Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged Sunday that she considers tighter airport security uncomfortably intrusive, while the head of the Transportation Security Administration backed away some from his earlier hard-line defense of pat-downs and full body scans.
When asked in an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” whether she would submit to a body scan, Mrs. Clinton said, “not if I could avoid it. No. I mean, who would?” She also said the Obama administration must find a way to “limit the number of people put through surveillance.”
But later in the day, he released a statement saying the agency would try to make screening “as minimally invasive as possible,” though he did not elaborate on any imminent or specific changes. He had acknowledged in his CNN interview that “we’re looking for ways to diminish the impact.”
The Web-based uproar over the searches has crested in the past week after a series of embarrassing searches, including ones on children and passengers with health problems or disabilities. Several were captured on cell-phone cameras and posted at YouTube.com and other video-sharing websites.
The added security could create major delays as the holiday travel season begins Wednesday. And the situation could be made worse if passengers get behind a Web-inspired protest - called “National Opt-Out Day” - scheduled for the day before Thanksgiving, historically the busiest travel day in the country.
Among the most embarrassing episodes was a Nov. 7 search of 61-year-old Thomas Sawyer, who wears a urostomy bag as a result of bladder cancer.
Mr. Sawyer said he was likely singled out for a pat-down at Detroit Metropolitan Airport because a TSA agent saw a protrusion underneath his sweatshirt and pants. He was searched in private, but the agents ignored his warnings that a pat-down could result in the bag leaking urine, Mr. Sawyer said.
As a result, Mr. Sawyer said, he flew to Florida with urine on his clothes and the experience left him humiliated and speechless. The scanners’ gloves are checked for explosive residue after a search.
In another case, Cathy Bossi, a U.S. Airways flight attendant who lost a breast to cancer, said she refused a body scan in August at a North Carolina airport over radiation concerns. So she had to remove a prosthetic breast from her bra during a private pat-down before female TSA scanners.
She described the experience as “horrific.”
In Mr. Pistole’s interview with CNN, host Candy Crowley showed him video of a woman whose breasts were being felt and a man with his hand in another man’s pants. Mr. Pistole declined to say either that they were, in Ms. Crowley’s words, “over the line” or “demeaning.”
Last week, airline pilots, who had complained about the delays, won an exemption from the pat-downs if they are in uniform or on airline business.
Passengers who set off metal detectors at airport security checkpoints must submit to a scan or body search, or face arrest and an $11,000 fine. However, officials said those found not to be security threats will be allowed to exit the airport.
The issue reached a boiling point at the weekend, and several Republican politicians took up the cause.
“There’s no reason for [TSA] to be doing these body searches of 6-year-old, 12-year-old girls traveling from Louisiana to visit their grandparents,” Gov. Bobby Jindal, Louisiana Republican, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
He said TSA should not “let political correctness stop them. Use the information we have to actually apply our defenses to those most likely to cause us harm.”
Mr. Jindal said the U.S. should rely more on intelligence and travel patterns such as where passengers buy their tickets, dismissing criticism that using such tactics is profiling.
“We’re not talking about profiling but use the information to actually … apply our defenses to those most likely to cause us harm,” he said.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also called out the agency on her Twitter feed Friday night, asking “TSA: why politically incorrect 2 profile anyone re: natl security issues? We profile individuals/suspects in other situations! Profile away.”
Mr. Pistole raised the issue of profiling and acknowledged that not doing that makes security more onerous for everyone but dismissed profiling as un-American anyway.
“It’s clearly - it’s invasive; it’s not comfortable. It really comes down to what is that balance between privacy and security, and without profiling - people talk about, well, why don’t we profile? Of course, we don’t do that here in the U.S., but we use all the latest intelligence. We have watch lists. We know about people who pose a threat to aviation security. It’s those we won’t know,” he said.
But Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and the incoming chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Mr. Pistole was wrong to state that pat-downs and video scans are the only security measures left.
“We’ve sent a message, Democrats, Republicans, liberals, and conservatives, to the administrator that we want this process reviewed,” he said. “I don’t think the rollout was good and the application is even worse. This does need to be refined. But he’s saying ‘it’s the only tool,’ and I believe that’s wrong.”
However, Mr. Pistole also said he implemented the changes without warning because he didn’t want to tip off terrorists about what to expect or how to defeat the new system.
“Terrorists are determined to kill innocent people around the world,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I didn’t want to publish a blueprint or a road map.”
He said a final decision will likely be the result of public discourse about the appropriate level between passengers wanting heavy security and those wanting security only to the point of invading their personal privacy.
On Saturday, President Obama at a NATO conference in Lisbon said he “understand people’s frustrations” and has asked security officials about a less-intrusive way to screen passengers.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat and outgoing House Majority Leader, called the pat-downs “very controversial” and said “there are going to be hearings on this.” Mr. Hoyer agreed with Mrs. Clinton that “I don’t think any of us would want to undergo that,” though he went on to say that “most people understand that we’ve got to keep airplanes safe.”