WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congressional hearings continued Wednesday into a dramatic overhaul of the nation’s airport security system, which could see the metal detectors at airports across the country replaced by far more costly whole-body imaging scanners designed to see below clothing and which many say would have stopped the attempted Christmas Day underwear bomber before he stepped onto a plane.
According to Bruce Schneier, a Minneapolis-based security analyst, Congress is preparing to spend a “stupid” amount of money in an effort to fix a problem that isn’t broken in an effort to solve an unsolvable problem.
“Assuming these machines are perfect, at best they force the bad guys to make a minor change in their tactics or targets,” Schneier said.
Schneier is a well-credentialed expert — chief security officer at BT, a best-selling author of several books on security, quoted in The New York Times, Washington Post, Forbes and The Guardian. Yet, here he stands, talking at the wind.
About 40 scanners are in place in 19 airports and the Transportation Security Administration wants to expand them to 300 airports this year. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport doesn’t have them, nor has the TSA told MSP that they’ll be getting one as part of this year’s expansion, said Melissa Scovronski, public affairs coordinator for the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
It may just be a matter of time, however, until those security scanners come.
President Obama’s TSA’s Fiscal 2011 budget, released Monday, includes an additional $214.7 million to purchase and install 500 more machines, and another $218.9 million to pay for people to operate them. The budget is a must-pass document that starts with the president’s baseline numbers and moves from there. If a member of Congress doesn’t want something in it — say, an extra 500 advanced-imaging scanners — they’ll actually have to remove them by vote just months after an attempted terrorist attack that these machines might have prevented, and in an election year, no less.
“Combined with the 500 deployments that are already planned through 2010, this appropriation will place this technology in 75 percent of the country’s largest airports,” said Peggy Sherry, acting chief financial officer for the Department of Homeland Security.
All that is to say that, while MSP doesn’t have them now, they almost certainly will.
Some support in Congress
There are two types of advanced imaging machines, but they have a similar effect. The machines can see through clothes to reveal in image of a passenger’s body. One TSA officer guides the passenger through the machine, while another in a separate room views the image. The person looking at the image never sees the passenger live, though the images leave little to the imagination. Passengers who don’t want to go through the machines can opt for a pat-down instead.
According to a Homeland Security official who spoke during a background call with reporters Monday to discuss the budget, the department’s intention is to use them as a primary method of screening, but no final decision has been made.
That may present a problem in Congress, where several lawmakers have already signaled that they’ll oppose the use of such machines for primary screenings — and some balk at using them at all. An amendment to prohibit the TSA from using advanced imaging as a primary search method, as well as require that body images are never stored or transmitted, passed overwhelmingly last June.
Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, Tim Walz, Michele Bachmann and John Kline supported that amendment, which has not yet been taken up by the Senate.
Lawmakers haven’t been officially polled on airport security since the Christmas Day attempted bombing, but they almost certainly will, given the president’s budget request. And if the request changes from primary to secondary screenings, most head-counts predict it will probably pass.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a supporter of using the machines for secondary scans — something she undergoes every time she boards a flight because of an earlier hip replacement surgery. Jess McIntosh, spokeswoman for Sen. Al Franken, said Franken also backs the use of full-body imaging scanners for secondary scans.
But not everyone is on board with the change.
“I think we’ve gone way overboard,” Rep. Collin Peterson said. “I think a lot of what goes on at the airport is for show. It’s almost like we’re harassing passengers so they feel better.”
The slippery slope
Peterson has a point, Schneier said.
The TSA itself was a response to 9/11, created just two months and eight days after hijacked airplanes struck the Twin Towers, Pentagon and what would have been either the Capitol or White House had a group of passengers not overthrown their hijackers in a death and glory charge that ended with a crash in a field in Shanksville, Pa.
Since then, the agency has pursued an evolutionary response to evolving terrorist methods — with the result being tighter and tighter security protocols that proponents say stops the attempted attack from happening again and opponents say simply forces terrorists to make subtle changes to their methods.
After Richard Reid, a passenger on a December 2001 flight from Paris to Miami, tried to explode a bomb hidden in his shoe, passengers were required to take off their shoes and run them through X-ray machines. After a 2006 plot to blow up airliners using bombs made of liquid explosives, all liquids were banned — a policy that has since been retired in favor of the 3-1-1 rule (3 oz. containers of liquid carried in a single quart-sized plastic bag).
Now comes the underwear bomber, and a call for scanners that can see through clothing and find explosives secreted on one’s person. The machines are relatively expensive — walk-through metal detectors approved for use in airports cost less than $10,000 to purchase and install, while advanced-imaging machines typically run somewhere between 13 and 17 times that amount.
“So we’re having the discussion with full-body scanners now, and I’m going to tell you, this is stupid, the terrorists are just going to do something else,” Schneier said. “The terrorists are just going to make a minor change in their tactics or targets.”
“We can’t keep fixing the last thing that happened, we have to fix the problems at the start,” Peterson said. “We can’t be reacting to the last thing, and spending a lot of money, because then the terrorists are winning.”
Peterson, a pilot, would like to see differing security systems at different airports. For example, stringent airport screenings at dirt-runway fields would be impractical, he said.
Consider al Qaeda’s most recent evolution in suicide bombings:
In an effort to blow up a Saudi prince, Abdullah Asieri inserted a pound of explosives and a detonator in his rectum. After passing through metal detectors and spending 30 hours with Saudi security, Asieri was able to detonate the bomb via a cell phone.
The prince survived, mainly because Asieri’s body absorbed most of the blast impact. However, the detonation likely would have been enough to blow a hole in the side of an aircraft. Whole-body scanners would not have been able to detect that bomb. No screening method currently in use could guarantee it could have detected that bomb.
As Schneier says, there’s no such thing as a perfect aviation security solution short of “closing all the airports and bulldozing the runways.”
The point of shoes
Oddly enough, it’s more difficult to clear security in Minneapolis-St. Paul airport than at the U.S. Capitol, or some major global airports like London Heathrow (which, unlike MSP, has direct flights to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). One key difference — shoes can stay on in London or at the Capitol.
“Who cares about shoes?” Schneier asked, saying that taking off one’s shoes is something that looks good but practically doesn’t really do much more than create hassles for passengers.
Given that thesis, I decided to take Schneier at his word. Heading through Baltimore-Washington International Airport on a recent trip to Minneapolis, I resolved to keep my shoes on and just see what happens.
Baltimore-Washington, or BWI, is a first adopter of many of the TSA’s initiatives. It was the first airport at which TSA officers donned their now-customary blue uniform shirts, and it was among the first to get the new advanced-imaging scanners. So it’s fair to say BWI is on the cutting edge, as far as TSA screeners go.
The shoes I wore that day don’t set off the Capitol’s metal detectors, which I have to clear daily for work (often several times a day, given that one has to re-clear security to get from any House office building back to the Capitol proper).
On to the scanner went my laptop, separated from its bag, just as the sign near the conveyor showed it should be. In another separate bin was my winter coat, on top of which I placed my wallet, phone, keys, a pen and some loose change.
I strolled easily through the metal detector and almost past the TSA officer, who just as I was walking past her noticed my shoes. She told me I had to take them off, put them through the scanner and walk through the metal detector again.
“Why?” I asked. “I already cleared the metal detector.”
“That’s not the point,” she said.
Derek Wallbank is MinnPost’s Washington, D.C., correspondent and can be reached at wallbank[at]minnpost[dot]com.