After weeks of being slammed by the public and the media, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the TSA are on the offensive, trying to counter the growing backlash against new TSA airport screening measures.
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has an op-ed in USA Today asking for patience from the American people. "We ask the American people to play an important part of our layered defense" she writes. "We ask for cooperation, patience and a commitment to vigilance in the face of a determined enemy."
Napolitano says the scanners are "safe, efficient, and protect passenger privacy. They have been independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who have all affirmed their safety."
She also defends the scanners against accusations that the machines impinge on passengers' rights to privacy. "All images generated by imaging technology are viewed in a walled-off location not visible to the public. The officer assisting the passenger never sees the image, and the officer viewing the image never interacts with the passenger. The imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print or transmit images."
This last point—that scanners cannot store images—was seemingly refuted by an August report by CNET detailing how U.S. Marshals in Florida stored upwards of 30,000 images on a scanner located in a courthouse. At that time, CNET wrote, "This follows an earlier disclosure by the TSA that it requires all airport body scanners it purchases to be able to store and transmit images for 'testing, training, and evaluation purposes.' The agency says, however, that those capabilities are not normally activated when the devices are installed at airports."
Pat downs receive a brief paragraph in Napolitano's op-ed: "Pat-downs have long been one of the many security measures used by the U.S. and countries across the world to make air travel as secure as possible. They're conducted by same-gender officers, and all passengers have the right to request private screening and have a traveling companion present during the screening process."
While Napolitano brought the message to print, TSA Administrator John Pistole made the rounds on TV this morning. I found his CNN interview to be the most illuminating (video below), especially the part where he responds to the interviewer's assertion that body scanners wouldn't have caught the bomb hidden in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underpants. "Well, I think reasonable people may disagree with that," Pistole said, "but the experts say that yes, that type of device would be identified in an advanced imaging technology machine, and our tests have shown that to be the case." The video shows close-ups of scanner images, including a shot of a screener using some sort of magnifying tool. The images really don't leave much to the imagination.
Pistole did hint at one positive development: The possibility that pilots will shortly be able to skip the TSA's screening measures. He didn't offer details, but said the TSA has been in touch with pilots' unions over the past week.
Still, the overall sentiment of Naplitano's op-ed and Pistole's various TV appearances is simple: This is what we're doing, and it ain't changing.
Both try to gift wrap the TSA policies somewhat, claiming privacy and sensitivity as top priorities, but ultimately they maintain the scanners and pat downs are essential to our national security, and aren't going anywhere. Pistole and Napolitano repeatedly reference Abdulmutallab specifically, in addition to the proverbial "determined enemy," as proof that the TSA and its policies are necessary. "Patience," Napolitano says.
But preaching patience is a tough sell. The TSA has exhausted our patience already, and the body scanner/pat down backlash is evidence of being pushed too far. Passengers have obediently removed their shoes, ditched their liquids, and jumped through any hoop the TSA demanded. But allowing revealing scans of our bodies, or submitting to invasive pat downs? That's too much. To quote a frustrated traveler who refused both the scan and the pat down, "I don't understand how a sexual assault can be made a condition of my flying."
But don't worry about that—just be patient, OK?
Here's Pistole on CNN: