All Commentary
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why Whole-Body Imaging Won’t Work

Every time the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) fails to protect aviation, as it did when it allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a plane Christmas Day, it punishes passengers with further restrictions and humiliations. Now the agency wants to virtually strip-search us with whole-body imagers. These gizmos peer through clothing to the skin beneath so that we appear naked on the monitor.

Even passengers who most fear terrorism might object that exposing ourselves to government agents is too high a price for safe skies. It’s also ineffective. Whole-body imaging, like all technology, ultimately relies on human operators – like the ones who missed the many and obvious signs that Abdulmutallab was planning more than a fun-filled vacation in Detroit.

The TSA already subjects your carry-on bags to X-ray scanning that penetrates the “skin” to show what’s beneath. Yet screeners routinely fail to discern the guns, knives, and other contraband their monitors show. Sometimes undercover federal investigators are smuggling those weapons to test screeners; other times, passengers who’ve forgotten the pistol or ammunition in their knapsack turn themselves in when they reach their gate. Expecting screeners who overlook the hunting knife beside a paperback novel to find the explosives taped near a woman’s… Well, let’s just say the distractions of whole-body imaging are considerably greater than anything in the average carry-on.

The TSA continues to insist that it protects our privacy even as it virtually strips us naked. But its spurious fig leaves may work against the success of its peep-show. The agency’s website assures us that “The officer who views the image is remotely located, in a secure resolution room and never sees the passenger.”

Journalist Charles Leocha of Consumer Traveler had an opportunity to step into the small video viewing room manned by a single TSA officer” at Reagan National Airport. He estimates the space as measuring “5-feet by 5-feet, a big telephone booth really … one wall [was lined] with a table with a monitor, keyboard and communications equipment and a government-issue desk chair. The monitor being used had about a 17-inch screen…..” He concludes that fatigue will be an even bigger occupational hazard than distraction: “For me a half-hour shift in this cell would be 30 minutes alone in hell.”

Still, the TSA should have no shortage of eager applicants. Being paid to view naked men, women, and children certainly reverses the usual arrangement and will no doubt appeal to a great many folks – the sort Leviathan otherwise locks up. In Britain the Guardian reports that “Ministers now face having to exempt under 18s from the scans or face the delays of introducing new legislation to ensure airport security staff do not commit offences under child pornography laws.” How long until American parents demand similar exemptions? And when they do, will that rescue the rest of us from our compulsive strip-tease since terrorists would then naturally recruit kids? Or will the TSA continue to humiliate us out of bureaucratic inertia and power-lust?

There’s a far simpler, constitutional, and less offensive way to protect aviation than photographing two million passengers in their birthday suits each day: Free the airlines from the federal government’s stranglehold on security. Let each company determine what works best for its routes, customers, and specific risks. Does anyone seriously believe that politicians and bureaucrats know more about securing planes than pilots and executives who’ve spent their lives in the industry? Even baggage handlers could give Congress a lesson in preventing terrorists from hiding bombs in checked luggage – yet the Feds dictate to them instead.

Indeed, federal regulations enabled the 9/11 attackers to kill Americans in the first place. Screeners working that tragic day were “private,” it’s true, but only in the sense that private companies hired them and issued their paychecks. Everything those screeners did, from wanding passengers to confiscating knives while permitting box-cutters, came from the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) playbook. Had each airline set its own policies, had it relied on serious security rather than the charade that satisfies political pretenses, 3,000 people might be alive today.

Returning responsibility for protecting its customers and inventory to the airlines also keeps everyone happy. Passengers who will rest easy only when we all fly naked can patronize See Everything Airways, with its motto No Place to Hide…Anything. Those who prize dignity and convenience over safety may prefer Tough Guy Air, where pilots not only arm themselves but also welcome passengers to pack heat as well. Since profits nosedive after any attempted skyjacking, let alone terrorism, airlines have all the incentive we could ask to institute practical, effective security.

The government failed to prevent 9/11, failed to thwart shoe-bomber Richard Reid, and failed to intercept Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Isn’t it time we entrusted our safety to professionals rather than politicians?