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Senate Democrats back TSA 'virtual strip searches'

Senate hearing turns sharply partisan, with Democrats claiming that the TSA is doing "a terrific job" and a Republican saying, "I wouldn't want my wife to be touched" that way.

Foes of the Transportation Security Agency's new air-screening procedures, including law enforcement-style pat-downs and what have been called "virtual strip searches," had hoped that today's Senate hearing would lead to a privacy outcry on Capitol Hill.

Not quite. The hearing quickly cleaved along partisan lines, with Democratic senators applauding the Obama administration and Republicans offering only modest criticism.

"Mr. Pistole, you're doing a great job," Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate committee overseeing air travel, told TSA chief John Pistole, a former FBI agent who's had the job since July. For emphasis, Rockefeller added a few minutes later: "I think you're doing a terrific job."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, admitted right away that "I have been a fan of the advanced imaging technology." American air travelers, she said, "have to understand that this is being done for their best interests and their safety."

This image of an adult man was taken using a Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter X-ray scanner.
This image of an adult man was taken using a Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter X-ray scanner. John Wild (johnwild.info)

That may be a tough sell. As the Thanksgiving travel period draws near, the reaction to TSA's new procedures has been visceral and sharply critical, driven by cell phone recordings of security line incidents, privacy and health concerns, and Web sites such as the Drudge Report, which published a photograph of a hands-on examination of a nun with the caption: "THE TERRORISTS HAVE WON."

Monday's "Colbert Report" called them machines "that X-ray your X-rated parts," and a software engineer from Oceanside, Calif., became an Internet sensation after telling a TSA screener: "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested."

It's difficult to gauge how widespread the dissatisfaction has become. A Rasmussen poll released November 2 suggests that 69 percent of Americans would rather go through full-body scanners rather than be subjected to pat-downs that can involve genital touching usually reserved for intimate partners. An even higher percentage of Americans support full-body X-ray machines, according to a subsequent CBS News poll, but the wording of the question only referenced "electronic" screening, without mentioning health or privacy worries.

In room 253 of the Russell Senate Office Building this morning, however, Democrats sought to downplay public concerns.

TSA administrator John Pistole told a Senate committee yesterday that he wants a "partnership" with the flying public irked about full-body scans. U.S. Senate

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, suggested that the public outcry was a problem of education: if Americans learned more about the TSA's new procedures, they wouldn't object to the new searches.

The federal government needs to "make sure they understand the risks that we're trying to address," McCaskill said. "And then I think we can--the majority of Americans I think--I hope will become supportive of the measures that TSA is trying to do to keep us safe."

That echoes what Sen. Joe Lieberman, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said yesterday afternoon. As CNET previously reported he said the TSA is "doing the right thing," and that the scans and more invasive pat-downs are "necessary for the security--homeland security--of the American people." (Lieberman is an independent senator from Connecticut who caucuses with Democrats.)

Thanks to the federal stimulus legislation, the TSA has been able to buy nearly 400 whole-body scanners and install them in approximately 70 airports around the country. Congress has already given the agency enough money to install 100 more machines by the end of this year, and the total will reach 1,000 by the end of 2011. (A few weeks ago, with only a one-paragraph mention on the TSA's Web site, the screening procedures were changed to offer air travelers a choice of either full-body scans or what the TSA delicately calls "enhanced patdowns.")

One of the many anti-whole body scanner efforts, this is the logo from stopdigitalstripsearches.org EPIC.org

Republicans on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee were more skeptical during today's hearing, though not one told Pistole to end the new searches.

Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, acknowledged that "we're getting hundreds of calls" from constituents about the new security procedures, but he stopped short of criticizing them. "You're doing what you can to try to modify this in a way that seems reasonable to people and to keep them safe," he told the TSA chief. "You've got a very tough job, but I mostly just wanted to thank you for what you're doing."

Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, suggested that it was "sort of insensitive" for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to say this week that if Americans "want to travel by some other means, of course that's their right." That's not practical for someone flying from Georgia to San Francisco, he said.

"Does that worry you--that maybe we're at a point here where this is not a vocal minority, that people just think you've overstepped?" added Sen. Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican. (Pistole replied: "What I believe is that reasonable people can disagree as to the balance between privacy and security.")

The only senator to raise significant concerns was George LeMieux, a Florida Republican, who said he had no problems with the full-body X-ray machines, "which I think are fine and appropriate."

But, he said, "I'm frankly bothered by the level of these pat-downs. I've seen them first-hand in airports in Florida. I wouldn't want my wife to be touched in the way that these folks are being touched. I wouldn't want to be touched that way. And I think that we have to be focused on safety, but there's a balance."