have a lot of activity on the Internet, but do you think that this out — outcry will continue and build, or do you think it will be something that, after Thanksgiving, the public will just kind of tacitly accede to?

KATE HANNI: As people go through the scanners and the pat-downs in particular, I believe this outcry is going to get far worse. I think that because it was rolled out about a month ago, prior to the heavy travel season, during a month where travel was relatively low, that after people go through the pat-down, which I have been through the pat-down — and I have to tell you, I had to literally check out mentally in order to get through it. And I think most people feel the same way.

And many people don’t have even that amount of tolerance. I think you’re going to see some issues over this week. I think you’re going to see some protesting, also possibly some arrests, because I have had a lot of people e-mail me and say that they just won’t put up with having their genitals touched. And they may even have a knee-jerk reaction to slapping a hand away.

I think people have hit the tipping point where they’re saying, it’s un-American. It’s violating my civil rights and my rights to privacy and that we have to find a different way.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me go quickly to you, Mr. Ervin.

If — if she’s right, and the outcry continues and builds, at some point, does the government have to be responsive in some other way?

CLARK KENT ERVIN: Well, I think the some other way is, as I said, developing this technology which is automated technology, so that a person doesn’t have to determine whether you have got an explosive on you.

We have got to develop this technology urgently. But, in the meantime, as I say, the key point here is that most people don’t have to endure the physical pat-down. And that’s what really is at the root of most of this.

Body scanners are safe. They’re effective. Most people would choose them. And I think, after we get through this holiday season, people will see that for themselves at the airports. Most people will choose the whole-body imagers. And I think they will see that they’re safe and effective. And I think the number of people who choose the pat-downs will be very small indeed.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, to be continued. Kate Hanni and Clark Kent Ervin, thank you both.

KATE HANNI: Thank you.