Security procedures need reform

Victor Hugg

Earlier this month, the Transportation Security Administration – an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – instituted a new set of procedures wherein all airline passengers and flight crews are required to be thoroughly screened. The imposition of strict regulations under the semblance of airport security is far from a novel concept for those who have boarded an airplane in the last 10 years.

On Dec. 22, 2001, Richard Reid – colloquially known as “the shoe bomber” – attempted to blow up a plane flying from Paris to Miami. Today, travelers have to remove their shoes before proceeding through scanners. The TSA states that the ban on liquids, aerosols and gels “was implemented on Aug. 10 after a terrorist plot was foiled.” Known as “the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot,” terrorists planned to detonate liquid explosives on planes traveling from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, I was flying back to the United States from Panama on that very day and witnessed first-hand the confiscation of travelers’ water bottles. Today, the TSA only allows up to 100 milliliters of “non-flammable liquid, gel or aerosol paint” to be in your carry-on.

On Dec. 25, 2009, a Nigerian citizen by the name of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – referred to as “the underwear bomber” – attempted to ignite plastic explosives hidden in his underwear while on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Today, travelers must pass through a full-body scanner, a device that essentially looks through clothing in order to discover hidden objects, thus creating a nude image of someone. If you decide to opt-out from the scan, you will be subject to a pat-down that is – as the New York Times put it – “a far more invasive form of procedure,” in which “women’s breasts and all passengers’ genital areas are patted firmly.”

John Tyner, a software programmer who, at the San Diego International Airport, famously told a TSA agent, “If you touch my junk I’m going to have you arrested.” He now faces a potential $10,000 civil fine for violation of airport security regulations. This type of response from our government, in the name of safety, is outrageous. Even though these attacks failed, the bombers still succeeded in terrorizing us. In addition, it seems the TSA is always one step behind the terrorists, implementing policies only after a new type of attack has been attempted. More focus should be given to human intelligence, not screening. From a safety perspective, discarding liquids (because they could be explosive) in a bin that is immediately adjacent to where hundreds of people are wrapped around in lines makes no sense. Indeed, long lines are a common sight at time-consuming security checkpoints; a terrorist could simply walk up to the unsecured bottleneck and detonate a bomb.

Privately-held companies are getting rich off of our tax dollars thanks to belligerent fear-mongering. According to the USA Today, “The companies with multimillion-dollar contracts to supply American airports with body-scanning machines more than doubled their spending on lobbying in the past five years and hired several high-profile former government officials to advance their causes in Washington, government records show.” Lobbying data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show that “L-3 Communications has sold $39.7 million worth of the machines to the federal government.” They spent “$4.3 million trying to influence Congress and federal agencies during the first nine months of this year, up from $2.1 million in 2005.” Another manufacturer of the body scanners, Rapiscan Systems, has spent $271,500 on lobbying so far this year, compared with $80,000 spent in 2005. As a result, the U.S. government has spent $41.2 million with Rapiscan.

An interesting tidbit: Last year, Rapiscan hired Michael Chertoff, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush and co-author of the Patriot Act. Chertoff is a well-known proponent of using body scanners to “foil terrorism.” Seems like an effective way to profit: Use high-level government position to hype up fear, propose a solution, convince the government to use that solution, leave government position and join a company that sells your solution.

We have to ask ourselves: Is there a demonstrable improvement in security by using these scanners? The burden of proof lies with the government, and I have yet to be convinced. Are there any long-term health risks associated with a millimeter wave scanner or backscatter X-rays? The U.S. government continues to assert that any health risks associated with the radiation from the body scanners are negligible, yet many prominent physicians and scientists disagree (notably, biochemists and biophysicists at the University of California, San Francisco).

Read the stories of rape victims suffering flashbacks after going through a TSA checkpoint. Consider the notion that a man can be threatened by his own government with lawsuits and thousands of dollars in fines merely for expressing a desire to not be fondled. Look at the numerous photographs and videos of nuns, old ladies and wheelchair-bound individuals being patted-down. The goal of any terrorist organization is to instill terror within the minds of its enemies. We, as a nation, are allowing this egregious invasion of privacy to stand, all in the name of “keeping us safe.” Either we continue to let the terrorists win, or we demand that the TSA rethink and immediately reform their outlandish policies.