Lawmakers jump late into airport-scanner uproar
Federal lawmakers and others in the travel industry have been aware of TSA's plans for full-body scanners at airports for a long time. So why are they just now jumping on the bandwagon?
Seattle Times staff columnist
New full-body scanners and pat-down procedures at U.S. airports are raising a hue and cry among travelers, pilots and flight attendants taken by surprise by the Transportation Security Administration's decision to put so many new changes in place during the busy holiday travel season.
What's hard to understand is the hue and cry coming from federal lawmakers and others in the travel industry who have been aware of TSA's plans for a long time.
With the blessing of Congress, the Department of Homeland Security and TSA began installing the scanners in airports more than a year ago.
By last January, 40 were in place at 19 airports. And after lawmakers gave the go-ahead following the attempted terrorist Christmas Day attack by a Nigerian man who hid explosives in his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, TSA moved ahead with the purchase of the 385 scanners in place today at 68 U.S. airports, paid for with federal stimulus funds.
Passenger rights, electronic privacy and civil liberties advocates raised plenty of red flags at the time, but their concerns fell mostly on ears clogged with information from what became known in Washington, D.C., circles as the "full-body scanner lobby."
Among the most alarming revelations was the role former Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff played in advocating for the controversial backscatter scanners made by a California-based Rapiscan Systems, a client of his consulting firm, the Chertoff Group.
Those scanners, which produce revealing body images and emit X-ray-like ionizing radiation, are among the more controversial of two systems in place.
About half the scanners, including 14 installed at Sea-Tac, are backscatter machines The others are millimeter wave machines, considered less risky because they use electromagnetic waves to produce a 3-D body image. Both types are designed to detect concealed metallic or nonmetallic object hidden under clothes that could pose a threat.
Given the furor that's developed, you'd think lawmakers would have raised more questions. Yet until a week ago, there were but a few lone voices making the case for more study.
The Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center led with a lawsuit, questioning health risks, raising privacy issues and even questioning how effective the scanners are in thwarting a terrorist threat since they can't see inside body cavities.
"We tried for several years to get the Homeland Security department to have a real discussion with the public," said Marc Rotenberg, the privacy center's executive director. "They basically ignored us and, in some respect, I think they're paying a bit of a price for that right now."
When TSA began testing a new, more invasive pat-down procedure at the Boston and Las Vegas airports, the American Civil Liberties Union weighed in, posting a place on its website for travelers to report their experiences.
Now everyone's jumping on the bandwagon.
U.S. Representatives John Mica and Tom Petri Friday called for a review of TSA's pat-down procedures.
"The outcry is huge," Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison told the TSA administrator, John Pistole, at a Capitol Hill hearing earlier this week. "We've got to see some action."
Where was Hutchison early last August when Senator Susan Collins, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, sent a letter to Janet Napolitano and Pistole asking for a review of the health effects of full-body scanners on travelers, TSA employees and airline personnel?
The letter, also signed by Senators Tom Coburn, R-Okla. and Richard Burr, R-N.C., asked the department to explain why it "continues to purchase this technology when legitimate concerns about its safety appear to remain unanswered."
I wondered where Washington State senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell stood on Collins' concerns, so I contacted their offices last August around the time TSA told me that Sea-Tac Airport would soon get the body-scanners.
I didn't get a response at the time, but when I contacted their offices again this week, their spokesmen got back to me right away, albeit with vague responses.
Murray's spokesman Matt McAlvanah said the senator would be contacting the TSA and Homeland Security officials to urge them to give the public better guidance "on what is currently a confusing transition process," as well as working to ensure that there be independent reviews of the health effects on passengers.
Maria Cantwell's communications director, John Diamond, said she was traveling to Washington Friday, and "experiencing the new security measures firsthand."
Beyond that, he said "intends to work with the Department of Homeland Security to find that right balance between security and privacy with respect to its airline security measures."
The U.S. Travel Association, a business trade group representing hotels, tour operators and others, launched YourTravelVoice.org where travelers can go online and report their experiences and opinions with the new security screening.
This seems useful, but it would have been more useful if the group had not waited until Wednesday to launch the site.
With TSA's plans to barrel ahead with installation of as many as 1,800 scanners by 2014 at a cost of $234 to $300 million, the horse has left the barn — and the backlash has been huge.
The usual Internet-chat hysteria has led to loaded accusations of "digital strip searches" and "sexual groping" guaranteed to incite fear, panic and confusion among travelers during what is already a high-stress travel time of the year.
The number of comments from travelers posted on the Electronic Privacy Information Center's website (www.epic.org) shot up this week from a few hundred to several thousand, Rotenberg said.
This morning, his group filed another lawsuit, asking that Homeland Security make public the medical studies it relied on before deploying the body scanners.
The Airline Pilots Association wants federal agencies to create an exception for pilots who otherwise will have to through the scanners frequently. The Council on American-Islamic Relations wants special consideration given to Muslim women wearing the hijab. Ralph Nader and members of the Libertarian Party have become odd bedfellows, each urging their followers to refuse the scans, or not fly at all.
Communication has been poor when it comes to questions about children flying alone, people with disabilities, medical devices and health issues that require them to avoid radiation, even in small doses.
TSA only recently changed its website to reflect the use of body scanners, and the need to remove wallets and everything else from pockets — not just items that might set off a metal detector.
Still missing is information on the pat-down procedure for children, which spokesmen have described as "modified," leaving parents to imagine for themselves what that might mean.
The result: Chaos this holiday season. Why is anyone surprised?
Carol Pucci's Travel Wise column runs Sundays in The Seattle Times travel section and online at www.seattletimes.com/travel. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter updates https://twitter.com/carolpucci
About Travel Wise
Carol Pucci's column is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', she'll cover everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture.
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