Senators Wave Body Scanners Through at TSA Oversight Hearing

The threat of terrorism weighed heavily on United States senators holding an oversight hearing on the Transportation Security Administration Wednesday.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation was looking into the TSA’s use of aggressive screening procedures for air travelers, including the use of thorough pat-downs and scanning machines capable of seeing through travelers’ clothing.

Democratic senators on the committee supported the TSA’s actions, while their Republican counterparts offered mild criticism. Most acknowledged terrorism remains a concern.

Citing his previous role as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, committee chair Senator John D. Rockefeller said he’d work with congressional colleagues to ensure the TSA has the resources it needs to address key security concerns.

Johnny Get Your Gun

TSA Administrator John S. Pistole said at the hearing that he was uncomfortable when undergoing a test physical screening. However, he contended the screenings on passenger and cargo planes match practices in Europe and are less invasive than practices elsewhere in the world.

Airline passengers in Israel reportedly go through security checks before they even enter the airport, and they are subjected to interrogations by trained agents. After that, they are under observation by video cameras.

The issue of scanning machines has surfaced several times in the news over the past week as U.S. airports gear up for the Thanksgiving travel rush. In one incident, for example, Gizmodo published several body scan images that had been apparently saved on file by the courthouse in which the machine was used. However, Pistole claimed the airport scanners can’t store or transmit such images.

Hear and Obey?

There have been objections to the use of body scans, as well as objections to the pat-downs the TSA offers to travelers unwilling to undergo the scanning procedure. However, Democratic senators, at least, appear to think the objections can be resolved by education.

For example, Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill has reportedly said that Americans wouldn’t object to the new searches if they learned more about the TSA’s new procedures. And fellow Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota reportedly stated American air travelers have to understand the searches are being conducted for their safety and in their best interests.

However, that hasn’t stemmed public outrage, which was further fueled recently when video surfaced depicting TSA staffers frisking a crying three-year-old girl, Mandy Simon, who screamed at them to stop touching her.

“We’ve been a strong supporter of stronger aviation security for over 20 years, but we think the government should hold off on this technology until there’s been further study,” Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, told TechNewsWorld.

Hudson is a member of the FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee’s executive committee, and he was a member of the aviation security advisory committee, which advises the Federal Aviation Administration and the TSA, for 10 years.

It’s not clear whether the scanners are really effective; they are “really intrusive,” and their health risks have yet to be determined, Hudson explained.

“There are alternatives to doing this which should be effective,” Hudson pointed out. These include puffers, which blow a puff of air at a subject and electronically sniff the air for explosives residue; wipers that can be used on luggage or the hands or public body parts of a subject then checked for traces of explosives; and there are explosive-sniffing dogs, Hudson stated.

“At the very most the TSA should use body scanners as a secondary method, and then only if there’s definite suspicion of the subject,” Hudson said.

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