You can bet that before President Obama climbed aboard Air Force One for his trip home from the NATO summit in Portugal this weekend, he did not have to raise his arms in front of an X-ray scanner. Nor did a blue-gloved Transportation Security Administration officer run his hands over the presidential torso, feeling every bump and crevice from stem to stern.
That’s one of the benefits of being Commander in Chief. It’s just assumed that you’re not a security risk.
But if you’re one of the 1.6 million Americans flying commercially this Thanksgiving week, Obama does feel your pain.
"I understand people's frustrations,” he said at a postsummit press conference in Lisbon. “And what I've said to the TSA is that you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we're doing is the only way to assure the American people's safety. And you also have to think through … ways of doing it that are less intrusive.”
“Every week I meet with my counterterrorism team and I'm constantly asking them whether … what we're doing absolutely necessary,” the president went on. “Have we thought it through? Are there other ways of accomplishing it that meet the same objectives?”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed the same empathy for civilian air travelers on the Sunday talk shows.
And to David Gregory on NBC’s "Meet the Press" she said: “Everyone, including our security experts, are looking for ways to diminish the impact on the traveling public…. I am absolutely confident that our security experts are going to keep trying to get it better and less intrusive and more precise.”
In response to terrorist threats, the TSA now gives airline passengers two choices: Get a full-body scan using low-dose radiation that shows a naked image – everything from head to toe. Or refuse the scan and have a stranger run his or her hands over every part of your body.
Obama and Secretary Clinton may understand and sympathize with what seems to many airline passengers to be a no-win choice – made worse by recent stories of highly embarrassing episodes involving individuals with medical situations. And there still are questions about the safety of being exposed to radiation no matter how slight; experts differ on the subject.
But for now – and certainly through the Thanksgiving holiday – the security regimen will remain in place.
“We’re not changing the policies,” TSA administrator John Pistole said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Clearly it’s intrusive. It’s not comfortable. It really comes down to what is that balance between privacy and security.”
"Clearly, if we are to detect terrorists who have proven innovative, creative in the design and implementation of bombs that are going to blow up airplanes and kill people, we have to do something to prevent that," Pistole said.
[UPDATE: In a statement to Politico.com later on Sunday, Pistole said that airport screening procedures “will be adapted as conditions warrant,” in an effort to make them “as minimally invasive as possible, while still providing the security that the American people want and deserve.” Full statement here.]
The new measures come in response to recurring attempts by terrorists to attack passenger airliners – most notably the “Christmas Day bomber” last December, whose explosive-laden underwear was not detected by ordinary metal detectors.
Congressional leaders of both parties promise there’ll be hearings.
Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida, who will chair the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee when the GOP takes charge of Congress in January, told CNN that public outrage over the intrusive airport searches were “the tip of the iceberg of problems with the TSA.”
Until those hearings (or whatever adjustments the Obama administration orders), air travelers still will be subject to the X-ray scanner or personal pat down. Most air travelers, that is.
Asked if she would submit to a security pat down, Secretary Clinton answered for many Americans flying to family gatherings this week.
“Not if I could avoid it,” she said. “I mean, who would?”