The flying public has won a small victory in the fight over airport pat downs and more intrusive searches with the Transportation Security Agency: For now, the agency isn't planning to take the next step toward body cavity searches. "We're not going to get in the business of body cavities, that's not where we are," says TSA Administrator John Pistole.
Continuing a P.R. offensive today, he told reporters that there are ways to detect explosives in a body cavity other than a strip search. "Even if it is a body cavity [bomb], you still have to have an initiator, you have to have some external device to cause that initiation," he said. "There's got to be something external that you can then initiate the device and that's what the advance imaging technology machine will pick up: Any anomaly outside of the body."
Still, he said, not taking the next step is risky, even though he hasn't seen any evidence that terrorists are trying to carry explosives in their body cavities. "We are taking some risk by not doing any screening, but it's the balance of what is the appropriate level of risk versus screening," he said.
In trying to diffuse the concerns air passengers that the TSA is interested in strip searches, Pistole said that the agency absolutely opposes passengers from disrobing at airports.
"We want to treat each passenger with dignity and respect," he said, adding that taking off clothing beyond coats, belts and shoes does not make TSA's job any easier. "Absolutely not. Again the idea is to be the least invasive as we can."
Pistole took the blame for not revealing the new pat-down policy, over the objections of his communications office. He explained that TSA didn't want to give any signals to terrorists that the policies were changing. He explained that terrorists commonly search through TSA's website for tips to defeat U.S. security measures.
Some 34 million have passed through TSA screening sites at airports and only a tiny minority have been subjected to pat-downs, likely because they refused to go through screening machines or because something triggered the machines when the did pass through.
He said that a few of the stories about the pat-downs have been "somewhat sensationalized" and that the media has left the traveling public with the sense that pat-downs are common. "It seems like almost everybody is receiving the pat-down and that is not the case," said Pistole, a former top FBI official.
But he acknowledged that complaints about TSA security have increased since the pat-down policy was put into place.