Would full-body scanners have stopped the Christmas bomber? Probably not

by Charlie Leocha on January 5, 2010

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I can hear the masses beginning to beat the drum of whole-body scanners. TSA and other law enforcement groups surely must be pleased to see this yearning to be scanned spread by the uninformed knee-jerk media, liability-averse airport operators and pliant politicians. I have three words for American citizens — don’t believe them.

This technology will not save you.

I have had the opportunity to see the millimeter-wave technology scanner in operation at Washington-Reagan Airport. I was scanned and I had an opportunity to step into the small video viewing room manned by a single TSA officer.

Imagine a room about 5-feet by 5-feet, a big telephone booth really. Then line one wall 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 and the images spinning were black and white. This is the work environment of the human part of the TSA whole-body scanners.

For me a half-hour shift in this cell would be 30 minutes alone in hell.

I had to ask the operator of the scanner monitor to stop the spin on the image and to enlarge the image to get a good look at what I was examining — the back of a woman’s bra. Only with careful observation can one see the details of the hooks, stitching and stretch fabric, not to mention the wrinkles on the woman’s back.

These whole-body-scanning machines reveal an amazing amount of detail, but only something that looks very out of place would ever be expected to set off an alarm in the TSA viewer’s mind. To really get a look at something, the operator would have to enlarge small areas and scrutinize them. This all takes time and slows down the airport operations.

While we may have time to use these machines on every person passing through security, we do not have the time to scrutinize each of these images in the few seconds allotted for analysis. Humans simply cannot work that way.

Imagine the pressure of analyzing bodies on this small 17-inch video screen — tiny image after tiny image, every 15 seconds — only for 15 minutes. I am sure you can believe that this solitary sentry’s eyes will glaze over. Mine would.

Worse, the repetition of human bodies with different weights and shapes — fanciful clothing and varying exotic undergarments, senior citizens wearing Depends mingled with women with sanitary napkins and babies in diapers … you get the idea — make it impossible for anyone to sit in a 5×5-foot booth with the best technology in the world and make sense of the images spinning in front of him or her.

The human being viewing each of these millimeter scans is expected to view and carefully analyze (let’s take a guess) four or five images a minute. We humans are not wired that way. We need time to process what we are seeing.

For heavens sake, highly-trained radiologists spend far more time examining x-rays and cat-scans, without the time pressure under which TSA-trained operatives are expected to make instant decisions.

We are fools to believe that this technology will help our security in any way. It is simply one more indignation to be endured, saddled on society by senseless bureaucrats trying to cover their collective asses by exposing ours.

We are wasting our money and our time. We are shedding our clothing and our dignity in the name of an unreasonable and unreachable goal of total safety through technology. We are destroying our sense of liberty, privacy and individualism on the stage of security theater.

Terrorists carry guns and bombs made of metal, so we install metal detectors. Then they decide to load shoes with explosives, now we take off our shoes. Next, the underwear bomber lines his drawers with powdered explosives, so we now search for a machine that strips us naked. Soon, a bomber will walk through security with a grenade wedged up his butt, invisible to whole-body scanners. I hate to imagine the next stage of violation we will face when trying to board an airplane.

It is time to start our security process with a search for the bad guys before they get to the airport, before they pack plastic explosives into their backpack and head to the train station, before they cock their weapons outside of gasoline stations.

By focusing on the theater of airport security and rationalizing away the need for better intelligence, we as a nation will not be able to make headway in our battle against terrorism.

Fighting these barbarians at the gates of our airports is too late.

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  • john

    So Charlie … Since you don’t want to use the only technology that would have stopped the bombing (your own pictures abovew show how non-flesh objects are highlighted due to their different density), how do you propose to stop the next bomber (some vague stopping them before they get to the airport plan doesn’t work. What’s your plan? How many agents? located where?)? Or, would you prefer to just continue complaining as the next plane blows up?

    If you can’t deliver a detailed alternative plan, let the people that know security do their job. How about you decide to be part of the solution instead of the whining?

  • Bea

    Excellent. Thanks for exposing the poltroons, cowards and slaves.
    Abolish the TSA. These rejects have ruled us for too long.

  • Hapgood

    The thing to note is that the scanners are a POTENTIAL improvement in security that MAY increase the ability of screeners to detect a terrorist armed with a hidden bomb. However, that POTENTIAL improvement comes at a price that some may consider very high, in terms of dollars as well as a significant loss of privacy and dignity. The amount and effectiveness of that improvement is inherently limited by all the factors you note. The TSA’s very dubious track record of ineffectively using whatever tools they have gives little reason to believe that they’re even capable of making the most effective use of full body scanners.

    Such arguments will never stop the TSA’s juggernaut, especially since the underwear bomber has fortuitously come along and drowned out the reasoned objections with a noisy blast of fear. The TSA was born in fear as a costly, intrusive, and mindless response to a cascade of failures, most of which occurred nowhere near any airport. And after seven years, the system that failed on 9/11 continues to fail in much the same way.

    The only “improvement” is that the government now has a facile way to quickly cover their exposed posteriors when failures occur. They can respond by punishing all travelers, by making the security theater even more troublesome and intrusive. That probably doesn’t do anything useful for security, but it’s faster and easier than addressing the failures of a ponderous bureaucracy. If the security theater creates enough visible hassles, it will convince enough of the public that the government is on top of things. That’s the main reason for the scanners, and it’s certainly enough justification for the TSA to foist them on us as soon as possible even though they’re unlikely to provide much actual security.

    The only thing we can do about this deplorable situation is refuse to fly, whenever that’s possible.

  • john

    So Charlie upon rereading your note … It seems that you would support the complete abolishment of any security at the airports and on airplanes. Since we’re going to stop the terrorists before they get there and the current security has holes in it anyway (screeners miss things), there’s no reason to spend the money to keep airports and airplanes secure.

    Am I correct in that is the new position of ConsumerTraveler?

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/leocha Charlie Leocha

    Security checks at the airport and intelligence work hand in glove. Our current systems make it difficult for anyone to bring explosives onto planes. The job of airport security is to do just that. With 9/11, we learned that the terrorists practiced dozens of times going through airport security to see what was allowed and not allowed. Not one of the terrorists involved brought anything forbidden aboard as far as we know. Our system failed when there was no intelligence to note a heightened alert.

    With the Christmas bomber, the security system forced the would-be bomber to bring an explosive device aboard in pieces and attempt to assemble it once aboard the aircraft. Our airport security worked to the extent that he could not bring an assembled bomb aboard.

    If intelligence collected had been forwarded to the counterterrorism center and handled properly, this terrorist would have been thwarted.

    The would-be liquid bombers were stopped by proactive intelligence. That’s where we should focus.

    Stripping us naked is not the solution.

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  • ertdfg

    “john January 5, 2010 at 9:25 am

    So Charlie … Since you don’t want to use the only technology that would have stopped the bombing”

    Well John the next one will have explosives in a body cavity. Are you willing to supbmit yourself and all your relatives (children included) to a full body cavity search every time you fly?

    If you have no limits fine; explain that you’d let your 5 year old daughter get a cavity search from a stranger. If you do have limits, why are you so shocked that someone else’s limits might be a bit different than yours?

    Full cavity search is the only way to stop explosives in a body cavity, these scanners don’t see through you; so you’re good with “the only technology that would have stopped the bombing”? Or do you now have a problem with security?

    Or do you have a detailed alternate plan to know if I’ve got explosives up my butt or if I just ate a burrito earlier? Without an alternate plan I have to assume you’re good with hiring the unsupervised TSA goons (some of who have already been charged with child molestation off the job) with giving cavity searches to children.

    You know, for safety and stuff. I mean the TSA has done so well we should trust them. Look at all the terrorist they’ve caught before getting on planes… there was… um… shoot… er… NOBODY.

    Shoe Bomber, underwear bomber, on the plane… but trust them this time they’ll do better? Just let them scan you naked and grope you and your kids?

    I’ve got a simple answer to that. NO!

  • Len

    john,
    are you asking “how do you propose to stop the next bomber”?
    Ahhh…, how about CIA start listenning THE FATHER OF THE GUY – HE CALLED SEVERAL TIMES TO WARN THEM THAT HIS SON IS ON SOMETHING??!!! Ahh, john?!
    You are a not a human been any more if you agree trade your liberty to this [false] security. You are cattle in the slaughter house.

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