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TSA chief on holiday travel: New privacy filters, fewer pat-downs

By Jim Barnett, CNN
updated 6:30 AM EST, Wed November 23, 2011
TSA chief John Pistole
TSA chief John Pistole
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Transportation Security Administration head discusses new screening procedures
  • TSA's John Pistole: Children 12 and under can keep shoes on, fewer pat-downs expected
  • Also scanners have new privacy filters that show generic images
  • Pistole: TSA tries "to provide the most effective security in the most efficient way for all"

Washington (CNN) -- The holiday travel week is under way, with Wednesday expected to be one of the busiest travel days of the year in the United States.

Jam-packed planes and long lines at airports will likely be the norm, not the exception. An estimated 23 million people will fly in the days leading up to and after Thanksgiving.

CNN recently sat down with Transportation Security Administration Administrator John Pistole and asked him about aviation security threats, new airport screening procedures and what he's thankful for this Thanksgiving:

CNN: Is there any type of specific, credible intelligence that leads you to have any type of heightened concerns?

John Pistole: No. ... There's general intelligence about what terrorists ... (want) to still cause us harm. We realize as we look at the holiday season, what we're looking at (is to try) to provide the most effective security in the most efficient way for all of the traveling public. And I would just ask that people who are traveling to go to the TSA.gov website to look for helpful holiday tips on how to prepare, because well-informed travelers not only helps themselves, but everybody else who may be in line behind them.

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CNN: How have things changed? What's different this year?

Pistole: I think people who are traveling this year will see a couple of changes. Perhaps, if they have a family, children 12 and under, they'll clearly see a different type of screening process for those children, where they can keep their shoes on, which is significant, especially for the younger children, and then also, they'll be given multiple opportunities to go through the screening to resolve something before we would ask the parents or guardians to be involved to try to resolve that anomaly. There's still a possibility -- much reduced -- that they would still have a pat-down, but it's something that we are trying to work with the parents or guardians to help resolve what that issue may be so we don't need to do that.

Now that's one issue. The other is people may see the use of the advanced imaging technology, the scanners, that have privacy filters this year. ... So over half of our machines now have these privacy filters built in, and so as (people) go through these scanners, they can actually turn and look and see a generic outline of a person, themselves, but it's generic for anybody, and if there's no anomalies, fine, they go, and if there is, and it shows up on that part of the body, and they can work with the security officer, and say, "Oh yeah, I forgot this or that in my pocket," or whatever it may be. We just acquired 300 more of those machines, all with the privacy filters.

CNN: The liquid policy is still in place, correct?

Pistole: It is, although I say we are working on technology to try to develop effective ways of detecting liquid explosives that can facilitate the movement of those liquids through the security checkpoint. We're not there yet, and so I don't anticipate seeing any significant changes in the near future.

CNN: For people with privacy concerns, do they know, or can they be told, if their machine has that privacy filter?

Pistole: Sure, so if they are at an airport that has -- it's known as automatic target recognition -- that privacy filter, then yes, they would be made aware of it if they ask. And then again, the best way to know is when they go through, they can actually turn, and the actual image of the generic outline of a person is right there, 3 feet away from them. And so they can see what the security officer is seeing at the same time. There's no remote image viewing room or anything like that.

CNN: If you have concerns -- and I know that so far TSA says there's no evidence that you should have concerns -- but if you have concerns about the radiation, is there anything on the machine to indicate that machine is an X-ray-emitting machine?

Pistole: There are two types of machines, and the ones that emit the very miniscule amounts of radiation, known as backscatter, and yes you can tell, or you can ask the security officer, is this is one of those types? And if you want to opt out of that, that's fine. Then you go through the alternate screening procedure. We -- ah, those machines have not yet been converted to the automatic target recognition privacy filters -- but we're working with the manufacturers, and hopefully here in the next month or so, we'll know their capability, for the same detection capabilities yet to give the complete privacy filter option there.

CNN: You recently appeared on Capitol Hill. You told Congress that you intended to have some kind of independent study done of the X-ray machines and of the possible health consequences? Is that because you have any concerns or to allay other people's concerns?

Pistole: I have no concerns about the safety of the machines. Look, I rely on that which has been done by independent scientific organizations, which equate the amount of radiation that somebody gets as to a naturally occurring amount of three minutes flying (time). ... So I have no concerns. But there are those who continue to express concerns, and so I want to do everything that I can to reassure those people that these machines are as safe as possible and very well under the standards that are set for safety. That being said, I just learned about an inspector general report that is in draft form, that validates those prior studies, so that may suffice. We also have posted all of the information about all those machines on our websites, so people can go and look and see when the last time they were tested and validated for safety.

CNN: This Thanksgiving, what are you thankful for?

Pistole: Well, I'm thankful for a number of things but particularly for the men and women of TSA who work hard every day to keep the traveling public safe. And I'm thankful for those people traveling who are willing to work in partnership with us to assure that everybody, on every flight, has been thoroughly screened.

CNN: And what's on your holiday wish list?

Pistole: Well, obviously for a safe and secure holiday season, that everybody can go visit family, friends and simply enjoy the holidays.

CNN: And you don't want any middle-of-the-night phone calls, hopefully. ...

Pistole: No middle-of-the-night phone calls.

CNN's Mike Ahlers contributed to this report.

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