John Pistole, the TSA Administrator, spoke to reporters on a conference call just now, and confirmed that in general, no changes to airport security procedures have been instituted since the outcry over the Rapiscan full-body scanning machine and the aggressive pat-downs. He did say, however, that some of the complaints he’s heard about the pat-downs in the media describe practices that would fall outside the guidelines given by TSA, and that passengers who filed complaints could have cases to make against TSA screeners if they engaged in practices that conflicted with standard operating protocols.

Pistole did add that children under 12 will get a “modified” pat-down that is not as thorough as the standard approach. For the future, TSA has already gone back to the Government Accountability Office and their own Inspector General to assess whether they can use a less invasive screening check and achieve the same outcomes of detecting a hidden device. “We’re very interested in the possibilities” of modifying the approach based on passenger concerns, Pistole said. He also said that TSA is looking at next-generation software that would give nothing more than a stick figure as the image of the individual while still detecting hidden weapons, but that the software has shown false positives and that he would want to wait until it showed more promise. The “ATR” software would simply need to be installed on the existing Rapiscan machines. Pistole is interested in rolling that out in 2011.

Despite criticism over failing to warn passengers of the new security procedures, Pistole said that he wouldn’t change his decision. He acknowledged that it would have been “ideal” from a PR perspective to explain to passengers what was coming, but “it was my decision we would not mention it.” The new pat-downs were part of a pilot program in Las Vegas and Boston starting in August, and Pistole felt that revealing that fact would have provided “a window of opportunity at other airports.”

Reacting to the potential for serious delays in the screening process if passengers revolt on “Opt-Out Day” and refuse to use the scanners, Pistole seemed to intimate that people would miss their planes if the protests were widespread. While saying that TSA will have fully staffed checkpoints, he said “the average cost of a ticket tomorrow is $378.00, and I don’t know if people would get a refund from the airline because of a protest.” It was unclear whether he was talking about the protesters themselves, or others in line delayed by the clog at the security checkpoint. “We want to make sure people don’t miss flights,” Pistole said. He said that if passengers refuse both the Rapiscan and the pat-down, they would be asked to leave the checkpoint “because they’re not getting on the plane.” If they don’t leave, airport police would escort them away.

Pistole kept referring to the failed Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and saying that the new Rapiscan machines and pat-down procedures gives TSA the best possible opportunity to detect an attack of that type. GAO says that has not been determined, and that the Rapiscan may not be able to detect the specific explosive Abdulmutallab tried to use.

Asked whether TSA personnel are immune from prosecution if passengers try to bring a case for assault, Pistole said “I think if a security officer has clearly done something outside of standard operating protocol” and it could be proven, that officer would be subject to prosecution. Proving the assault shouldn’t be difficult, as there are CCTV cameras at most security checkpoints. He added that some of the more graphic stories that “border on sexual assault” that he’s heard were wildly outside the SOP, and “should not be happening.” He said TSA follows up on every complaint, and has found instances of people’s stories not checking out. TSA has received about 2,000 complaints about the Rapiscan machines and the pat-downs, according to Pistole.

Pistole said he spoke yesterday with Tom Sawyer, the Michigan traveler and bladder cancer survivor whose external medical bag spilled urine all over his clothes during a TSA pat-down. Pistole apologized to the man, and he said Sawyer “offered to give training assistance to officers to be sensitive to people with an external medical device.”

In a testy exchange, a reporter from Orlando asked about one incident where a woman believed she was randomly chosen to go through the Rapiscan because of her large breasts. “That should not be happening,” Pistole said. He added that the machines are not capable of storing or transmitting images, and the reporter snapped back, “But if someone’s not taken a random picture but can see under my skirt, that doesn’t make me feel better.” Pistole insisted that the images were not photos but blurred images, with a “privacy filter” applied to them.

As for why the new pat-downs were initiated precisely at one of the busiest travel times of the year and not closer to the underwear bomber event, Pistole said that TSA had no Presidential-appointed Administrator in place, who would be needed to make the decision, for several months, until he was confirmed by the Senate in the end June.

David Dayen

David Dayen