NBC Offers Soft Spin on Invasive TSA Screenings, ABC, CBS Highlight 'Outrage,' 'Probing Hands'

November 22nd, 2010 12:22 PM

NBC's Today on on Monday offered the most sympathetic take on the growing outrage over invasive pat downs being conducted at airports by the Transportation Security Administration. While ABC highlighted "outrage" and CBS observed how some find the procedures "violating," Today host Matt Lauer worried about the government "caving" on the policy.

All three morning shows interviewed TSA Administrator John Pistole. But, only Matt Lauer fretted, "...I hate to even think of what happens if the government caves in on this, and relaxes these procedures, and someone manages to get something on board a plane and causes harm. Imagine the questions you'll be asked at that point."

Lauer asserted that with the comparatively small number of people complaining, the anger could be "overblown." While all three programs played a clip of Barack Obama critiquing the screening program, Today, Good Morning America and The Early Show failed to portray the controversy as a problem for the White House.

Lauer worried about the TSA agents who conduct the pat downs: "But I think we can both agree on and probably all agree on one thing: this is not the fault of the TSA screeners...They're being called names at airports, and that clearly can't continue, can it?"

In a previous report, NBC correspondent Tom Costello empathized, "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.'"

ABC and CBS singled out the story of passenger Thomas Sawyer, a bladder cancer survivor, who had his urostomy bag ruptured during a pat down, causing him to be covered in urine. Today skipped this incident, but did highlight other embarrassing examples.

Early Show co-host Maggie Rodriguez conducted the toughest interview of Pistole. She grilled, "In the meantime, you will continue with these pat downs that some people have called 'humiliating, violating, and demeaning'? At the moment, that is still the plan?"

Raising the case of Mr. Sawyer, Rodriguez followed-up: "And I don't know if you've heard the story of this man who said that it was so aggressive that his urine bag spilled. So my question is why should anyone have to sacrifice dignity for safety?"

On GMA, Roberts pressed Pistole on whether the policy would be changed, wondering about people who feel violated: " So what happens, what kind of recourse do they have if they do the things that people are saying?"

A transcript of the November 22 Today interview, which aired at 7:05am EST, follows:

MATT LAUER: John Pistole is the head of the Transportation Security Administration. John, good morning to you.


LAUER: You know, we spoke on this show last week, just after these new procedures were put into effect, and I have to admit: I thought the uproar over this would die down rather quickly. It has not. In fact, it seems more and more passengers are complaining. Are you now actively rethinking this policy?

PISTOLE: Yes, Matt- you're probably aware that we constantly evaluate and evolve our protocols, in light of the latest intelligence. And, of course, we saw, over the weekend, new intelligence coming out of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula about how they constructed these cargo devices from Yemen at the end of last month and what that means. But clearly, there has been a significant concern raised with the traveling public, and members of Congress have expressed concern from their constituents and things. So yes, we're going to look at how can we do the most effective screening in the least invasive way, knowing that there's always a trade-off, that we talked about: that trade-off between security and privacy, and where- again, reasonable people can disagree as to that precise (unintelligible) for them-

LAUER: Let me make sure I understand what you're saying here. Are you thinking of- are you rethinking this policy and adapting it, based on the intelligence and the threat level out there, or are you going to adapt this policy simply because people are complaining about it?

PISTOLE: Well, obviously, we have to take all factors into consideration. My job is security and what can we best do? What I'm interested in that is going back to the Government Accountability Office- GAO- the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, and say- look, you are the ones who did this covert testing prior to 12/25 last year. What did you find, in ways that if we did modify, in some respect, the type of screening that we do-

LAUER: Right-

PISTOLE: How can we adjust that? Because what they found is they were able to get through security because of the lack of thoroughness that we have.

LAUER: I want talk about- I want to put this in perspective if we can, John. When its comes to the actual number of people who are being patted-down, for example- what are we talking about? What percentage?

PISTOLE: So- it's a very small percent. I can't give you the exact amount, but a very small percent. For example, since we started the new pat-down procedure, we've had approximately 34 million people travel. It is a very small percentage in number of those who have actually received this type of thorough pat-down. So, it seems like, from what I'm seeing in the media, in a way, that every passenger almost is receiving this pat-down. That's clearly not the case. It's a very small percentage. So-

LAUER: Right. Again, it can be overblown. I'm not going to be the one, and nor can you be, to decide whether people think this is overly invasive or not invasive enough. But I think we can both agree on and probably all agree on one thing: this is not the fault of the TSA screeners, and we've heard that they're being- you know, blamed for this. They're being called names at airports, and that clearly can't continue, can it?

PISTOLE: Well, I appreciate that, Matt, and actually, I've heard both sides. I've received comments from some of the security officers who have said that customers- travelers have been very complementary and appreciative of the work that they are doing to keep them and the traveling public safe. But clearly, we can't have passengers who are abusive to security officers who are there to protect them and their loved ones while they're traveling.

LAUER: Doing their job- and I hate to be the one to even bring this up, but in this situation, with these pat-downs and this increased screening procedures, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't, John. I mean, I hate to even think of what happens if the government caves in on this, and relaxes these procedures, and someone manages to get something on board a plane and causes harm. Imagine the questions you'll be asked at that point.

PISTOLE: We're clear, and that's the- that dynamic tension that we deal with every day. So how do we do the best possible job of balancing the security that everybody wants and even demands- and rightfully so- with the privacy that everybody wants- and how do we best blend that? So that is a challenge that we face every day, and we try to do that in partnership with the traveling public, saying- look, work with us, because we are there to help protect you. We just want to make sure that you and everybody else on that plane arrives safely.

LAUER: Right- and real quickly here- there are some people calling for this 'National Opt-Out Day,' and they're calling for it, I think, on Wednesday, one of the busiest travel days of the year. Do you have the manpower to actually deal with a situation where large numbers of people simply refuse screening?

PISTOLE: Clearly, we'll be fully staffed, Matt, but the question becomes, what happens to the wait times, and do people end up missing flights because of a small or large group- whomever it is- decides to protest and delay those vast majority of people who just want to get home for the holidays. So I hope that people use judgment and reason to say- look, everybody just wants to enjoy the holidays- let's be safe when we do that. Let's not tie up those people who just want to go home and spend time with loved ones.

LAUER: John Pistole- John, I think you're in a tough position. I appreciate your time this morning. Thanks very much.

PISTOLE: Thank you, Matt.

— Scott Whitlock is a news analyst for the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.