The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee blasted the media on Tuesday for their coverage of new airport security measures in the run-up to the 2010 holiday season, saying "absolutely irresponsible" news stories suggested airport screeners were "more dangerous than [Usama] bin Laden."
"I come from an area that lost over 400 people on 9/11," Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said during an event at Georgetown University celebrating the eighth anniversary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "I don't mind going through the detectors. I don't mind being checked out."
In the months leading up to Thanksgiving, the Transportation Security Administration implemented new security measures at airports across the country, including the use of full-body, advanced imaging technologies -- or AITs -- and pat-downs for those who declined AITs. But online campaigns urging passengers to "opt-out" of AITs and a series of sensational stories -- including one California man who told a security officer, "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested" -- created a national furor over the new security measures.
Addressing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and her two predecessors, who were on a panel at the Georgetown event, King said news stories at the time created "the wrong impression to the public that somehow the department is the enemy, the TSA is the enemy."
He said Americans "should realize the enemy is out there ... and we need to guard against it," and he suggested DHS "do a better job of reminding the American people the enemy is there, it's not us, and we have to stand together."
Asked about King's remarks, TSA Administrator John Pistole, who attended the event, said he would have to "refrain" from commenting.
Former DHS secretary Michael Chertoff, now head of the Washington-based security consulting firm The Chertoff Group, repeatedly defended the administration's approach.
"It's about risk management, it's not risk elimination," said Chertoff. "If you want somebody to tell you that the government or anybody's going to eliminate all the risk in life, then you're asking for somebody to give you a fantasy."
He said it's "difficult for people to understand" that "millions of people" go through the checkpoints at U.S. airports, so while "everybody would like to have a technological solution," that's not always practical or efficient.
"If you want, for example, to have a machine that looks at liquids, if it takes 30 seconds per bottle, the line would be nine hours long," he said.
Ridge, now head of the consulting firm Ridge Global, was also quick to defend TSA officers, but he insisted there's still a lot of work to be done to secure the country.
"We're not quite at a risk-managed state yet," he said. "President Kennedy said in '62 we're going to the moon. We got to the moon in '69. That's seven years. It's 10 years after 9/11. We still haven't figured out [how] to put the right piece of technology at our airports. So apparently it's easier to go to the moon than come up with a piece of technology to prevent terrorism."
Current DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said that new technologies are currently being developed, and while U.S. authorities don't "profile" at airports they do "use a lot of intelligence" and a series of security "layers" that begin before passengers even get to the airport. At the airports, she said, the U.S. government is employing uniformed officers, K-9 teams, explosive trace detection equipment, and behavior detection officers.
"The problem is ... we don't have the checkpoint of the future yet -- an integrated checkpoint that would enable you to leave your shoes on, carry your water bottle [and] not have to unload your laptop from your briefcase or your backpack," she said. "That technology just isn't there."
But, she said, the U.S. government is investing in research "primarily" at universities to develop new technologies that would give airport screeners such capabilities. That research, though, could be impacted by decisions over future budgets and government spending, Napolitano said.
Ridge, meanwhile, said he wants "the public to be reassured" that TSA officers "go to work every day doing the best they can."
He said he flies commercially "quite a bit" now and gets "a chance to see some great people working at TSA." He told a story about seeing one TSA officer "absolutely getting lambasted" by a "very, very, very unhappy commercial passenger." The TSA officer, though, "was very cool, calm and collected, and took all the grief coming his way." Ridge went up to the officer after the episode and said, "That was a great lesson in patience and customer care ... [but] do yourself a favor: The next time somebody says that, say, 'Write your Congressman. I'm just doing what I have been advised and instructed to do,'" Ridge recalled.
Ridge praised TSA for "constantly probing their own defenses" and testing themselves, saying, "They're not complacent, sitting back waiting for something to happen."
"We don't want to be breathless about the threat," he said, adding that the job of DHS, Congress and even the media is to "just remind everybody" about DHS efforts to stop terrorism.
"Not to pile on, not to exaggerate. Hyperbole doesn't get anybody anywhere," he said. "After 9/11, people need to understand we're not more vulnerable because of it, we're just more aware of our vulnerability."