However, I have to admit that I am rather disappointed with his answer. In a nutshell...well, read for yourself:
Thank you for contacting me regarding new passenger screening measures employed at our nation's airports by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).I am currently in the process of drafting a reply to Sen. Begich, which I will also post here, as soon as it is complete.
I understand and share your concern over maintaining privacy and protecting civil liberties during the passenger screening process. The TSA has the challenging mission of protecting our transportation systems and the public from the ongoing threat of terrorism, while simultaneously safeguarding the ability of law-abiding Americans to travel freely. I am particularly disturbed by some of the stories I've heard regarding inappropriate passenger screenings from Alaskans such as you.
The Senate Commerce Committee recently held an oversight hearing with the TSA and I have submitted several questions regarding training of TSA screeners and sensitivity to passengers who have experienced sexual abuse, medical procedures or have other special needs and circumstances.
In addition to pat-downs, many Alaskans have expressed concern over privacy issues that arise through the use of Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT). TSA Administrator John Pistole indicated the passenger screening process is currently in a transitional stage and expects TSA to soon have the ability to deploy software which will present a less graphic "stick figure" style image of passengers to the screener. Administrator Pistole testified that he expects this technology to become available for use at airport screening checkpoints within a matter of months and that it will help alleviate many of the privacy concerns currently associated with the AIT screening machines. I have asked TSA to look at whether they can accelerate deployment of the AIT software to Alaska airports.
Administrator Pistole also sought to clarify some misconceptions about the TSA's new passenger screening procedures.
o The use of AIT scanners remains optional to the passenger, however, passengers who opt not to use the AIT machines will receive what the TSA deems an equivalent level of screening through the use of walk-through metal detectors and pat-downs if necessary.
o The technology used by AIT machines is safe. Passengers who are screened by AIT are not exposed to significant amounts of radiation during the screening process. The safety of these machines has been confirmed by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.
o No children under the age of 12 will be subjected to the enhanced pat-down procedures.
o Pat-downs are performed by a Transportation Security Officer of the same gender. Passengers are able to request the pat-down occur in a privately screened area and that they be accompanied by a travelling companion.
I am personally concerned the TSA did a poor job of communicating these new screening procedure changes to the flying public. Any changes by the TSA in passenger screening policies need to be accompanied by an aggressive public information and education campaign so passengers are aware of what to expect before they arrive at the airport.
The TSA's most important task is to make sure we do not let people who wish us harm onboard a passenger aircraft. Congress must ensure the TSA does not violate the individual privacy rights of Americans while carrying out this mission. I will strive to make sure the TSA does this through a partnership with the traveling public. All screening measures should be risk-based and treat passengers with respect and dignity.
Thank you again for your letter, and please do not hesitate to contact me on this or any other issue.