Image: pat-down
CRAIG F. WALKER  /  AP
A Transportation Security Administration agent performs an enhanced pat-down on a traveler Nov. 17 at a security area at Denver International Airport.
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updated 11/21/2010 5:17:30 PM ET 2010-11-21T22:17:30

The head of the agency responsible for airport security, facing protests from travelers and pressure from the White House, appeared to give ground Sunday on his position that there would be no change in policies regarding invasive passenger screening procedures.

Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole said in a statement that the agency would work to make screening methods "as minimally invasive as possible," although he gave no indication that screening changes were imminent.

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The statement came just hours after Pistole, in a TV interview, said that while the full-body scans and pat-downs could be intrusive and uncomfortable, the high threat level required their use. "No, we're not changing the policies," he told CNN's "State of the Union."

Related: Anger at TSA boils over

Pistole said that, as in all nationwide security programs, "there is a continual process of refinement and adjustment to ensure that best practices are applied."

Still, he pointed to the alleged attempt by a Nigerian with explosives in his underwear to try to bring down an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight last Christmas. "We all wish we lived in a world where security procedures at airports weren't necessary," Pistole said, "but that just isn't the case."

In his earlier TV appearance, Pistole appeared to shrug off statements by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the agency would look for ways to alter screening techniques that some passengers say are invasions of privacy.

Obama said in Lisbon on Saturday that he had asked TSA officials whether there's a less intrusive way to ensure travel safety. "I understand people's frustrations," he said, adding that he had told the TSA that "you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we're doing is the only way to assure the American people's safety."

Related: Obama: TSA pat-downs frustrating but necessary

Clinton, appearing Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," said she thought "everyone, including our security experts, are looking for ways to diminish the impact on the traveling public" and that "striking the right balance is what this is about."

She, for one, wouldn't like to submit to a security pat-down.

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"Not if I could avoid it. No. I mean, who would?" Clinton told CBS' "Face the Nation" in an interview broadcast Sunday.

"Clearly it's invasive, it's not comfortable," Pistole said of the scans and pat-downs during the TV interview. But, he added, "if we are to detect terrorists, who have again proven innovative and creative in their design and implementation of bombs that are going to blow up airplanes and kill people, then we have to do something that prevents that."

Video: Clinton: Airport security about striking ‘right balance’ (on this page)

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. who is set to become Transportation Committee chairman when Republicans take over the House in January, differed with the approach.

"I don't think the rollout was good and the application is even worse. This does need to be refined. But he's saying it's the only tool and I believe that's wrong," Mica, a longtime critic of the TSA, said separately on the CNN program.

With the peak traveling season nearing, air travelers are protesting new requirements at some U.S. airports that they must pass through full-body scanners that produce a virtually naked image. The screener, who sits in a different location, does not see the face of the person being screened and does not know the traveler's identity.

Those who refuse to go through the scanners are subject to thorough pat-downs that include agency officials touching the clothed genital areas of passengers.

Pistole was shown videos of people being patted down where the screeners touched the breasts of a woman, felt into the pants of another person and felt the crotch of a man. He said all three cases were proper and that the gloves of the screener who felt inside the pants were then tested for explosive trace residue.

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Pistole added that very few people receive the pat-down. People who go through the new advanced imaging machines available at some 70 airports are usually not subject to pat-downs, he said.

Pistole said that while watch lists and other intelligence sources help the TSA pick out travelers who might pose greater risks, rules against profiling mean that some people who are less of a risk, such as the elderly or the disabled, must sometimes undergo pat-downs.

"I want to be sympathetic to each of the negative experiences. We've had extensive outreach to a number of different disability community groups, a number of different outreach efforts to try to say, how can we best work with those in your community to effect security while respecting your dignity and privacy," he said.

Related: TSA forces cancer survivor to show prosthetic breast

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., appearing on CBS, said Congress would hold hearings on the "very controversial" issue of how to strike the right balance. Asked how he would feel about submitting to a pat-down, Hoyer said: "I don't think any of us feel that the discomfort and the delay is something that we like, but most people understand that we've got to keep airplanes safe."

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Video: TSA gears up for holiday travel, more screenings

  1. Transcript of: TSA gears up for holiday travel, more screenings

    MATT LAUER, co-host: But let us being on a Monday morning with the latest fallout over those controversial new TSA screening methods at our nation's airports. NBC 's Tom Costello 's at Reagan National Airport . Tom , good morning to you.

    TOM COSTELLO reporting: Hi , Matt , good morning to you. The TSA insists nothing is changing here, but it released a statement yesterday which some believe may suggest there's some

    wiggle room. Here's part of what that statement says: "This has always been viewed as an evolving program that will be adapted as conditions warrant, and we greatly appreciate the cooperation and understanding of the American people ." But a lot of Americans seem to be running out of patience and out of understanding. You know you've got an image problem when " Saturday Night Live " is poking fun at you.

    COSTELLO: But with the Thanksgiving travel week well under way, the TSA 's new full-body pat-downs are no laughing matter to thousands of Americans, like breast cancer survivor Marlene McCarthy , who went through a pat-down while wearing a prosthesis.

    Ms. MARLENE McCARTHY (Airline Traveler): She touched the prosthesis, she moved it up and down and left and right and then she said, 'You're OK.'

    COSTELLO: And regular business traveler Judith Briles , who has double knee replacements.

    Ms. JUDITH BRILES (Frequent Traveler): Not only did they search me once, they pulled me into another room and searched me again and I just felt dirty.

    COSTELLO: While only a small fraction of travelers are selected for pat-downs, resent seems to be growing. And the TSA chief has posted a Web video trying to explain the basics.

    Mr. JOHN PISTOLE (TSA Administrator): You have the option to request that the pat-down be conducted in a private room.

    COSTELLO: The tougher pat-downs come after the TSA 's own inspectors were able to smuggle weapons and drugs past TSA screeners.

    Mr. PISTOLE: Something like a ceramic knife artfully concealed, things that could be a threat to aviation and which are prohibited items now.

    COSTELLO: President Obama says he's heard the public's frustration.

    President BARACK OBAMA: And what I've said to the TSA is that you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we're doing is the only way to assure the American people 's safety.

    COSTELLO: With al-Qaeda 's recent attempts to bring down both cargo and passenger planes, many travelers still support the scanners and pat-downs.

    Mr. GERALD COUCH (Airline Traveler): There's people out there that want to do harm and the harder we make it for them to do that, the safe we're going to be.

    COSTELLO: But some TSA screeners are now anonymously complaining on the Internet about the public backlash. "Molester, pervert, disgusting, an embarrassment, creep. These are all words I have heard today at work describing me," writes one. "I should not have to go home and cry after a day of honorably serving my country." Now you probably heard about some bloggers calling for a national opt-out day on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving , essentially saying we're not going to go through the scanners, therefore tying up even more TSA checkpoints. The TSA and the airlines say they'll have extra staffing on board on Wednesday just in case, but they're hoping that most people really just want to get to Thanksgiving dinner and they're not going to be disrupted by this and it's not going to be a major problem. We'll see how that pans out. Matt , back to you.

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