Obama: TSA pat-downs frustrating but necessary

Image: A woman undergoes a pat-down
A woman undergoes a pat-down during TSA security screening on Friday at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.Ted S. Warren / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

President Barack Obama on Saturday acknowledged some travelers' "frustrations" with having to go through full-body pat-downs and scans at airports, but he said the enhanced security measures are necessary to keep America safe.

In response to a question at a press conference in Lisbon, where he was attending a NATO summit, the president said that the Transportation Security Administration has been "under enormous pressure" to find better ways to screen for explosives and other dangerous items ever since the attempted 2009 Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner over Detroit. In that case, a passenger with links to an al-Qaida extremist group tried to set off plastic explosives concealed in his underwear.

"I understand people’s frustrations, 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. And you also have to think through are there other ways of doing it that are less intrusive," Obama said.

"But at this point, TSA in consultation with counterterrorism experts have indicated to me that the procedures that they have been putting in place are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing."

Obama acknowledged that as president he does not have to go through pat-downs and other normal security procedures at airports, since he flies on Air Force One.

Some travelers have criticized the pat-downs and full-body scanners at some airports as overly intrusive and humiliating. In one case, a woman who survived breast cancer said she was forced to show her prosthetic breast during a pat-down at an airport in North Carolina.

A loosely organized campaign on the Internet is urging travelers to boycott the scanners, which produce a virtually naked image of the body that can be seen by a screener who is in a different location and doesn't know the identity of the traveler. The U.S. has nearly 400 of the advanced imaging machines deployed at 70 airports, with plans to expand to 1,000 machines next year. Not all airports have them and not all travelers are selected for scans.

Those who refuse body scans can be forced to undergo physical pat-downs, which could make for long lines during the Thanksgiving holiday travel weekend.

"One of the most frustrating aspects of this fight against terrorism is that it has created a whole security apparatus around us that causes huge inconvenience for all of us,” Obama said.