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TSA chief seeks less ‘invasive’ methods

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Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole said Thursday the agency is looking at new technology such as body scanners that show passengers as "stick figures" and security methods used in Israeli airports in a drive to make air travel security "as minimally invasive as possible."

In a speech before the American Bar Association in Washington, Mr. Pistole said the federal government would make a decision "sometime this year" on whether to adopt the newer scanner technology, now used in Amsterdam.

Concerns over TSA's "enhanced" security measures and passenger privacy issues boiled over during the Thanksgiving travel season, with news reports of traveler complaints about scanners capturing images of their naked bodies, intimate physical "pat-downs" and having to reveal embarrassing medical conditions.

At the time, Mr. Pistole initially said the agency had no plans to change its security procedures. But after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others weighed in on possible changes, Mr. Pistole said his agency would seek ways to make air travel security less invasive.

The TSA maintains that only a small percentage of travelers are subject to the extra security procedures, essentially those who are singled out by TSA officers or choose not to pass through a metal detector.

Mr. Pistole on Thursday described the images on the newer scanners as "generic, like a stick figure or blob," that passengers and security officers can see at the same time. Current scanners, operating at roughly 450 federally monitored airports, produce a much more detailed body image to an officer in separate room. He said devices such as a BlackBerry would appear on the new screen as a small box.

The agency is trying to protect people "while at the same time preserving their privacy," Mr. Pistole said.

He explained that the Israeli method is based more on intelligence and "behavior detection" than on physical searches, and it begins "curbside" when passengers arrive at the airport.

However, adopting such methods will be challenging, considering the U.S. has about 628 million air passengers a year, compared with about 11 million in Israel, Mr. Pistole said.

He said the agency also is considering a fee-based security system for travelers, a "trusted traveler" program for passengers willing to release more detailed information and modified screening for pilots.

Mr. Pistole said the agency has been using advanced-image technology since 2007, contrary to public perceptions that the system started after Christmas Day 2009, when Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is accused of attempting to blow up a Detroit-bound plane with plastic explosives in his underpants.

The TSA chief said the new focus in air safety has been trying to detect nonmetallic explosives like those allegedly used by Mr. Abdulmutallab, who was able to slip past security in his Nigeria-Amsterdam-U.S. flight. A second failed plot in October, originating in Yemen, to blow up two U.S.-bound cargo planes also employed plastic explosives hidden inside printer cartridges.

Mr. Pistole said the closed containers of the cargo-plane bombs, set to explode in mid-air, were scrubbed so well that not even a trace of explosives could be detected from the outside. The plot, he added, was hatched over just a few months by a "handful of people" at a cost of $4,200.

"The cargo plot really raised the stakes," he said.

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