Public outcry over heightened airport security checks, fueled by viral videos of small children being frisked and of a man warning a TSA agent, “Don’t touch my junk,” made the scanner and pat-down controversy fodder for late-night television comedians.
“It’s another very bad decision by TSA coming home to roost,” said Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), who said he will use his new role as chairman of a House Oversight subcommittee to scrutinize the agency. “It’s another disappointing chapter, and the taxpayers are going to take it on the chin.”
Mica estimated that when TSA training and the cost of replacement machines are factored in, the cost will run to “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The machines, in use at the Washington area’s three major airports, caused a furor when they went into service in 2010 because of the revealing images they transmitted to backroom TSA surveillance personnel and because people who refused to submit to them were subject to a thorough frisking.
A vocal, infuriated minority of Americans pressured the Obama administration and Congress to find a less-intrusive method for trying to ensure air safety. Pistole was called to Capitol Hill but remained stalwart, insisting that the scanners are necessary in the defense against inventive terrorists obsessed with attacking aviation.
Most people surveyed in two 2010 polls said they agreed with Pistole: 81 percent in a CBS poll and nearly two-thirds in a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
When Pistole refused to budge, Congress appended legislation to a transportation bill requiring the TSA to develop less-revealing software for its machines.
The agency was successful in developing that for one type of scanner, the kind that looks like a glass closet and uses millimeter wave technology. Eighteen months ago, the TSA began equipping those machines with laptop-size screens that display a cookie-cutter image of the human form.
If a passenger is cleared by the scan, the screen flashes green with an “OK.” If suspicious items are detected, boxes outlined in red appear on generic front and back silhouettes to show their location.
But the agency had no success in creating similar software for 250 machines — 174 of them in service and 76 in warehouses — that use X-ray backscatter technology.
With the deadline looming and seeing little promise that the software was on track, Pistole canceled the contract in a letter delivered Thursday to Rapiscan, the Arlington company that developed the machines and was responsible for coming up with a software fix. A TSA spokesman said Rapiscan would pay for removal of the machines from airports by May 31.