Airport security uproar frustrates White House advisers

As holiday travel ramps up, so does controversy over body scanners and pat-downs at the nation's airports.
By Anne E. Kornblut and Perry Bacon, Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 22, 2010; 9:12 PM

For a White House often accused of being lax on national security, the uproar over invasive security techniques at airports is a head-snapping swing in the other direction.

Aggressive pat-downs and new X-ray machines are part of President Obama's effort to redouble attention to transportation security after the attempted suicide bombing aboard an airplane landing in Detroit last Christmas. That incident exposed Obama to scathing criticism from Republicans who said he failed to grasp the terrorist threat the nation faced.

Now, the administration is under attack from the opposite direction, as some travelers complain that the latest measures go too far. That - and polls showing broad public support for the X-ray machines - has left some White House advisers feeling "frustrated," as one put it, by an onslaught of media coverage focused heavily on the treatment of passengers rather than the dangers the measures are designed to prevent.

"Everyone is a little bit surprised that less than one year after a suicide bomber was sent to the United States to blow up a plane over Detroit with a bomb in his underwear we would be having the debate that we're having right now," another administration official said Monday.

At the White House on Monday, press secretary Robert Gibbs faced a torrent of questions about the screening procedures as travelers prepared to head out of town for the Thanksgiving holiday. He said the administration is "trying desperately" to strike a balance between achieving security and respecting individual privacy - a balance Obama pledged to restore as a candidate, after accusations that the Bush administration had tilted too far in the direction of security following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Yet the public does not appear as conflicted as the debate suggests: big majorities across party lines say the government should emphasize security over privacy, and they support the use of the new full-body scanners in airports, according to a new Washington Post/ABC poll. Public support for the more intrusive pat-down screening is far lower.

But the political debate is not as polarized as it has been during some previous episodes. Democrats, including Homeland Security chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), have been critical of the pat-downs, while Republicans who typically condemn the administration on national security matters have been less vocal.

"Basically they are doing the right thing," said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a sharp critic of Obama on national security. King said he supports the scanning machines and the pat-downs, which he has encountered during travel to and from his district.

The problem, King said, is "the way it's been communicated."

"They have lost control of the debate, which is really unfortunate because to listen to it you forget we were under siege," King said. "Somehow TSA has now become the enemy of the American people, which is wrong and it's unfortunate. The TSA was blindsided on this."

Amid the furor, Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole called and personally apologized on Monday to a cancer survivor who said a TSA pat-down had broken his urine bag.

Incidents such as that one - the 61-year-old man, Thomas Sawyer, said he boarded the plane covered in urine, and received no apology from the TSA agent involved - have helped drive the narrative of an agency out of bounds. The story was fueled by pilots who demanded, and ultimately won, exemption from the screening, and by a drumbeat of attention from news sites ranging from the Drudge Report to Jeffrey Goldberg's blog at the Atlantic.

Coming just as media outlets were dispatching camera crews to the airports for the holidays, it became a "confluence of things all happening at the same time, and the result was, people were asking a lot of questions about these procedures," one administration official said.

Now, the administration is making an effort to show that it understands what travelers are going through.

John Brennan, the president's top counterterrorism adviser, "gets the full treatment" every time he goes through airport security because of the multiple hip surgeries and other metal devices he has had implanted over the years, a White House official said.

Gibbs said he was unsure of whether he had experienced the new security measures, but suggested he probably had. "I think I've been through an AIT," he said, using the acronym for the Advanced Imaging Technology machines. "I'm trying to think. Most of my travel is on Air Force One. I traveled to and from Atlanta a few weeks ago, and I thought I went through one of the AITs."

Both Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Pistole have had the screenings and pat-downs, officials said.

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company