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Officials defend airport screening but say changes are coming

Homeland Security officials Monday defended airport screening procedures amid a backlash of complaints that they are too invasive, but officials said that changes to some tactics will be made soon.

"We are doing what we need to do to protect the traveling public," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during a news conference at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. "Adjustments will be made where they need to be made."

Napolitano said that airline passengers have a role to play in aviation security by cooperating with screening procedures at the nation's airports. She was joined at the news conference by John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration.

"We know the threats are real," Pistole said, noting that he worked at the FBI for more than 25 years. "We know that everybody that gets on an airline wants to be ensured with high confidence that everybody else on that flight has been screened properly."

But with the holiday season fast approaching, some passenger-rights groups and pilots are protesting what they say are invasive procedures, such as physical pat downs, in which airport screeners rub their hands along the groin area. The screeners who perform the procedure are of the same sex as the person being checked.

Concerns have also mounted that full-body scanning machines are violating passengers' privacy and exposing them to excessive radiation.

One of the largest pilot unions, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, has told its members -- about 5,000 U.S. Airways pilots -- to boycott the scanning machines. An airline-passenger group called FlyersRights.org and privacy advocates are also calling for a boycott during next week's surge of Thanksgiving holiday travel, even as other fliers threaten some act of civil disobedience to protest the pat-down procedures or general screening process.

Trying to tamp down the concerns, Napolitano expressed "regret" that some passengers do not want to cooperate with security. Indeed, the news conference was held mainly to announce an expansion of the Homeland Security Department's "If You See Something, Say Something" campaign, which encourages the public to notify law-enforcement officials of suspicious activity.

"I really regret some groups saying, 'We don't want to play a part of that,' " Napolitano said. "I'm sorry to say, if that's their reaction, that's their reaction.

"If people don't want to play that role, if they want to travel by some other means, of course that is their right. This is the United States," she added.

But Napolitano said that the TSA will change how pilots are screened in response to their objections, although no details were released at the news conference.

"We're working with the pilots groups, and we hope to very quickly announce some things where pilots are concerned," Napolitano said.

She emphasized that the government has "an open ear" and is also considering changes to address issues raised by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which issued a travel advisory for airline passengers and is particularly concerned about the physical pat down of women wearing hijabs.

Napolitano defended the use of full-body scanning machines. "They in no way resemble electronic strip searches," she insisted. A letter from the TSA and the Food and Drug Administration, which surfaced last week, states that the potential health risk from exposure to the radiation that the machines generate is minuscule.

The DHS secretary also repeatedly said that airport screeners act in a professional manner.

She said it would be "unwise" and "irresponsible" for the government not to continue advancing screening procedures. "This is just the next generation of travel security."

The uproar over airport screening is expected to get its first airing in Congress on Tuesday. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., has scheduled a hearing on air-cargo security, but Pistole is slated to testify and senators are likely to raise the issue of airport screening with him.

Lieberman, however, said in an interview Monday on MSNBC that he supports what the TSA is doing.

"Overall, these are tough decisions, but I come down on the side of the pat downs," he said. "Unfortunately, that's the age in which we live, and I think what the department is doing is necessary."

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