Washington – Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole said on Monday that he disregarded internal advice to the contrary and decided not to tell the public in advance about aggressive new screening and pat-down procedures for airline passengers, fearing terrorists could try to exploit the information.
In an hour-long discussion with reporters, Pistole said media officials at the Department of Homeland Security had urged him to “get out ahead” of the potential controversy by formally announcing plans for enhanced body searches and the use of new x-ray and radio-wave imaging devices at 70 airports beginning in November.
But doing so would have provided a “roadmap or blueprint for terrorists” to avoid detection by using other airports where the new technology wasn’t in place, Pistole said.
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Rather than publicize the changes, Pistole said he made a “risk-based” decision to roll it out first and “try to educate the public after we did that.”
The result has been a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers and passengers who claim the technology and aggressive searches are unnecessary, intrusive and a violation of their privacy rights.
With the Thanksgiving travel crush beginning on Wednesday, several groups are urging fliers to boycott the new procedures on that day, when millions of people will jam airports to travel for the holiday weekend.
The controversy prompted Pistole on Sunday to pledge to make security checks “as minimally invasive as possible.” But today, Pistole noted any modifications would come over the long-term and not in time to affect holiday travelers this week.
On the prospect of a protest Wednesday, Pistole said he doesn’t know what to expect of the protest, but that he worries for passengers who could “miss a flight because a group of people are blocking access or because they’re taking extended periods of time,” with the protest.
“I feel bad for those people who would not be protesting and just want to get home to have time with loved ones for the holidays,” Pistole said.
Because many passengers haven’t yet experienced the new measures, TSA will air public service announcements at the airports that explain the new procedures. They’ve also posted a new website video that outlines the security measures and options for passengers who chose a pat-down search instead of the screening devices.
While the busiest travel day of the year could be “potentially complicated by the protest,” Pistole said the TSA would be fully staffed and prepared to handle all complaints.
“We’ll see what happens,” Pistole added.