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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 Elizabeth FullerCorrespondent / November 19, 2010

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.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP


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:

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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.”

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.


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