WASHINGTON — The US government said Monday it would seek to develop less invasive body searches at airports, but offered no excuses for seeking to ensure security amid a national uproar over intimate pat-downs.
The top US aviation security official John Pistole said he was open to making body searches less uncomfortable for passengers, and the White House said the system would "evolve."
The row over pat-downs showed no signs of ebbing though, a few days before the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, the busiest time of year for airports and other forms of transportation.
Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration, said he had agreed to "look at how we can do this type of screening and do it less invasively."
"That has been the request (and) I'm open to doing that," Pistole told Fox News.
The TSA will work with other US agencies to try to find "less intrusive means that still provide that high level confidence in terms of the screening," he said.
Pistole, however, has also said that new security measures put in place earlier this month will not be scrapped.
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans support the scanning machines, putting greater emphasis on the government combatting terrorism than focusing on personal privacy.
But half of those polled said they thought the intimate pat-down searches "go too far."
At the White House, President Barack Obama's spokesman appeared to hint that there might be changes to the system, but walked a careful line to avoid tipping off potential attackers on US security procedures.
"Our charge is to do all that we can to protect those that travel, but also to do so in a way that's... minimally invasive," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. "That's a balance that we will continue to search for."
"We seek to maximize the security and protection and minimize that invasiveness. These are procedures that will continue to evolve."
Gibbs, however, stressed that security measures had been put in place specifically to address threats from Al-Qaeda, though declined to go into details to protect the integrity of the process.
"We know from intelligence that Al-Qaeda seeks to to do harm through aviation, through devices concealed on a body, inside of a device that one might take on to an airplane, or in luggage that's put on an airplane."
The measures, implemented this month, are an alternative for passengers who opt out of full body X-rays, which many passenger say are too revealing.
But others complain that the pat-downs, in which agents use their fingers and open palms, are just as bad as the scanning machines and complain that they come uncomfortably close to the genital area.
During the body searches, female agents run their hands between and under women's breasts and both sexes are patted down from crotch to ankles, front and back.
Pistole, who testified before a Senate committee last week over the stringent measures, reminded the public that they were put in place to plug perceived holes in aviation security at a time of growing terrorism threats.
The more intimate pat-downs and full body scanners were introduced in the wake of a string of foiled bomb plots against US-bound airliners.
Those include the Christmas Day bomb attempt last year when Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian, allegedly tried to ignite explosives concealed in his underwear as his plane came in to land in Detroit.
Pistole acknowledged US officials were caught off guard by the extent of the public outrage against the measures.
"I think it's safe to say there has been a reaction that not many people could have predicted, including myself," he said.
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