TSA fights back over airport security screening

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AP Photo/Steve Helber

A TSA agent waits for approval to release travelers as they go through airport security at the screening area of the Richmond International airport in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010. The Obama administration's top transportation security official on Monday urged passengers angry over safety procedures not to boycott airport body scans.

An online campaign encourages a form of civil disobedience at airport security this holiday travel season. Its organizers urge passengers to opt out of full body scans and demand pat- downs.

In a conference call to reporters, John Pistole, head of the federal Transportation Security Administration, says his agency will maintain a full staffed at every airport – including Los Angeles International.

He warns that the protest could affect other passengers trying to get home for the holidays.

He says the TSA will process people "as quickly and efficiently and securely as possible, but if large groups of people, large numbers of people intentionally slow down that process, I don’t think that can help but avoid having a negative impact on people making their flights on time."

Pistole says his agency has worked on the new security measures since last Christmas Day, when a would-be terrorist tried to smuggle a bomb aboard a flight in his underwear.

The security official says new, less-invasive scanners on the drawing boards set off too many false positives to work right now. The TSA has ordered less thorough pat-downs for children younger than 13.

Meanwhile, cabinet secretaries, top congressional leaders and an exclusive group of senior U.S. officials are exempt from new airport screening procedures when they fly commercially with government-approved federal security details.

Aviation security officials would not name those who can skip the controversial screening, but other officials said those VIPs range from top officials like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and FBI Director Robert Mueller to congressional leaders like incoming House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who avoided security before a recent flight from Washington's Reagan National Airport.

The heightened new security procedures by the Transportation Security Administration, which involve either a scan by a full-body detector or an intimate personal pat-down, have spurred passenger outrage in the lead-up to the Thanksgiving holiday airport crush.

But while passengers have no choice but to submit to either the detector or what some complain is an intrusive pat-down, some senior government officials can opt out if they fly accompanied by government security guards approved by the TSA.

"Government officials traveling with federal law enforcement security details are screened at airports under a specialized screening protocol, which includes identity verification," TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball said. This allows the officials to skip the airport security checkpoints.

The TSA would not explain why it makes these exceptions. But many of the exempted government officials have gone through several levels of security clearances, including FBI background checks. Armed security details eliminate the need for an additional layer of security at airports.

Some members of President Barack Obama's Cabinet, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, travel almost exclusively on government or military planes.

Top officials like Geithner, Mueller and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid travel with security details and skip airport checkpoints, aides said. The second-ranking Senate Democrat, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, and the House Democratic whip, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, also have security, but they typically undergo regular screening with other passengers, aides said.

Spokesmen for both Boehner and current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would not discuss security arrangements. But under a policy started by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a military aircraft is made available to the speaker, third in line to the presidency, for all official flight needs.

Spokesmen for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and outgoing House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said they fly commercial, but would not detail security arrangements.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said the only members of Congress with protective details are leaders, "based upon a threat analysis" conducted by the U.S. Capitol Police. Gainer added that members "with sworn protection" are able to avoid security because "their secure posture is affirmed by the law enforcement process established by TSA."

The TSA's administrator, John Pistole, is treated like any other traveler when he flies, waiting in security lines and walking through X-ray machines, including the full-body imagers, his spokesman said. Senior White House officials David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett and John Brennan, the president's homeland security adviser, do the same, officials said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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