December 31, 2009 in Opinion

Froma Harrop: Air security begs naked truth

Froma Harrop
 

U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz proudly championed a measure last spring that bans whole-body imaging as a primary screening technique at airports. “You don’t have to look at my wife and 8-year-old daughter naked to secure an airplane,” the Utah Republican said.

As a matter of fact, you do. The very technology that makes Chaffetz so indignant might have detected the bag of powerful explosives sewn into alleged terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underwear.

Had the 23-year-old Nigerian succeeded in taking down an airliner over Detroit, his deed would have horribly bookended the decade that roughly began with the Sept. 11, 2001, trauma. And it could have sent air travel, and with it the American economy, into another tailspin.

Ignoring such potentially grim outcomes, lawmakers centered on both the left and right wings have curbed the use of such imaging as an invasion of privacy. They call it “strip-search” imaging.

Chaffetz’s co-sponsor was Democratic U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. To make her case, the New Hampshire liberal displayed large photos of naked figures as examples of what whole-body imaging shows.

In the wake of the recent near-disaster, Congress has turned its focus on the security officials who did not heed several red flags the terrorist should have raised, including a warning from his father. Congress should also investigate its own penchant for grandstanding over matters of utmost national security.

The Chaffetz and Shea-Porter amendment, which easily passed the House, lets the Transportation Security Administration require whole-body imaging only for people who set off metal detectors. Problem is, Abdulmutallab carried plastic explosives, which don’t set off metal detectors. That’s why terrorists like them.

The TSA has tried to explain the considerable privacy safeguards attached to whole-body imaging: The person looking at the pictures sits in a windowless room, and a filter blurs the subject’s face. (Thus, the officer has no idea whether the body belongs to Pamela Anderson or one of many millions of similarly built women on this planet.) The images cannot be stored or retained. And any passenger may decline whole-body imaging in favor of a pat-down.

Last September, Chaffetz accused TSA officers of trying to force him into a whole-body-imaging machine at the Salt Lake City International Airport. The details of what really happened remain unclear. But the argument didn’t end before Chaffetz whipped out his business card to show what a Very Important Person the officers were messing with.

Chaffetz holds that he was being harassed over his vote against letting TSA workers join unions. Many Republicans regard unionization as one of the more pressing issues facing the national security apparatus.

Some Republicans, notably California’s Dan Lungren, were vocal opponents of the Chaffetz amendment. “I have been through many, many pat-downs because I happen to have an artificial hip,” Lungren told the House. “Going through this (whole-body imaging) at Reagan National Airport was so much quicker, so less intrusive of my privacy than what we go through now.”

Excellent point. Having someone pat you up and down is a lot more personal than letting an officer in another room who can’t see your face take a quick look at a picture.

But Chaffetz remains obsessed with the voyeuristic possibilities of whole-body imaging. “You can actually see the sweat on somebody’s back,” he said in a shocked tone.

I for one am happy to learn that the technology is that good. But for members of Congress who find it abhorrent, here’s an idea:

Let’s set aside flights without such security procedures for them. We who submit will feel safe – and they can take their chances. In all fairness, their 8-year-old daughters should be allowed to fly with us.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for the Providence Journal.


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