Firms' lobbying push comes amid rancor on TSA use of airport full-body scanners

As holiday travel ramps up, so does controversy over body scanners and pat-downs at the nation's airports.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010; 12:00 AM

The companies that build futuristic airport scanners take a more old-fashioned approach when it comes to pushing their business interests in Washington: hiring dozens of former lawmakers, congressional aides and federal employees as their lobbyists.

About eight of every 10 registered lobbyists who work for scanner-technology companies previously held positions in the government or Congress, most commonly in the homeland security, aviation or intelligence fields, a Washington Post review of lobbying-disclosure forms and other data shows.

Industries routinely employ well-connected lobbyists to seek favorable legislation and regulations in the nation's capital. But the extent of the connections to the federal government is particularly notable given the relatively small size of the scanner industry, which is dominated by half a dozen specialized businesses with heavy investments in airport and border security technology. On K Street as a whole, by contrast, only about one in three lobbyists has previously worked in government.

Many of the scanner companies are also on pace to spend record amounts of money for lobbying this year on Capitol Hill, where they see potential problems as some lawmakers push for limits on airport-security practices. Top scanner businesses have reported spending more than $6 million on lobbying this year, records show. That doesn't include industrial giants such as General Electric, which also dabbles in scanning technology and has spent more than $32 million on lobbying this year.

The stepped-up lobbying efforts by the industry come amid growing rancor on Capitol Hill over the Transportation Security Administration's use of airport full-body scanners, which are undergoing their first widespread deployment during the holiday travel season.

The devices have come under fire from privacy and civil liberties advocates as ineffective and overly invasive because they generate revealing images of passengers.

The agency has purchased nearly 500 of the cutting-edge scanners - at $200,000 or more each - and plans to buy thousands more, meaning that any restrictions would pose a major threat to the industry's bottom line.

Faced with that threat, the industry made a strong lobbying push over the past two years to help derail any proposed limits, including legislation aimed at restricting or banning the use of full-body scanners by the TSA.

That came after the House stunned the industry last year by overwhelmingly approving a bill by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) prohibiting the TSA from using body scanners as primary passenger-screening tools at airports.

The vote prompted a frantic scramble by scanner lobbyists to halt the measure in the Senate, according to legislative aides and others familiar with the battle. The effort was bolstered by the failed "underwear bomber" plot last December, which hastened calls for increased scanner use.

The industry took a creative approach to selling the controversial technology on Capitol Hill. One of the largest suppliers of scanners to the TSA, L-3 Communications of New York, rolled the equipment onto Capitol Hill this year to show lawmakers and legislative aides how the newfangled machines work. The chief lobbyist for another company, California-based Rapiscan Systems, had a body scanner installed in his Crystal City office for demonstrations.

Chaffetz, who has been named incoming chairman of a House homeland defense subcommittee, said in an interview that the underwear plot undoubtedly helped stall his proposal in the Senate. "On Capitol Hill, nobody wants to be seen as soft on terror," he said.

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