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Leading GOP Oversight Congressman Works to Fix the TSA

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Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has been working for over 18 months to moderate the TSA’s use of the new body scanners that have caused privacy concerns with their explicit images. He got an amendment through the House in June 2009 that forbid the body scanners be used as the primary form of screening, but the legislation hasn’t made it through the Democrat-controlled Senate. Chaffetz is currently trying to meet with TSA administrator John Pistole, and he sent letters to both the TSA and the DHS in August, with the TSA letter expressing concern over the latest security implementation: invasive pat-downs.

“I ask that you please share with my colleagues and me what information prompted this change,” Chaffetz wrote. “Was there evidence that the new technique is demonstrably more effective at detecting potential security risks or threats than the old technique? Have there been security lapses occasioned by the use of the old method which would have been prevented had the new method been in place? What end do you envision for this method at the conclusion of your testing? How is this method different from the method abandoned in 2004 as inappropriate?

“I am particularly concerned to ensure that this is not a punitive effort to coerce or intimidate individuals who, entirely within their rights, opt out of the WBI [whole body imaging] screening in favor of the magnetometers and a reasonable pat-down search. I have heard from a number of constituents who reported that, in large groups of passengers, all of the women were “randomly” selected for WBI while none of their husbands who accompanied them were chosen. I would be grateful to know that TSA has taken or is taking steps to prevent this type of abuse, and for your assurance that the new enhanced pat-down is entirely unrelated to passenger discontent with WBI usage.”

While DHS sent Chaffetz a 14-page answer, the TSA sent back a one-page (and four line) response, which, although it came with a personal, handwritten note that offered an in-person meeting with Pistole (which, at this point, both parties seem willing to do, according to a GOP aide), was non-descript and uninformative, including the below paragraph:

“In response to your concern whether the pat-down procedure is undertaken as 'a punitive effort to coerce or intimidate individuals,' I assure you the procedure is conducted solely and exclusively as a security measure to safeguard the traveling public.”

The response also referenced the December 25, 2009 attempted attack by a terrorist that’s been dubbed the “underwear bomber” and says, “Patdowns are designed to detect potentially dangerous items, like improvised explosive devices and their components, concealed on the body.”

Chaffetz called the TSA response “vague” and told Townhall he was not satisfied with it. He said the question remains whether there are more effective, less invasive security measures that would serve the airports better. He expressed interest in a system that used both metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs and mentioned a comment from someone in the airline industry who suggested flight attendants be trained on what to look for. The funding for many of the scanners – the majority of which are yet to be deployed – is coming out of the Fiscal Year 2011 budget, but Chaffetz isn’t sure whether defunding the project would be a solution the Congress would embrace, since many members don’t want the appearance of being soft on terror.

Despite his strong stance against the body scanners as they currently are used, Chaffetz said he’s opposed to the “opt-out” day that people are calling for right before Thanksgiving, where everyone opts out of the full-body scan and forces the TSA to perform many more pat downs. Chaffetz objected on the grounds that he doesn’t want anyone to miss their vacation and that there was a civil way to go about moderating the use of the scanners.

The website Opt Out Day does read, “There is no intent or desire to delay passengers en route to friends and family over Thanksgiving. We want people to stay within the confines of the law, and exercise their right to a pat down because of the lingering questions over the scanners.”

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