Updated at 12:52 p.m. on November 17.
The head of the Transportation Security Administration told a Senate panel today that he believes new physical pat-down procedures for screening passengers at the nation's airports are invasive, but he said they are necessary and will not be changed.
John Pistole, who became TSA chief in June, said he and other senior Homeland Security officials voluntarily underwent the new pat-down procedures before he approved their use at airports across the country in October.
"It was more invasive than what I was used to," Pistole told the Senate Commerce Committee during an oversight hearing on his agency. He added that it made him uncomfortable.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also underwent a pat-down, Pistole said.
Pistole had faced little criticism on the Hill before today's hearing. On Tuesday, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., told the TSA chief, “Unfortunately, these are the times in which we live.... What you are doing with advanced imaging technology [full-body scanners] and the pat-down is very difficult, but it is necessary for the security of the American public.”
Today, members of the Commerce Committee were only a bit more critical but heavily questioned Pistole about the friskings in response to public backlash that they go too far and invade people's privacy. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., jokingly referred to them as "love pats." She said she is happy to go through a full-body imaging machine rather than receive a pat-down.
Ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, called on TSA to do more to address the privacy concerns of passengers over friskings. "I know you're aware of it, but we've got to see some action," she said. "I think we've got to do more. The outcry is huge."
Pistole defended the pat-downs, which are done by TSA officers of the same sex as the passenger. They are necessary to prevent threatening objects, such as bombs, from being brought aboard passenger planes, he said, emphasizing that only a small number of passengers are subjected to friskings, such as those who refuse to go through a full-body scanning machine.
Pilots, passengers, and privacy advocates are also criticizing the use of full-body scanning machines at airports, saying they are too invasive. The machines create a metallic image of a person's body to determine if they are carrying any threatening objects in or under their clothing.
Pistole acknowledged concerns about the scanning machines. He said TSA is interested in a technological upgrade to the machines that would show a "stick figure" or "blob" image instead of an outline of a person's body.
The technology would be a software upgrade to the existing full-body imaging machines, and is now used at the Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. Pistole said. But he said the current technology has too many false alarms, which would result in more people having to undergo pat-downs.
Pistole also confirmed that TSA is considering expanding the so-called "crew pass" program in which pilots could present a card containing their biometric information, such as a digital photo or fingerprint, in order to avoid the screening procedures. He said he hopes to make an announcement about the program "in the very near future."
Still, he told senators today in reference to the pat-down policy, "If you're asking, am I going to change the policies? No."
On another front, Pistole said he is close to making a decision on whether airport screeners should have collective bargaining rights. Hill Republicans are expected to lodge strong protests if Pistole grants TSA screeners such rights.
"I think if you did decide to go [that] way that there would be enough people in Congress, and there would be great efforts, to prevent it from happening," Hutchison said. "I don't think that's a fight that we want right now when we should be focused on all these other issues."