Congress calls on TSA to review pat-downs as agency backs off crew screening

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By Christopher Elliott

The days of the TSA Transportation Security Administration’s controversial “enhanced” pat-downs may be numbered.

TSA Administrator John Pistole this morning said airline pilots will be exempted from physical checks at security checkpoints, bowing to pressure from pilot unions and several lawsuits by crewmembers. Earlier this week, the agency modified its pat-downs for children 12 and under after coming under fire from passengers.

Now, in a move that could prompt the TSA to further modify its screening practices, Congress is asking for a time-out.

In a letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Republican leader John Mica and Aviation Subcommittee top Republican Tom Petri called for a review of the pat-down procedures.

Here’s the letter on the TSA pat-downs in its entirety.

Dear Administrator Pistole:

We are writing to express our concerns relating to the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) new standard pat down procedures and use of advanced imaging technology (AIT).

The purpose behind the recent change in procedures is understandable. We do have concerns that TSA is not achieving the proper balance between aviation security and the privacy rights of United States citizens.

The new pat-down procedures are overly intrusive, especially in the absence of a legitimate reason for the more probing search. Limit the use of these procedures to secondary screening for alarm or anomaly resolution or for individuals identified by a Behavior Detection Officer (BDO).

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Do not use this very invasive process for primary or random screening of passengers. Avoid using it on children. Revamp the TSA’s use of BDOs to more closely resemble the Israeli model, conducting up-close observation by those inspecting travel documents and interacting with passengers.

Unfortunately, this is another example of TSA’s reactive, as opposed to proactive, approach to aviation security. TSA is always addressing the last terrorist plot, whether shoe bombs, liquid explosives, computer or toner cartridge bombs, or underwear bombs.

Eleven months after the last terrorist incident, we adopted these pat-down procedures. People are scheming alternative plots, such as detonating explosives in the hulls of air cargo planes over populated areas. We need to revisit the entire focus of TSA’s efforts to improve aviation security.

Aviation security needs to be revisited

We have received calls from constituents, U.S. citizens, pilots, and airport directors. All expressed great concern and opposition to the TSA’s new pat down procedures. The level of public angst is a clear indication that TSA has missed the mark.

Therefore, we urge you to reconsider the current application of the new screening procedures to ensure that the proper focus, attention, and resources, including technology, are directed towards the relatively small number of individuals who pose a threat to aviation security.

Physical screening may be necessary in some cases it is not the only measure to detect threats to aviation security. We need better intelligence. Thorough threat analysis; reform of behavior detection processes, beginning with properly trained document checkers. After numerous Congressional directives, it is imperative to develop biometric identification to reduce the number of people requiring physical screening. An instituted focused physical screening protocol is essential. Treating every passenger as a suspect or criminal is an inefficient use of scarce resources.

We stand ready to work with the Administration and appropriate Congressional Committees to ensure that TSA refocuses and improves its performance. It is vitally important that aviation be kept secure and safe and civil rights and liberties are protected.

I don’t know if enhanced pat-downs will survive the weekend. (Here’s our guide on how to handle the TSA when you fly.)

What do you think?

Update (1 p.m.): My advocacy team and I asked TSA what it thought of the letter. In response, a representative sent me this exchange from Wednesday’s Congressional hearing:

JOHANNS: OK. What’s your next step on this? I must admit, I get the impression that you’re expressing your understanding. I’m thinking nothing’s going to change.

PISTOLE: Well, so if your question is, do I understand the sensitivities of people? Yes. If you’re asking, am I going to change the policies? No, because I think that is what being informed by the latest intelligence, the latest efforts by terrorists to kill our people in the air, no, I’m not going to change those policies.

OK, then. What about the sick and the disabled?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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