By Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top transportation security official on Thursday defended his controversial move to allow small knives to be carried onto airplanes, despite protests from flight attendants and lawmakers who say it will endanger the flying public.
Sitting stonily at the witness table as members of the House of Representatives Homeland Security committee waved knives, a golf club and a hockey stick for dramatic emphasis, Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole told a hearing that his decision was made based on threat information and he had no plans to rescind it.
Last week the TSA said that from April 25, it would allow knives with blades that are 2.36 inches or less to be carried onto airplanes. Passengers will also be allowed to carry on hockey sticks, golf clubs, ski poles or billiard cues.
The decision sparked outrage among flight attendants, some major airlines and travelers, who said it would endanger the lives of passengers and crew.
Pistole admitted in the hearing that he should have consulted with flight attendants - the most vocal of the opponents and the majority of the people sitting in the audience for the hearing - before making the decision. But he said their opposition would not have changed his mind.
He cited intelligence estimates that 12 years after the September 11, 2001 hijacked airliner attacks on the United States, terror groups like al Qaeda were still targeting Western aviation. He said the main threat from those groups was from non-metallic, improvised explosive devises.
"A small pocketknife is simply not going to result in catastrophic failure of an aircraft and an improvised explosive device will," Pistole said. "We know from internal covert testing that searching for these items, which will not blow up an aircraft, can distract our security officers from focusing on the components of an IED."
Pistole said the TSA is facing budget cuts and needed to prioritize threats. He said the TSA finds about 2,000 small pocket knives at checkpoints each day and each one takes about two to three minutes to find and confiscate - time that could be used looking for more lethal weapons.
Representative Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the committee, brought in props to help demonstrate his disapproval of the new rules.
Thompson held up a poster with three knives taped to it to show what was now allowed to be carried on. He waved around a golf club and a big hockey stick, expressing surprise that they could be brought on board an airplane.
"I'm trying to figure out how this might not be perceived as something dangerous to people on planes," he said, waving the stick as several flight attendants in the audience nodded their heads. "It might not bring a plane down, but I could think it would cause serious harm to people flying on planes."
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee borrowed Thompson's knives and pretended to stab one of her fellow lawmakers - asking Pistole if that would not cause potential harm.
"You need to stop this now. These cause bleeding - these cause injury and these can cause a terrible tragedy," she said.
Pistole said the TSA's mandate was to prevent terrorists from attacking an airplane, not to make sure unruly passengers did not have access to items they could use as weapons.
(Reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by David Brunnstrom)