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TSA Chief: Disagreement Over Security, Privacy Balance Understandable

November 16, 2010 at 4:18 PM EST
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John Pistole, head of the Transportation Safety Administration, speaks with Margaret Warner about how concerns over air travel security threats -- unexploded bombs aboard recent cargo flights and last year's bombing attempt on Christmas -- are being addressed while some travelers complain about more-invasive security measures.
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GWEN IFILL: Travelers and government officials are grappling with fresh concerns about air security, as the holiday travel season approaches.

Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Growing concerns about air cargo security were the focus of a Senate hearing today. How effectively is the U.S. preventing bombs planted in packages from getting on board?

Transportation Security Administration Chief John Pistole:

JOHN PISTOLE, administrator, Transportation Security Administration: But it’s all intelligence-driven. So, what intelligence do we know about the shipper? Did the person positively identify themselves when they came in to drop off the package? Was the package physically inspected?

What do we know about the cargo carrier, where the package was dropped off? How thorough are they? How thorough is the airport at the cargo facility? So, a lot of criteria and indicia go into figuring out what is a high-risk package.

MARGARET WARNER: The issue was brought to the fore with last month’s discovery of timed bombs headed for the U.S. On October 29, British authorities intercepted a shipment from Yemen on a UPS cargo plane bound for Chicago. They found a printer with a toner cartridge that had been rigged with a detonator and a powdered explosive.

A similar device was found aboard a Qatar Airways cargo plane in Dubai that also came from Yemen. At the same time, a furor has erupted over airport security screening for passengers. Two new security measures are at issue, first, the use of full-body scanners, which reveal images of the naked body. They’re now in 60 U.S. airports, with more to come.

Some people have balked at submitting to the scan, for reasons ranging from invasion of privacy to fears of radiation. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano insists the scanners are safe and the images are viewed in private, without identifying the passengers.

Those who refuse the scans are subject to new intensive full-body pat-downs. And those, too, have raised hackles.

CHAD WORSHAM, air traveler: The guy was coming up the inside of my thighs, front and back, with his thumbs extended. So, of course, when he got up to the back, where was his thumb? In a very uncomfortable place.

MARGARET WARNER: A California man even secretly recorded his interaction with an airport screener in San Diego on a cell phone camera. The exchange can be heard in this posting on YouTube.

Transportation Security Administration Agent: So, we’re going to be doing a groin check. That means I’m going to place may hand on your hip, my other hand on your inner thigh, and slowly go up and slide down.

JOHN TYNER, air traveler: We can do that out here, but, if you touch my junk, I’m going to have you arrested.

MARGARET WARNER: But other air passengers sound more accepting.

TERRASIA HARRIS, air traveler: I’m actually OK. I think I’m very confident in the TSA and the process they have taken, security measures. And I believe it’s necessary, you know, just given, you know, recent events and — and the current times. It’s just — if it’s necessary, I’m — you know, I’m OK with that.

MARGARET WARNER: Still, organizers of the Web site wewontfly.com are urging passengers to opt out of security scanners next Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, in favor of the more time-consuming pat-downs. That could tie up airport traffic on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

I sat down with TSA Administrator Pistole this afternoon, shortly before he testified.

Administrator Pistole, thank you for joining us.

JOHN PISTOLE: Thank you, Margaret. Glad to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you here at TSA underestimate the estimate of blowback, of anger from passengers over these more intrusive screening procedures?

JOHN PISTOLE: We are a risk-based, intelligence-driven organization. And knowing that, any time we make changes in the protocols that we use to screen passengers, in dealing with the latest intelligence, that we have to do a good job of informing the public as to what we’re doing, without providing a road map to the terrorists.

So, that’s the tension that we deal with. How much do we inform ahead of time, here’s what we’re going to be doing, as a counterbalance to the security that we need to ensure that everybody who gets on every flight has been properly screened?

I think there — reasonable people can disagree as to the balance between the privacy that some people have raised as issues. And I’m sympathetic to those concerns. But the job is really security in terms of, how can we provide the best security?

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Secretary Napolitano said yesterday, well, if people don’t want to fly, they have other means of travel.

But that isn’t really practical, is it, for a businessperson?

JOHN PISTOLE: You know, if you have two flights, and you have the option of going on the two, and you know, the one, people have been thoroughly screened, and, the other plane, people have opted out and not had a thorough screening, and so you don’t have that confidence, I think virtually everybody is going to go with the flight that has thorough screening.

MARGARET WARNER: A lot of passengers are wondering whether these procedures are proportionate to the threat. And I’m just wondering, would, for instance, these more extensive pat-downs and the full-body scans, would they have caught the Christmas Day bomber with the explosives in his underwear?

JOHN PISTOLE: So, I know the threats are real. And I believe that the techniques and the technology we’re using today are the best possible that we have. And it gives us the best opportunity for detecting a Christmas Day-type bomber.

MARGARET WARNER: Are there any other examples of people who have gotten through with explosive material that weren’t caught that would have been caught with these new methods?

JOHN PISTOLE: We know that the General Accounting Office and the homeland security inspector general and even our own TSA Office of Inspection does what we refer to as covert testing.

Now, I can’t go into the details of those, but some of the results of those are that we could and should improve the techniques that we use to do the security screening.

MARGARET WARNER: But these new methods don’t catch something hidden in a body cavity?

JOHN PISTOLE: Correct.

MARGARET WARNER: What about the level of radiation? The pilots and flight attendants are objecting, saying it’s going to expose them to a higher level than is safe. Have you done any kind of testing? Do you know how much radiation an individual is exposed to and how that measures up to what is allowable, what’s safe?

JOHN PISTOLE: There have been a number of studies done, Margaret, that deal with this, whether by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST, or the FDA, or Johns Hopkins, which have independently assessed this, because, obviously, that’s something we’re concerned about. What is that exposure?

They have all come back to say that they’re — the exposure is very, very minimal. It’s equivalent to — I have heard several analogies — a couple minutes of flight, like, at 30,000 feet, the same amount of exposure you would get there. So, it’s well, well within all the safety standards that have been set.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, flyers are also complaining that the lines, the security lines, seem longer. What is TSA doing to handle that? Have you put more people on duty, for example, in these airports?

JOHN PISTOLE: Well, I think the statistics would show that, actually, that the lines are not longer. There may be an appearance, but I get a weekly report.

And, of course, compared to years ago, when there were regularly hour-plus waits, it’s — perhaps people have become adjusted to, well, if it’s a 20-minute wait time, that’s a long time. So, we are making sure that we’re fully staffed to deal with those surges, just like — it’s like rush hour.

MARGARET WARNER: So, it has put a strain on the system, but you’re saying you have put enough people, extra people, on duty to take care of it?

JOHN PISTOLE: Well, I believe that we have taken all the steps that we can, given — with our budget and the number of officers we need to have a good, refer to it as a through-put rate.

Obviously, the bottom line is security. And so we want to provide the best customer service and make sure we can get people through quickly and efficiently, but with the proper security.

MARGARET WARNER: What are your plans for dealing with this national opt-out day, the day before Thanksgiving? It’s being organized on — among some passenger rights groups and on the Web to get people to refuse to go through the body scanner.

JOHN PISTOLE: Well, I think anybody who intentionally tries to slow the system down is going to hurt, not only themselves, but all their fellow passengers who are trying to get home for the holidays and enjoy that family time. And I would hate for somebody to miss a flight because of that.

That being said, what we have seen with our advanced imaging technology is that 99 percent-plus people decide to go through that, rather than opt out. So, we are fully staffed, obviously, for the Thanksgiving rush next week. And we just hope to look for the partnership of the traveling public to say, if you want to get home on a timely basis, then work with us as a partnership.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, you’re doing all of this with passengers. What about the cargo on passenger planes? Is it the case that 25 percent of the cargo that comes in from overseas on passenger planes is still getting through uninspected?

JOHN PISTOLE: Actually, 100 percent of the air cargo that goes on U.S. domestic flights, either originating, departing from the U.S., is screened. So, that was an congressional mandate that we put into effect August 3 of this year.

The other aspect is what we saw in — coming out of Yemen a few weeks ago with the toner cartridges. And so international air cargo destined for the U.S., we have not yet reached that 100 percent requirement to have that screened. So, we’re working very closely with our international partners to accomplish that.

We assess that 100 percent of the high-risk packages are being — that are destined for the U.S. are being screened. But that’s something we still need to work on.

MARGARET WARNER: Administrator Pistole, thanks for being with us.

JOHN PISTOLE: Thank you. Glad to see you.