TSA Pat-Downs: Close Encounters of the Security Kind

Before the Transportation Security Administration tested a new plan to subject passengers at airports in Boston and Las Vegas to all-body pat-downs last summer, aides urged the agency's new chief, John S. Pistole, to alert the public. He declined. Doing so, he recalled months later, would have tipped off terrorists that similar body searches weren't being done at 451 other U.S. airports. "That gives an opportunity for somebody with bad intent," Pistole said in a Nov. 19 interview.

That decision helped spark the backlash that erupted this month, when thorough pat-downs began nationwide for travelers who decline body scans or trigger metal-detector alarms. The result was a Thanksgiving week, one of the year's busiest for air travel, that may be remembered not for family gatherings, turkey, and yams but as a season of rage over the indignity of intrusive pat-downs by TSA agents.

The lack of public education "has been a downfall," says Jeffrey Sural, a lawyer with Washington law firm Alston & Bird and a former TSA assistant administrator. "This story has legs that it probably shouldn't have." The insurrection has spawned a folk hero, John Tyner, the "Don't Touch My Junk" man, whose resistance became a viral Internet sensation. In Congress, Senator George LeMieux, a Florida Republican, said at a hearing on Nov. 17 that he wouldn't want his "wife to be touched in the way that these folks are being touched." Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on CBS's (CBS) Face the Nation on Nov. 21 that she would be none too pleased if she had to submit to the new procedure.

The pat-down uproar may owe something to Pistole's background. Before taking the post five months ago, he spent 26 years at the FBI, where he led counterterrorism efforts after the September 11 attacks and rose to deputy director of the bureau in 2004. He participated in the probes of the attempt by a man carrying explosives in his underpants to bring down a passenger plane on Christmas Day, 2009, and the attempted bombing in May in New York's Times Square.

The Obama Administration was attracted to Pistole's law enforcement résumé as it searched for a credible TSA head. The post had been vacant for more than a year after two previous nominees withdrew. Pistole (pronounced pistol) even looks the part: A rangy man who sits ramrod straight and stands 6-foot-3, he could play the G-Man in a Hollywood production.

Pistole, 54, acknowledges he may have fallen short in the customer-relations department. "We can do better," he said in the interview. Wrestling with his inner G-Man, Pistole said he is carefully considering a demonstration of pat-down procedures for the press. "If we demonstrate exactly what we're doing, is that again a road map to the terrorists?"

His challenge now is persuading the public to accept that the invasive searches are for their own good and that the policy is the result of better intelligence gathering, rather than a desire to harass travelers. "Look, I recognize it's uncomfortable," Pistole said. "We have to make sure that we are providing the best security while trying to afford the best privacy, and there's a dynamic tension there."

The bottom line: The new head of the TSA is caught in a national uproar over the right balance between protecting travelers' privacy and their security.

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