WASHINGTON – A passenger’s failed attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 last week has revived a battle in Congress over the use of whole-body imaging technology to screen airline passengers.
Some legislators argue that the machines, which cost about $170,000 each and are in use at 19 U.S. airports, could have detected the explosive powder the 23-year-old Nigerian was carrying and should be approved for widespread use. Suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab didn’t go through the whole-body scanner at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before he boarded the Northwest flight to Detroit.
Others, however, call a whole-body scan a “virtual strip search” that should be used only if there’s probable cause to believe that someone might be carrying explosives.
In June, the House of Representatives voted 310-118 to prohibit the widespread use of whole-body imaging technology as a primary tool for airport screening, a measure introduced by Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, of Utah.
Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican who co-sponsored the legislation, said security officials can use less invasive methods such as bomb-sniffing dogs to detect explosives.
“It is precisely the same as being pulled into a side room and being ordered to remove your clothes physically,” he said. “In either event, your nude image is being inspected by several security guards.”
However, another California Republican, Rep. Dan Lungren, who’s been promoting the technology for four years, said Friday’s incident should help support his cause when Congress reconvenes in January.
“This is a specific example of what can happen,” he said.
Lungren said he was screened by one of the machines at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. “They said to me as I’m standing there, ‘So you have an artificial hip, and it’s your right hip,’ ” Lungren said. “And I said, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ And they said, ‘Oh, it looks like you left some change in your pocket.’ ”
Lungren said the machines are less invasive than being patted down by a security guard.
The technology picked up a key endorsement over the weekend from Sen. Joe Lieberman, the head of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
“Those privacy concerns, which are frankly mild, have to fall in the face of the ability of these machines to detect material like this explosive on this individual,” the Connecticut independent said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”
As testing of the technology continues, the Transportation Security Administration said the machines are being used for primary screening at six U.S. airports: San Francisco; Las Vegas; Salt Lake City; Miami; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Tulsa, Okla.
The conservative McClintock has an unlikely ally: the American Civil Liberties Union.
In a background paper, the ACLU said that government officials are “essentially taking a naked picture of air passengers” and that air travelers shouldn’t be required to display personal details of their bodies as a prerequisite to boarding a plane.
“Those images reveal not only our private body parts, but also intimate medical details like colostomy bags,” the ACLU said. “That degree of examination amounts to a significant – and for some people humiliating – assault on the essential dignity of passengers that citizens in a free nation should not have to tolerate.”