Full-Body Airport Scanners May Not Have Thwarted Alleged Christmas Day Bomber, GAO Says

April 5, 2010 - 9:28 AM
The Government Accuntability Office says that full-body scanners do not consistently detect objects 'comparable' to Umar Abdulmutallab's underwear bomb.

Full-body scanner image. (Photo courtesy Transportation Safety Administration)

(CNSNews.com) – The Transportation Safety Administration has started installing full-body scanners purchased with stimulus funds in airports around the country, but the Government Accountability Office says those scanners might not have detected the underwear bomb that made it onto a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
 
“While officials said AITs (Advanced Imaging Technology devices) performed as well as physical pat down in operational tests, it remains unclear whether the AIT would have detected the weapon used in the December 2009 incident based on the preliminary information GAO has received,” theGAO said in a recent report.
 
That assessment from GAO’s March 17 report on the scanners seems to directly contradict one made by TSA Acting Administrator Gale Rossides last week. She suggested in comments made to CNN that the technology could thwart others like 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to detonate a bomb sewn into his underpants on board Northwest Flight 253 in Detroit.
 
“I think what was so telling about the Christmas Day attack was that it exploited our cultural norms, that we don’t frequently pat down persons in that part of the body. This technology will give us the image of the entire body,” Rossides told CNN.
 
Rossides made a similar statement to the House Homeland Security Subcommittee during testimony on March 4:
 
“Without going into the specifics of that because of the on-going criminal investigation, I will tell you that the experience we have had both in the labs and in our pilots, our officers are identifying objects on the body that are comparable to what that (Christmas Day bomb) threat was,” she said.
 
However, Stephen Lord, director of the homeland security & justice division of the GAO, confirmed to CNSNews.com on Friday that the advanced scanners have not proved to be consistently able to detect objects “comparable” to Abdulmutallab’s bomb -- and that the assessment was based on classified information. 

"We reviewed the testing results, which are classified, and it was just based upon our review of the testing results,” he said.  
 
Rossides, meanwhile, also hedged before the congressional committee when pressed on the consistency of the results from the scanners. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, asked the acting administrator whether they detected the comparable threats “every time.”
 
Without directly answering, Rossides began to say, “Our officers are doing a very good job and the --”
 
Interrupting, Rogers quickly pressed her again, asking, “Every time?”
 
“I’d have to get back to you,” Rossides told him, “but, you know, we don’t -- we have very, very good measures in place for evaluating our officers.”
 
The deployment of the scanners, which are being introduced at major airports including Los Angeles International and Chicago’s O’Hare, was specifically stepped up in response to the Christmas Day attack.
 
The devices use two methods to create an image of the traveler’s whole body: the first, backscatter technology, uses x-rays; the other, millimeter wave technology, “bounces harmless electromagnetic waves off the body to create a black-and-white three-dimensional image,” according to TSA.
 
Photos posted on the TSA Web site show that the scanners are capable of creating detailed images of passengers’ bodies, including genitals. However, concerns about modesty and invasion of privacy have led to TSA assurances that passengers' privacy will be protected. 
 
The millimeter wave technology “blurs all facial features,” the TSA says on its Web site, while the backscatter technology “has an algorithm applied to the entire image.”
 
Despite questions about the efficacy of the devices, TSA plans to install 450 of them in airports by the end of 2010. The machines were purchased with $1 billion from the economic stimulus bill that was dedicated to aviation security projects. According to the GAO, TSA ultimately plans to procure 1,800 of the machines.
 
Each machine costs about $170,000, excluding maintenance and salaries for the new employees who would run them.
 
In the fiscal 2011 budget request sent to Congress last month, TSA requested about half a billion dollars in increases, including $218.9 million to staff the machines installed in 2011 with 3,550 employees.
 
The GAO calculates that staffing the scanners could cost about $2.4 billion over the life of the equipment. The high price tag is due in part to needing three staffers for each device, including one who would be located in a separate room examining the images. TSA assures the traveling public that the officer who screens the body scan images will not see the passengers in person.
 
In light of the new costs, the GAO has suggested that TSA do a cost-benefit analysis comparing greater use of the new body scan machines against the current security screening, which includes pat-downs. The administration has not yet done such a cost-benefit comparison.
 
The TSA however, insists that the scanners are worthwhile. Asked to respond to the GAO’s critique, spokesman Greg Soule admitted in a statement that the machines are not a “silver bullet” but maintained that they “routinely” detect objects like the one Abdulmutallab carried.
 
“While there’s no silver bullet, this technology is very effective at detecting items passengers are intentionally concealing on their body,” he said. “We routinely find prohibited and illegal items on passengers, which illustrates our ability to detect items concealed under clothing – such as explosives.
 
“Advanced imaging technology safely screens passengers for metallic and nonmetallic threats including weapons, explosives and other objects concealed under layers of clothing without physical contact to help TSA keep the traveling public safe,” Soule said.
 
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the source of the funding for the original wave of body scanners, was signed into law by President Obama in February 2009. Rossides has told Congress she will make sure TSA’s entire share of the $787 billion will be committed by the deadline at the end of 2010.