GAO says airport body scanners may not have thwarted Christmas Day bombing

By Spencer S. Hsu
Thursday, March 18, 2010

President Obama's push to deploy body-imaging scanners at airports will cost U.S. taxpayers roughly $3 billion over eight years, congressional investigators report, but it is unclear whether the controversial devices would have caught the man who allegedly tried to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner with explosives hidden in his underwear.

The administration has cited the Christmas Day bombing attempt, with which alleged al-Qaeda terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is charged, in pushing to double its planned deployment of scanners at U.S. airports by 2014, when it hopes to have 1,800 of the machines in place. It also has cited the case to encourage foreign governments to use the same new technologies at airports that send flights to the United States.

"In the never-ending race to protect our country, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary. That's what these steps are designed to do," Obama said Jan. 8 in announcing increased aviation security and screening measures.

The machines create images outlining the unclothed human body by bouncing X-rays or radio waves off skin or concealed objects. But security experts say the advanced imaging technology, or AIT, has limits: The "backscatter" rays can be obscured by body parts, may not readily detect thin items seen "edge-on" or objects hidden inside the body, and require a human operator to decide whether to conduct additional questioning or a physical search.

"While officials said [the scanners] performed as well as physical pat downs in operational tests, it remains unclear whether the AIT would have detected the weapon used in the December 2009 incident," the Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm, said Wednesday in written testimony to the House Homeland Security Committee.

Abdulmutallab allegedly hid 80 grams of explosive powder in a pouch sewn into his underwear.

GAO official Steve Lord told the panel that the Transportation Security Administration should conduct a new cost-benefit study before deploying the scanners.

The audit agency said the TSA estimates that each unit costs about $170,000, meaning it would cost about $300 million to buy 1,800 units, enough to cover about 60 percent of screening checkpoint lanes at the highest-priority commercial airports. Each scanner requires three people to run it. Based on the administration's request for $219 million to hire 3,550 TSA staffers next year, the GAO estimates it will cost $2.4 billion overall to staff the machines over eight years.

TSA spokeswoman Kristin Lee said the agency has conducted a cost analysis and determined that scanners are better than existing alternatives, including metal detectors and machines that check swabs of people's hands or belongings for traces of explosives. The TSA said the machines boost the odds that security officials will detect anomalies in a fraction of the time and inconvenience that pat-down searches take.

"While there is no silver-bullet technology, AIT is very effective at detecting metallic and nonmetallic threats on passengers, including explosives," the spokeswoman said in a statement.

Privacy groups oppose the machines, saying they amount to electronic strip searches whose images are prone to abuse. The Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety, which includes the European Commission, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization, suggested this year in an internal report that, although the radiation dose is extremely small, pregnant women and children should not undergo scanning.

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