Susan Collins, Delta Shuttle ground TSA scanner argument

Millimeter-wave whole-body imager and so-called backscatter X-ray devices can detect non-metallic objects under a person's clothing.
AP
Millimeter-wave whole-body imager and so-called backscatter X-ray devices can detect non-metallic objects under a person's clothing.
Posted Jan. 04, 2012, at 5:39 a.m.

One of the great joys of flying the Delta Shuttle to Washington, D.C., out of the Marine Air Terminal at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport — oh, what am I saying? There are no joys associated with flying the Delta Shuttle from LaGuardia, or from anywhere.

Let me try this again: One of the small consolations of flying the Delta Shuttle out of LaGuardia is the absence, at the Marine Air Terminal, of the Transportation Security Administration’s patented Let’s-Look-At- Passengers-Naked-While-They-Raise-Their-Hands-Like-We’re- Mugging-Them Machines. (This is not, by the way, how the federal government refers to these devices.)

The TSA deploys two types of advanced passenger- screening machines in U.S. airports: Millimeter-wave whole- body imagers and so-called backscatter X-ray devices, both of which can detect non-metallic objects under a person’s clothing. These very expensive machines are crucial to the TSA’s protocol, which is why it strikes me as strange that the security checkpoint at the Marine Air Terminal goes without one, and instead relies on an old-fashioned metal detector.

On busy days, more than a dozen flights are dispatched from the Marine Air Terminal to Washington’s Reagan National Airport, which, as anyone who has flown there knows, is mere seconds by air from the White House and the U.S. Capitol (as well as TSA headquarters, it should be noted). Why would the federal government not equip this particular terminal with its most advanced machinery? The answer is both banal and telling.

But first, a brief detour in which we try to understand just how important the federal government believes these machines to be. Our guide on this side trip is Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee. Collins is one of the few senior legislators to take a non-prostrate position before the gods of domestic security. She has repeatedly questioned the use, in particular, of the backscatter X-ray machines, which emit low levels of ionizing radiation, which studies have shown increase the risk of cancer. The trade-off between security and personal health — and personal liberty — is one that Collins, to her credit, regularly examines.

“As a frequent flyer, I just cannot believe that it is good for people who are traveling every week, or for TSA employees who are operating these machines, to be exposed to ionizing radiation,” she told me recently. “I’m not asking for weaker security, but it’s almost inevitable that some people are getting stronger doses. Just think about how many machines there are, how many screeners there are. Just think what would happen if the machines weren’t properly calibrated.”

The TSA has long claimed that the radiation absorbed by a passenger in a backscatter X-ray is equivalent to what he would receive in two minutes of high-altitude flying. In other words, inconsequential. Various TSA officials have also said the dose is roughly the same as the radiation absorbed from eating half a potassium-rich banana, though lately, perhaps fearing the wrath of the banana lobby, officials have dropped this particular comparison.

Collins, citing a recent ProPublica story discussing the small, but not entirely negligible, risk that the scans could cause some fliers to develop cancer, asked TSA Administrator John Pistole to conduct a comprehensive study of the potential hazards. Pistole cited numerous studies that suggested the machines posed no risk to passengers, but he promised to conduct another one. Then he backed off his pledge, referencing a new Homeland Security Inspector General report that he said supported previously conducted research.

Collins wasn’t buying it. “John Pistole gave me an absolute promise in a hearing that he would conduct the kinds of studies the Europeans are doing, to analyze the impact of the radiation on children, on pregnant women, on someone who is being treated for cancer or someone with a high cancer risk,” she told me. “I simply cannot believe that this is healthy.”

When I called Pistole, he reiterated his belief that the radiation emitted by the backscatter devices is negligible. And when I asked him the obvious question — why not simply replace the 250 backscatter devices currently employed in U.S. airports with millimeter-wave imagers (there are roughly 300 of these in use), he cited the benefits of competition among technology manufacturers.

“This is the best thing in terms of driving innovation and incentivizing manufacturers to produce the best possible products at the best possible prices,” he said.

Far be it for me to downplay the importance of “incentivizing” manufacturers in the mushrooming homeland- security industrial complex. But it also seems important for the federal government to limit the exposure of Americans to extraneous radiation. I understand — as Collins understands — that the backscatter machine, when properly calibrated, emits only a small amount of radiation. But when I feel a need to be radiated, in the dentist’s chair, or in a CAT scanner, I’d prefer the radiation be delivered by a medical technician, not a low- level federal-security bureaucrat.

On the broader question — whether the American public is being subjected to unnecessary hi-tech probing by a callous federal bureaucracy in the name of a particular security threat that may or may not be relevant any longer — Pistole is adamant: These new machines are indispensable and clearly superior to the technology previously in place.

Which brings us back to the Marine Air Terminal.

Why, of all airport terminals, does this one not have the most advanced screening devices in place? According to the TSA, the answer is simple: The devices are too big. “Space constraints and checkpoint layout” prohibit their installation, a TSA spokesman wrote me. The agency is trying to “work through” the problem, he wrote.

In the meantime, I’m told, the TSA posts undercover air marshals on all flights bound for Washington. But air marshals, of course, cannot detect non-metallic bombs under clothing.

On my last visit to the terminal, a couple of weeks ago, a TSA officer on duty told me that the floor of the terminal would crack under the weight of one of the new devices. So why not hire a building contractor to buttress the floor and expand the size of the checkpoint? He told me that this was a good idea.

So there you have it: The government believes it is in possession of a technology so vital it is willing to dose its citizens with ionizing radiation, but a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks it still hasn’t figured out a way to utilize this technology in one of America’s most sensitive airline terminals. It’s not for nothing that Collins is skeptical of the TSA.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic.

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