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Pat-down backlash grows during holiday travel rush

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
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Do airport body scanners even work?
  • Cancer survivor describes pat-down that led to his urostomy bag spilling
  • TSA administrator says his agency walks a fine line between safety, security
  • A viral video shows a young boy receiving a security pat-down
  • TSA administrator says agency has no intention of changing its procedures

(CNN) -- As backlash against airline passenger pat-downs intensified with a viral online video, the nation's top airline security official said Monday that his agency is walking a fine line between privacy concerns and public safety.

A short video clip circulating on the internet shows a shirtless boy receiving a pat-down from a Transportation Security Administration agent. His father watches, hands on his hips, obstructing part of the view.

But the words playing in the background are clear.

"Are they harassing a kid?" one man asks.

"It's ridiculous," another voice chimes in. "Unbelievable."

Finance student Luke Tait said he started recording the incident with his cell phone when he saw the "visibly upset" father while waiting in line Friday at the airport in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"It was an interesting situation. I never saw a little boy with his shirt off getting a pat down," Tait told CNN.

TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird said screeners searched the child after he set off a metal detector alarm.

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"The father removed his son's shirt in order to speed up the screening process. Once screening was complete, both proceeded to the gate for their flight," Baird said in a statement.

Asked about the incident Monday on CNN's "American Morning," TSA Administrator John Pistole said his understanding was the same as the account Baird gave.

The TSA is trying to strike a delicate balance, Pistole said -- ensuring the safety of the traveling public while taking privacy concerns into account. "The bottom line is, everybody wants to arrive safely at their destination," he said.

In the short term, no changes will be made as the holiday season approaches. Some 2 million people a day are expected to travel on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

A Michigan man, who endured what he called an "extremely embarrassing" pat-down this month, disagreed.

"These new pat-downs have to be stopped until [TSA agents] are trained and are comfortable doing what they need to do," Thomas Sawyer told CNN's "American Morning."

Sawyer, a bladder cancer survivor who has worn a urostomy bag since a surgery three years ago, said a TSA agent at Detroit Metropolitan Airport caused the seal of the bag to open partially during a pat-down, spilling urine on his clothes.

Sawyer said he tried to caution the agent against pressing too hard on his abdomen because of the bag. The agent didn't understand and continued with the search, Sawyer said, and "pulled the seal kind of half off" the bag.

"These people need to be trained on medical conditions ... and emotional conditions," Sawyer said. He said the agent "didn't apologize, he didn't do anything."

"I'm a good American, I know why we're doing this and I understand it," Sawyer said. "But this was extremely embarrassing, and it didn't have to happen. With educated TSA workers, it wouldn't have happened."

On Monday, the TSA said Pistole had reached out Sawyer to hear about his experience and assure him that officials would look into the matter.

"We have done extensive outreach to the disability community, and our officers take seriously their responsibility to be respectful and professional throughout the screening process," the TSA said in a statement.

Pistole pointed out that the pat-downs are not mandatory -- passengers receive them only if they opt out of a screening with advanced-imaging technology. The technology is the TSA's best effort, he said, to head off attacks such as the would-be Christmas Day bomber last year. Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab allegedly had a bomb sewn into his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Detroit.

Asked whether the technology and pat-downs would have been able to find that device, Pistole said he believes they would have, saying it would have shown up as "an anomaly" with the imaging technology and then might have been located in a pat-down.

There has never been an explosive found on a flight from one U.S. city to another, Pistole acknowledged. But, he pointed out, domestic terrorists exist -- Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph and Ted Kaczynski, for instance -- and there are people who want to do the government harm. While America is "fortunate" that such an incident has not occurred on a domestic flight, he said, it could conceivably happen.

"We welcome feedback and comments on the screening procedures from the traveling public, and we will work to make them as minimally invasive as possible while still providing the security that the American people want and deserve," Pistole said in a statement released Sunday. "We are constantly evaluating and adapting our security measures, and as we have said from the beginning, we are seeking to strike the right balance between privacy and security."

But Rep. John Mica told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday the enhanced screening shows the TSA is "headed in the wrong direction as far as who they're screening and how they're doing it."

"I don't think the rollout was good and the application is even worse," he said. "This does need to be refined. But he's saying it's the only tool and I believe that's wrong."

The Florida Republican, who will be chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in January, has argued that airports should hire private security screeners.

The ramped-up use of pat-downs and full-body scanning is needed to stop nonmetallic threats including weapons and explosives from getting aboard planes, the TSA said. And it appears that most Americans agree.

In a recent CBS News poll, four out of five Americans supported the use of full-body scans.

President Obama stood by the new controversial screening measures Saturday, calling methods such as pat-downs and body scans necessary to assure airline safety.

The president told reporters that the balance between protecting travelers' rights and their security is a "tough situation" but stressed such methods are needed after what happened last Christmas Day.

But Obama's support hasn't stopped a growing group of objectors, from civil rights and privacy advocates to scientists and pilots, from loudly claiming these measures are too invasive, ineffective and possibly unsafe.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asked by CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday whether she would submit to an enhanced pat-down, laughed and said, "Not if I could avoid it. No, I mean, who would?"

Pistole noted Monday that Clinton went on to say she understands the importance and focus on travelers' security.

Some are calling the frenzied travel day before Thanksgiving "National Opt-Out Day," urging travelers selected for full-body scanning to refuse.

Travelers have the right to opt out of full-body scanning, according to the TSA, but the pat-down alternative has, in turn, created its own public furor.

Last week, a San Diego, California, man's viral video of his clash with security screeners spawned several T-shirt designs with his "Don't touch my junk" quip.

And CNN affiliates around the country have reported examples of passengers who say they find pat-downs embarrassing or invasive.

But Pistole has told CNN the outcry over the new screening was overblown.

"Very few people actually receive the pat-down. In spite of all the public furor about this, very few people do," he said.

CNN's Rick Martin and Marnie Hunter contributed to this report.

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