WASHINGTON — Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole said Monday that he disregarded internal advice and decided not tell the public in advance about aggressive new screening and pat-down procedures for airline passengers, fearing terrorists could try to exploit the information.
Pistole said media officials at the Department of Homeland Security had urged him to "get out ahead" of the potential controversy by formally announcing plans for enhanced body searches and the use of new X-ray and radio-wave imaging devices at 70 airports beginning in November.
But doing so would have provided a "roadmap or blueprint for terrorists" to avoid detection by using other airports where the new technology wasn't in place, Pistole said.
Rather than publicize the changes, Pistole said he made a "risk-based" decision to roll it out first and "try to educate the public after we did that."
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The result has been a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers and passengers who claim the technology and aggressive searches are unnecessary, intrusive and a violation of their privacy rights.
With the Thanksgiving travel crush beginning Wednesday, several groups are urging fliers to boycott the new procedures that day, when millions of people will jam airports to travel for the holiday weekend.
Pistole said Monday that such delaying actions would only "tie up people who want to go home and see their loved ones."
"We all wish we lived in a world where security procedures at airports weren't necessary," he said, "but that just isn't the case."
He noted the alleged attempt by a Nigerian with explosives in his underwear to bring down a plane over Detroit last Christmas.
More than 400 imaging units are being used at about 70 airports. Since the new procedures began Nov. 1, 34 million travelers have gone through checkpoints, according to the TSA.
Since Nov. 1, the Department of Homeland Security said that about 700 airline passengers have lodged a complaint with the TSA. Of the passengers asked to submit to a full-body scan, only 1 percent have opted out and instead agreed to a pat-down, which includes TSA agents using their hands to search passengers' clothed genital areas.
Despite the small percentage of protests, stories of alleged heavy-handed treatment by TSA agents have captured people's imagination.
A bladder cancer survivor from Michigan who wears a bag that collects his urine said its contents spilled on his clothing after a security agent at a Detroit airport patted him down roughly.
A video showing a shirtless young boy resisting a pat-down at Salt Lake City's airport has become a YouTube sensation and led to demands for an investigation from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a critic of TSA screening methods.
The TSA said in a blog posting that nobody has to disrobe at an airport checkpoint apart from removing shoes and jackets. According to the TSA, the boy was being searched because he triggered an alarm inside a metal detector, and his father removed the youngster's shirt to speed up the screening.
Because many passengers haven't yet experienced the new measures, TSA will air public service announcements at the airports that explain the new procedures. TSA officials also have posted a new website video that outlines the security measures and options for passengers who chose a pat-down search instead of the screening devices.