TSA body scanners: safety upgrade or stimulus boondoggle?

Many Americans will get their first look at the TSA's body scanners at airports around the US during the Thanksgiving holiday.

By , Correspondent

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    An airline passenger undergoes a full-body scan at O'Hare International Airport on Nov. 17. That TSA body scanner, like all 385 currently deployed in American airports, was purchased with stimulus funds.
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Starting Friday and extending through the next 12 days of the Thanksgiving weekend, some 1 in 10 Americans will take to the skies to travel. As they cram into busy airports, many of them will come face to face with one of the most visible products of the federal government’s $787 billion stimulus package:

New airport scanners that effectively look under passengers’ clothes.

Lauded by some as a big step forward in detecting concealed weapons and explosives, the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) units have come under increasing fire in recent days as too invasive. Critics call them “virtual strip searches” and “Nude-O-Scopes.”

Recommended: TSA screenings: What protections do you have?

On Friday, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced pilots would be exempt from the scanners and the even more invasive alternative: a full pat-down. Also on Friday, two Republican congressmen expected to head the House Transportation Committee and its aviation subcommittee released a letter demanding that the full pat-downs be restricted.

With 385 AIT scanners now working in 68 of America’s largest airports as primary, not secondary, screening instruments, the Thanksgiving travel season will give many of America’s 24 million airline passengers their first look at the technology and a chance to decide for themselves.

Are the scanners a wise investment of tax dollars that makes air travel safer – or a costly boondoggle that has invaded travelers’ privacy?

The TSA received more stimulus funding than any other single agency, company, or organization: $1 billion for aviation security. Most of that money was allocated to screening checked baggage. But $266 million went toward improving checkpoints by acquiring five types of screening equipment: chemical analyzers; explosives detectors; bottled-liquid scanners (which should allow passengers to carry water and shampoo through security checkpoints); enhanced X-ray scanners for carry-on bags; and the AIT scanners.

The first three scanners cost between $30,000 and $50,000 apiece. The X-ray machines cost anywhere from $70,000 to $200,000. The AIT scanners cost close to $170,000 each.

The stimulus money didn’t initiate the scanner upgrade. Instead, it sped up the deployment of a program that was severely behind schedule and over budget.

In 2002, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated that all five kinds of scanners would be at full capability by December 2009. But in a June 2010 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that TSA hadn't even "begun acquisition activities" for the four types of scanners that screen materials. As a result, the timetables have been pushed back. According to current estimates from DHS, the bottle scanners should be fully functioning by June 2011, and all the other scanners by June 2015.

The deployment of AIT scanners was also severely delayed. TSA had planned to have 114 new scanners in airports by the end of March, but instead had seven. The fact that some 385 AIT scanners are now operational – and another 100 are expected to be in place by the end of December – is almost entirely due to the boost from the stimulus money.

The program is also over budget. Originally estimated at $2.6 billion, the life-cycle costs for all five kinds of scanners has ballooned to $4.3 billion, the GAO reported. So what was originally a seven-year plan is now a 13-year plan with almost $2 billion in overruns.

TSA is using two kinds of AIT scanners – one uses millimeter-wave technology, the other uses X-ray backscatter detection – to achieve a similar result: a pale outline of a naked human form, against which guns, C4 explosives, or other high-density contraband stands out in sharp relief, no matter how skillfully they've been concealed beneath clothing. Low-density materials, like plastic or liquids, are harder for the machines to detect.

The TSA claims that Advanced Imaging Technology has detected more than 130 illegal items, but won't say what they are. Some were known to be weapons, including knives and box-cutters, but more were illegal drugs.

In March, then-acting TSA administrator Gale Rossides announced that TSA had requested $573 million to purchase another 500 machines and to staff, operate, and maintain the new and existing scanners.

“At about 1.8 million passengers going through checkpoint screening a day – 650 million passengers a year – the annualized, full cost of purchasing, installing, staffing, operating, supporting, upgrading, and maintaining the first 1,000 units of this technology is about $1 per trip through the checkpoint,” Ms. Rossides wrote in a post for TSA’s official blog. “Is it worth a dollar per passenger in the short term for increased long term security? You bet it is.”

But when the GAO asked the TSA in October 2009 to assess the effectiveness of scanning technologies in reducing the risk of terrorist attacks, the agency couldn't provide a solid answer. “TSA officials ... stated that they expect to develop a cost-benefit analysis and establish performance measures, but officials could not provide timeframes for their completion,” the GAO report said.

To date, the GAO still has not gotten an answer, said a GAO analyst.

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