Failed Christmas bombing casts spotlight on security at airports

The failed Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airplane is already forcing lawmakers to consider spending more money on security technology.

The U.S. Travel Association, representing the travel and tourism industries, on Monday encouraged lawmakers to hold a comprehensive debate on so-called “whole body imaging” technologies as well as on additional canine security.

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“We must find new screening techniques that strengthen security, protect privacy and reduce wait times and other hassles for travelers,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the association.


Congress will hold hearings in January on the incident and President Barack Obama on Monday ordered a review of airport screening policies and the government’s watch-lists for airplane passengers.

Advocates for whole body imaging technologies and screening of passengers said the debate has been too dominated by privacy considerations.

“We need to become a whole lot more skeptical of claims that privacy is always a good,” said Stewart Baker, a former Homeland Security official in former President George W. Bush’s administration.

He said the use of better technologies coupled with screening systems would make it much tougher for al Qaeda to pull off attacks on airlines. Baker also argues that whole body imaging is less intrusive than the alternative: stepped-up pat-downs by Transportation Security Administration personnel.

The explosives allegedly carried by the man accused of trying to bomb the flight into Detroit last week weighed about three ounces and could have been placed in a plastic sandwich bag and taped into a standard lightweight bra, Baker wrote on his blog, skatingonskilts.com. 

“OK, now let’s roleplay TSA,” Baker wrote. “Are you really going to pat down every passenger there and there – and carefully enough to distinguish a baggie from a fashion accessory or an anatomical feature?”

The House passed an amendment in June on a 310-118 vote that would ban “whole body imaging” technology as the sole or primary screening method in airports.

The legislation, which garnered a broad array of liberal and conservative supporters, would also require that passengers be offered pat-downs in lieu of the scanning machine. Republicans and Democrats favored the measure, including leaders in both parties.

“Whole body imaging may or may not be a panacea for security and travelers, but one thing that is clear is that this technology has not received the necessary analysis to determine if it can significantly strengthen security and improve travel facilitation,” Dow said.

Mike German, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said he expected security companies to lobby for additional contracts from the government.

“I’m sure it’s a great marketing opportunity for some companies. But I think if someone looks into the technology there are questions about whether it addresses the threat,” German said.

Stewart Verdery, a former Homeland Security official who is now a partner of the Monument Policy government relations firm, said that by not using whole body imaging the government is “leaving reasonable tools on the shelf.”

Verdery’s clients include the travel association.

Howard Rubel, a research analyst at Jefferies & Company, said the attempted bombing was a “near statistical non-event” but that it could lead to additional business.

In August, the Department of Homeland Security awarded $240 million from the $787 billion stimulus package for baggage screening systems at 10 airports. General Electric, L-3 Communications and Reveal Imaging Technologies produce those technologies.

Also already under debate is the government’s watch-lists for potential terrorists.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said the Transportation Security Administration has failed for eight years to develop reliable watch lists.

“These failures are not only exasperating, they are mind-boggling,” Mica said. German said Congress is “long overdue” for a debate on the watch-lists.