Gov. Rick Perry saw a silver lining in state lawmakers not sending him legislation penalizing airport security officers if they get too physical while searching passengers. As a June special legislative session ended, Perry said in a June 29 press release that "although the airport pat-down bill did not pass, it did initiate a public discussion and some changes in airport security procedures."
Did debate at the Texas Capitol drive a national shift?
Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier pointed us toward an earlier Perry statement that referred to a Transportation Security Administration reassessment of pat-down searches of children 12 and younger. The June 23 statement by the governor’s office said the agency’s change of policy "follows Gov. Perry's recent addition of legislation to the (agenda) of the special session of the Texas Legislature to address this issue." Perry added: "TSA's policy change is a step in the right direction to regain the trust of American families."
According to an ABC News report, the federal agency had issued a statement the day before, June 22, saying that its chief administrator, John Pistole, "has made a policy decision to give security officers more options for resolving screening anomalies with young children, and we are working to operationalize his decision in airports. This decision will ultimately reduce — though not eliminate — pat downs of children."
The news report notes that Perry had recently added the airport security issue to the special session’s agenda; that action occurred June 20. During the regular session that ended in May, legislation making it a criminal offense for airport security officials to touch "the anus, sexual organ, buttocks or breast of another person," even through clothing, had cleared the Texas House before stalling in the Senate.
And a June 27 Associated Press news report quotes state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, defending a watered-down version of the pat-down measure under consideration in the special session. Referring to the already-announced federal policy change, Patrick said, "The goal is to get the TSA to change their policy. TSA is going (to) change their policy because Texas is taking the lead."
But we couldn’t find independent indications that the Texas debate touched off the federal change. Instead, we found that public outrage began flaring late last fall over the new enhanced pat-down procedures and that TSA officials have been talking about changing the procedures ever since.
TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball said that Pistole "began evaluating risk-based changes to the checkpoint security process, including the process for screening children, shortly after he was sworn into office in July" 2010.
Kimball pointed us to a Nov. 21, 2010, statement from Pistole saying, in part, "We are constantly evaluating and adapting our security measures, and as we have said from the beginning, we are seeking to strike the right balance between privacy and security."
Kimball also noted a March speech by Pistole to an American Bar Association group. Pistole said then: "We want to focus our limited resources on higher-risk passengers, while speeding and enhancing the passenger experience at the airport. I believe what we're working on will provide better security by more effectively deploying our resources, while also improving passengers' travel experiences by potentially streamlining the screening experience for many people."
Kimball also pointed out news reports such as an April 12 CNN report topped by mention of the recent pat-down of a 6-year-old girl at the New Orleans airport. The report quotes the agency as saying that Pistole "has tasked the agency with exploring additional ways to focus its resources and move beyond a one-size-fits-all system while maintaining a high level of security. As part of this effort, TSA has been actively reviewing its screening policies and procedures to streamline and improve the screening experience for low-risk populations, such as younger passengers."
We pressed Kimball about connections between the pat-down debate in Texas and the agency’s June change of policy. He replied by email that the Legislature's debate "did not have an impact."
Perry’s office isn’t convinced. Frazier said by email that the "fact remains that TSA took action a mere two days after the governor's addition (of the anti-groping topic) to the agenda of the special session."
She continued: "We've never claimed the addition to the (agenda) was the sole catalyst of TSA’s changes. But as we’ve said before, we do believe that making it a legislative issue in the midst of Americans’ escalating frustration toward TSA’s invasive pat-down searches played a role in the agency’s decision to finally take action, and make changes to its policy that are a step in the right direction."
It’s reasonable to say the debate in Austin brought even more attention to pat-downs. But the TSA was already catching flack for the procedures two months before the Legislature convened. And we found no evidence the Texas debate initiated, as Perry puts it, the administration’s policy change. We rate Perry’s statement False.