Get Ready to Strip At Reagan National

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Unless you're a porn star, you may want to avoid flying out of Reagan National Airport. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is introducing millimeter wave scanners at its checkpoints there and other airports nationwide.

Millimeter waves bring Superman's X-ray vision out of the comics and into the concourse. Passengers step into a booth whose cameras peer through their clothing to photograph the body beneath. The pictures then appear on a monitor that is, as the TSA puts it, "remotely located." The agency assures us that the screener watching the monitor never sees the passenger in person -- as if that excuses the peep show. And a peep show it is: "These machines, which show detailed images of a person's naked body, are equivalent to a 'virtual strip search,' " says the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). "The image resolution . . . is high so the picture of the body presented to screeners is detailed enough to show genitalia." Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union marvels at the government's double standard: "If Playboy published them, there would be politicians out there saying they're pornographic."

Children, expectant mothers, devout Christians, Jews, Muslims -- anyone scanned is virtually stripped. The ACLU adds a new wrinkle to the worry over nudity: "Passengers . . . should not be required to display highly personal details of their bodies such as evidence of mastectomies, colostomy appliances, penile implants, catheter tubes and the size of their breasts or genitals as a prerequisite to boarding a plane."

EPIC and the ACLU are not alarmist. Even the equipment's manufacturer admits that "you can see the threats, but you can also see quite a bit of people's anatomy." No wonder prisons use millimeter waves to search inmates -- which tells us all we need to know about the TSA's view of passengers.

Currently, only passengers the agency selects for the infamous "secondary screening" are scanned naked, and they can "choose" a pat-down instead. But the TSA isn't shy about its plans to virtually strip all of us every time we fly. James Schear, the TSA's federal security director at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, said, "It's the wave of the future." He told USA Today that "the scanners could eventually replace metal detectors at the nation's 2,000 airport checkpoints."

The TSA's checkpoints have been delaying passengers for six years now. With roughly 720 million "emplanements" every year, the TSA has searched almost 4.5 billion fliers. No screener anywhere has found a single terrorist. That's because terrorism is one of life's most improbable dangers. In fact, it's so remote that the National Safety Council only calculates how likely we are to die from "war and other sequelae" -- and in 2004, Americans ran a mere one in 10,487,744 chance of becoming such a casualty. By contrast, those who climbed into a car stood one chance in 19,216 of traveling in a casket next. Anyone who moves is an even greater daredevil: walking, climbing stairs or rolling over in bed makes your odds of dying from a fall one in 15,614.

Forcing passengers to disrobe electronically because of terrorism's tiny risk exposes the TSA as our real enemy. It's time to send this agency packing.

-- Becky Akers

New York

The writer is working on a book about the TSA.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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