WASHINGTON (CN) – Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole told a Senate committee Tuesday that individual pat-downs at airports are the agency’s best attempt to strike a balance between passenger safety and privacy.
“It comes down to a balance of partnership on one hand and security and safety on the other hand,” Pistole said at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
In the past year, the United States has faced two attempted terrorist attacks via airlines. Last December, Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to set off explosives hidden in his underwear while on board a plane over Detroit. And in October, U.S. intelligence officials thwarted a Yemen-based plot in which explosives packed in printer cartridges were bound for two synagogues in Chicago.
“There is an ever-evolving nature to the terrorist plot,” Pistole said. “The challenge is to develop the best techniques and tactics to detect those plots.”
The agency head said a very small percentage of passengers are subjected to pat-downs. The procedure has to be triggered by another occurrence, he said, such as a passenger setting off the metal detector or refusing to proceed through the advanced imaging screening machine.
“There is some basis for doing [a pat-down],” Pistole said.
He also said TSA employees are trained to keep passengers informed throughout pat-down procedures.
Pistole said he believed Abdulmutallab would have been stopped if he had undergone a pat-down.
“This is a difficult balance,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., the committee chair. “It’s sensitive, but it’s necessary.”
The committee also addressed weaknesses in the air cargo security system, including the policy allowing shippers to transmit cargo manifest information to Customs and Border Protection after planes are already en route to the United States, up to four hours before a plane lands. In maritime shipping, carriers must turn over the information to Customs before a ship departs.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin said the agencies are looking to advance that deadline and said he expects a revision soon.
Pistole said the agencies had to overcome practical hurdles before changing the requirement, including ensuring that small carriers have the capability to transmit the information earlier.
Senators were frustrated with the pace of changing the policy.
“I don’t see the urgency in your testimony here,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. “I’m a little dumbfounded.”
Pistole said the difficulty was changing over from status quo.
“There is an urgency,” Bersin insisted.