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

By Dan Eggen
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.

But the Utah lawmaker, who was first elected to the House in 2008, also said he has been surprised by the strength of the scanner lobby in influencing the views of his legislative colleagues. Chaffetz said he expects continued industry opposition to his anti-scanner legislation, which he plans to reintroduce in the new Congress.

"They put up some big bucks and some big brand names to get their way, but I think the more people learn about the machines the less enamored they are of them," Chaffetz said. "The security threat is real, but there are more effective ways to screen passengers."

Industry officials argue that the complaints about airport body scanners have been overblown and point to polling data suggesting that most travelers do not object to them. Scanning experts say the industry, at the TSA's urging, is rapidly moving toward developing scanners that focus on potential problem areas rather than graphic whole-body images. And they say the current scanners are less intrusive than some alternatives and not subject to complaints about racial profiling.

TSA spokesman Greg Soule said industry lobbying has no bearing on who has won agency contracts, which are awarded competitively on the basis of rigorous performance and reliability standards. He said the use of imaging technologies has led to the discovery of more than 130 prohibited passenger items since the Christmas bombing plot a year ago.

The TSA "continues to research and deploy the latest technology to try to stay ahead of threats, such as those posed by non-metallic explosives," Soule said in a statement. "While there are no silver bullet technologies, imaging technology is a highly effective tool in TSA's counterterrorism arsenal."

In making its case, the industry relies heavily on old Washington hands with powerful connections, according to lobbying-disclosure records and interviews.

The roster of lobbyists for L-3 Communications includes former U.S. senator Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Linda Daschle, a former federal aviation official who is married to Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), a former Senate majority leader. L-3 has won nearly $900 million worth of TSA business, including for its "millimeter-wave" machines used for airport body scans, government records show.

A scanning firm in the Boston area, American Science and Engineering, employs two former TSA officials as Washington lobbyists, as well as former congressman Robert E. "Bud" Cramer (D-Ala.), according to disclosures. The company's recent Department of Homeland Security contracts include $67 million for vehicle screeners at border crossings.

Former homeland security chief Michael Chertoff, a longtime advocate for increased use of passenger scanners, worked until recently as a consultant for Rapiscan, which provides "backscatter" X-ray scanners to the TSA. Chertoff did not register or act as a lobbyist, although he spoke publicly in favor of the technology.

Smiths Group, a London-based business that provides several kinds of scanner machines to the TSA, is opening an office in Washington to step up its lobbying efforts. The company has been awarded $275 million in TSA contracts since the agency's inception, government records show.

The business's 12-member lobbying team includes nine former government officials or congressional aides, according to disclosure records. One Smiths lobbyist, Kevin Schmidt, was a senior legislative affairs official at DHS in the Bush administration. He also worked as a senior GOP staffer on the House intelligence committee under then-Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).

Company officials say that Schmidt is focused on defense issues and does not have regular contact with the TSA or other DHS agencies except for the U.S. Coast Guard. They said former government officials such as Schmidt provide vital expertise for Smiths' Washington lobbying efforts.

"We're a technology-engineering company, so that's our focus," said Brook Miller, vice president of government relations at Smiths. "We don't seek folks with government experience, but it is very helpful, given the maze of government activity, to have someone with that level of experience."

But privacy and civil liberties advocates and other critics argue that the industry's lobbying ties have encouraged a frenzy of TSA spending on technologies that are often untested or ineffective, fueled in large part by fears of a terrorist attack.

A prime example, critics say, was "puffers," precursors to body scanners that sought to sniff passengers for explosives residue. The program was abandoned as impractical after the TSA had spent $30 million on the machines, which were made jointly by GE and Smiths.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog group, predicts a similar fate for full-body scanners. "At the end of the day, a lot of taxpayer money will have been wasted on the body-scanner technology because of the disproportionate role of lobbyists in the policymaking process," he said.

Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the industry has been particularly clever in staging demonstrations of its gee-whiz technology for lawmakers and their aides. The approach allows the firms to gloss over serious flaws in the machines, he said.

"It's important that we do a full examination of how we ended up with body-scanner technology and assure that we are pushing for less invasive and more privacy-protective technologies," Calabrese said.

Peter Kant, the Rapiscan lobbyist with a body scanner in his office, said he doubts that calls to limit or ban the use of the machines will be successful given the security benefits.

"We are spending time educating people on how the scanners work, what they can and cannot do and how they're used," said Kant, a former Clinton administration official and Capitol Hill aide. "There's no real interest in changing their use that I can see. If anything, there's a push to get them deployed even faster."

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