TSA Skips Oversight Hearing on TSA Full-Body Scanners, Then Shows Up Late

March 17, 2011 - 3:01 AM

John Pistole

Transportation Security Administration Administrator John Pistole testifies before the Senate commerce Committee on Capitol Hill on Nov. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg, File)

Washington (CNSNews.com) The Transportation Security Administration backed out of a congressional oversight hearing examining its policy of using full-body scanners to see under airline passengers’ clothes. TSA officials then reversed themselves and showed up for an unplanned third round of questioning.

The hearing, held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s National Security, Homeland Defense, and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, was scheduled to examine TSA’s use of the scanners and the privacy and safety concerns raised by privacy and safety advocates.

Hoewever, TSA backed out at the last minute, according to Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), declining to appear before the committee and face its questions.

“We had hoped to resolve and confront some of the discrepancies between the actions and words of the administration and the TSA,” Chaffetz said in his opening statement. “Unfortunately, the TSA pulled the plug. During last minute preparation, the TSA declined to testify – despite previously confirming through both verbal and written confirmation that they would appear.”

At issue was the seating on the witness panel for the hearing. TSA took issue with the fact that Chaffetz had seated TSA Assistant Administrators Robin Kane and Lee Kair next to representatives from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy watchdog that has filed five lawsuits against the TSA.

“I have strong concerns over the Subcommittee’s intention to seat Mr. Kane and Mr. Kair alongside a non-governmental witness who represents the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), an organization that has multiple lawsuits pending against the agency,” TSA Administrator John Pistole wrote in a March 14 letter to Chaffetz. “Thus, it would be inappropriate to place both sides of a lawsuit on the same panel at a public hearing to discuss matters subject to litigation.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the full Oversight Committee, responded in the hearing, saying that it was “not our intention” to “facilitate any confrontation” between any witnesses at the hearing – only to hear both sides of the issue.

Pistole stated in his letter that that was exactly what he wanted to avoid – having to present TSA’s position on the use of full-body imaging scanners.

“I do not believe the public interest is advanced by placing contestants in civil litigation side-by-side at a Congressional hearing to discuss their respective positions on the use of AIT [Advanced Imaging Technology] in primary screening.”

One of EPIC’s lawsuits seeks to stop TSA from using the full-body scanners entirely.

Chaffetz said that TSA’s refusal to defend its position before the subcommittee represented “another failure” by TSA to be honest with the American public about its full-body scanner policy.

“Sadly, this is yet another failure by TSA and the Administration to be straight with the American people. We gave them an opportunity to help the American people understand the complex, yet vital, issues surrounding airport security. Unfortunately, they refused,” Chaffetz said.

“The American people will sacrifice a great deal in the name of security. But it is irresponsible to expect these sacrifices from a government agency that is misleading, secretive, and not here today,” he added.

Midway through the hearing, however, Chaffetz announced that TSA had changed its mind and would in fact attend the hearing, albeit on a separate, third panel where TSA officials would appear alone.

Chaffetz announced during the hearing that TSA would appear “by mutual consent” at the separate panel that, due to the TSA officials’ late arrival forced the committee to recess indefinitely, so that the hearing could continue at a later date. Chaffetz told TSA officials that they were expected back before his subcommittee to face further questioning.

Full-body scanners use either millimeter-wave or high-powered x-ray radiation to take a picture of a person’s body without removing their clothes. The pictures taken by these machines can be detailed enough to show intimate details of a passenger’s body, essentially replicating a nude photo of the passenger.