Senate grills TSA on airport screenings

Wednesday - 11/17/2010, 2:17pm EST

Jon Adler, President, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association

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Bob Cusack, Managing Editor, The Hill

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By Jamie Blanco
Digital News Writer
FederalNewsRadio.com

Are airport screenings becoming too invasive? The start of the busy holiday travel season is just one week away and the debate over the TSA's new pat-down techniques and full body scanners is reaching a peak in the news media - and now on Capitol Hill.

"When you get into their issues of privacy and some passengers are saying you're going too far, some have alleged this is sexual assault by the government, you're going to get some legal challenges and you're going to get major controversy and that's where we are right now," said Bob Cusack, managing editor of The Hill.

He was watching as TSA Administrator John Pistole was grilled yesterday by the Senate Homeland Security Committee about the new security measures.

The hearing was called to discuss air-cargo safety in response to last month's thwarted al Qaeda plot to ship explosives on cargo planes from Yemen. But the debate also included some very tough questions about new screening procedures.

"Why are you doing this, what's your rational, can it be done in a better way, are you going to pat down children, let's not take this policy to the extreme," Cusack recalled of the questions asked about TSA's policies. But at the same time, it was suggested by some committee members, including Senator John Ensign of Nevada, that there be no "major loopholes for religion or anything else so that people can slip through screening."

During the discussions Pistole also told the committee that these new pat-down techniques would have caught the Christmas Day bomber who nearly succeeded in blowing up a flight out of Detroit last year by hiding explosives in his underwear.

"What Pistole was saying is that, had there been some kind of catastrophic event, if that Detroit bound plane had exploded there'd be a different debate right now," Cusack said.

Not everyone is critical of the TSA's safety measures, however.

"In spite of the crankiness that seems to find its way into the news media," said Jon Adler, President of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA) which represents Federal Air Marshals, "...all of these issues that have come up are a concern but I believe that the untold stories far outweigh what we've been hearing about most recently. And the untold stories meaning in terms of how they've been carrying out their mission, how they've been responding to threats, things that don't necessarily make their way out to the public for security reasons."

Adler said the new screening measures are a cultural adaptation that the American people need to make.

"No one necessarily wants to be touched but when you sort of take the broader perspective on it in terms of, well what is its intended purpose and the fact that they will carry this out in a professional matter, you come to the conclusion that you would rather risk blushing than bleeding," Adler said.

Adler told Federal News Radio that he believes we are witnessing a transition, but ultimately a transition that will work.

But there is still plenty of compromise and work to be done, Cusack said. "In the House you're going to get both Republicans and Democrats...saying that the government is going too far and then you're going to have others who say, 'listen we have to do what we have to do and if we have to sacrifice some privacy to save lives then that's what we have to do.'"

Cusack doesn't believe that the Congress will be passing any major legislation on secure measures during the lame duck session. "I think they're trying to press TSA to do some interim steps to pick up their security of air cargo and I'm sure they're doing that, but in terms of legislation I don't think your going to see anything until next year."

"I think it's important that the public knows that TSA has a very highly skilled, highly trained inspection service which is ready and able to act on any employee misconduct," Adler added. "So they should know if there was that worst case scenario where someone was abusing the privilege of operating, say for example, the advanced imaging technology, that they would be promptly investigated. So it's just important that everyone know that there are checks and balances and that the TSA is committed to making this work for passenger safety."