Top senator defends ‘naked’ airport scanners

2010-11-17 09:41

Washington – The US official leading the introduction of controversial full-body X-ray scanners and body “pat-downs” in US airports defended the practice, insisting they were “the best technology” to protect against terrorist attacks.

Independent senator Joe Lieberman, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security that held a hearing on the issue, was also quick to support the “difficult” and “sensitive” effort, maintaining “it is necessary” to ensure aviation safety.

“This is unfortunately the world in which we live,” Lieberman told the hearing on air cargo security, held in the wake of an attempted cargo plane bombing that originated from an al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Yemen.

John Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), told legislators that he thought “everybody who gets on a flight wants to be sure the people around them have been properly screened”.

Passengers and airline crew members, including pilots, are randomly selected to pass through the scanners.

They have the option of refusing, but would then be subjected to what the TSA calls an “enhanced” manual search that includes a pat-down of a traveller’s private parts.

According to a CBS News poll released yesterday, eight in 10 Americans support airports using the full-body X-ray machines. Some civil rights groups have slammed them as an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.

About 315 “naked” scanners are currently in use at 65 US airports, according to the TSA, and the machines or body pat-downs are “the best technology we have today” to screen individuals, Pistole said.

‘Dangerous levels of radiation’

He also brushed off health concerns that the equipment might expose people to dangerous levels of radiation.

Citing independent studies and research from the Food and Drug Administration, Pistole insisted that going through scanners “is similar to receiving three minutes of radiation that you would receive on a normal (commercial) flight”.

For people who may not wish to receive full-body pat-downs due to religious reasons, Pistole said: “While we respect that person’s beliefs, (if they refuse the pat-down), they won’t be getting on an aeroplane ... no exceptions.”

The TSA first introduced the full-body scanners at US airports in 2007, but stepped up deployment of the devices this year when stimulus funding made it possible to buy another 450 of the advanced imaging technology scanners.

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