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.

Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Newcome/file
John Pistole during his Senate nomination hearing June 10 to be assistant secretary of Homeland Security and administrator of the Transportation Security Administration.

Like a lot of Americans, I have doubts and questions about ramped-up airport screening, especially since I'll be flying in the coming weeks.

Unlike most people, though, I had a chance to put some of my concerns directly to the head of the Transportation Security Administration at a Monitor breakfast with reporters this morning. Happily for me, I squeezed in probably more than my fair share of questions. Here's what I asked TSA chief John Pistole, who has more than 25 years with the FBI in his background. And here's how he responded:

First off, I wanted to know why the entire country has to go to a whole new level of invasive screening, when a known loophole exists for terrorists to get around this?

I asked specifically about body cavities; they are not included in the screening. It has been widely reported that a terrorist from Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula got close to the Saudi intelligence chief and detonated an explosive hidden in the terrorist's body cavity. The suicide bomber was killed; the Saudi minister was injured but survived.

Mr. Pistole's answer taught me something. He said that initial reports about the Saudi case were "perhaps not accurate." Forensics show a "stronger indication and findings that [the explosive] was actually ... strapped to the upper thigh, as opposed to it being a body cavity." Later on, Pistole commented that "every piece of information I have says the terrorists have not been successful in using ... a body cavity."

Even if they were, he explained, a terrorist would still need an external device to detonate such an explosive, and the imaging machines would catch that.

Ahh, I thought to myself, but what about a cell phone that could trigger a device from a distance, such as was discussed with the recent cargo bombs from Yemen? I didn't have a chance to ask that but my colleague from AOL did.

Pistole acknowledged the cell phone concern, but then went on to a bigger point about risk assessment and risk management, which means weighing the likelihood and scale of an attack.

Obviously, the TSA doesn't see a big risk in body-cavity explosives. Pistole said quite plainly the agency won't be going in that direction. When I asked, as he was getting up to go, whether it was technically possible to use a cell phone to set off a body-cavity device, he held out his arms and shrugged.

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.

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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