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Airport pat downs and body scans: My questions for TSA chief Pistole

Like a lot of the flying public in America, I have doubts and concerns about the new airport security screening methods. What about loopholes? What about effectiveness? What about profiling? I put these questions to TSA chief John Pistole at a Monitor breakfast today. Here's what he said.

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So, the TSA doesn't see body cavities as a significant loophole. That's comforting news. But that still leaves another big question, and I asked it in a follow-up.

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If the reason for the ramp-up is to prevent attacks such as the one last year by the alleged Christmas Day bomber, then what about a March report by the Government Accountability Office that found "it remains unclear" whether the new scanners would have detected the underwear bomb?

I found Pistole's answer less reassuring. He explained that there's a technology side and a human side to security screening. A person has to read and interpret a full-body image scan, and that person may not find an "anomaly." He added that a new generation of machines that displays bodies as stick figures would remove that chance for error, however, those machines have a problem with reporting a lot of "false positives," which means more pat downs.

Pistole is not willing to accept that trade-off now, and looks forward to this new technology which is being developed, tested, and improved. Should the US have waited for it, and skipped the generation of machines that are now causing so much controversy?

I had one more question, and had a chance to ask it toward the end: Might not the TSA do far more aggressive passenger profiling and thus greatly reduce the number of people who have to use these machines or submit to the enhanced pat down? I didn't say it, but I had in mind that type of screening now done in Israel.

Pistole acknowledged that pilots are now exempt because no amount of physical search can change the fact that they control a plane. Also, kids under 12 are exempt from pat downs. But what about grandmas? he asked. Two 64-year-old terrorists have committed suicide acts elsewhere in the world, he pointed out. Drugs have been hidden on infants. "There is no perfect science to this," he concluded.

Profiling can be a testy subject. Behavior profiling is one thing, but what about religious or racial profiling? That casts a wide net and can lead to discrimination. But I wonder whether Americans might start demanding it if security keeps ratcheting up, or if another major attack occurs.

After an hour, I could certainly see Pistole's dilemma. He talked repeatedly about the need to balance security with privacy, and while he said he would review procedures, it was clear that nothing would change this week, despite the public outcry. He also explained why he didn't tell the public earlier, and in more detail, about the new measures. He said he didn't want to tip off terrorists, who watch the TSA closely.

Yes, it's all about balance. In the next weeks and months, we'll know more about how Americans, including myself, weigh these new measures.

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