Are you one of the millions of Americans flying this Thanksgiving weekend? Are you thinking about joining the national protest to opt-out of being run through an airport X-ray scanner?
If you’re worried about the alternative–getting groped by TSA screeners at the checkpoint–you might consider this: The government insists those back-scatter X-ray machines are perfectly safe, but many scientists disagree.
It’s not just a matter of some puerile TSA screeners giggling at your naked body. In a letter to John Pistole, administrator of TSA, New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, a physicist and the Chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, raises the possibility that the machines might be carcinogenic. He writes:
In March, the Congressional Biomedical Caucus (of which I am a co-chair) hosted a presentation on this technology by TSA, as well as a briefing by Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University on the potential health effects of “back scatter” x-ray devices. As Dr. Brenner noted in his presentation and in subsequent media interviews, the devices currently in use and proposed for wider deployment this year currently deliver to the scalp “20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry.”
Dr. Brenner has pointed out that the majority of the radiation from X-ray backscatter machines strikes the top of the head, which is where 85 percent of the 800,000 cases of basal cell carcinoma diagnosed in the United States each year develop. According to Dr. Brenner, excessive x-ray exposure can act as a cancer rate multiplier, which is why our government should investigate thoroughly the potential health risks associated with this technology.
Various experts have questioned whether older people and children ought to be subjected to scanners, and whether people susceptible to or having melanoma and cataracts should undergo the scan.
Last April, four California scientists–biology and medical researchers–in a letter to the White House, warned that there had been no independent research done into the safety of backscatter X-rays, with the government relying entirely on the industry’s own claims of safety. They also said that the TSA’s claim that the X-rays were less dangerous than an ordinary chest X-ray were misleading because the dose isbeing calculated for the whole body, while in fact the entire X-ray is focussed on the skin of the body, which receives a much higher dosage–one they warned could lead to potentially serious cancer risk.
Holt, meanwhile, also questioned the efficacy of the body scanners, which would come as no surprise to critics who’ve been lambasting them for years. Last January, when the government’s appetite for body scanners got a big boost from the underwear bomber, there was skepticism about their ability to detect the types of explosives favored by would-be airline bombers. As I wrote at the time:
Known by their opponents as “digital strip search” machines, the full-body scanners use one of two technologies—millimeter wave sensors or backscatter x-rays—to see through clothing, producing ghostly images of naked passengers. Yet critics say that these, too, are highly fallible, and are incapable of revealing explosives hidden in body cavities—an age-old method for smuggling contraband. If that’s the case, a terrorist could hide the entire bomb works within his or her body, and breeze through the virtual strip search undetected. Yesterday, the London Independent reported on “authoritative claims that officials at the [UK] Department for Transport and the Home Office have already tested the scanners and were not persuaded that they would work comprehensively against terrorist threats to aviation.” A British defense-research firm reportedly found the machines unreliable in detecting “low-density” materials like plastics, chemicals, and liquids—precisely what the underwear bomber had stuffed in his briefs.
Nuclear physicist Prof. Peter Rez of the Arizona State University says that the backscatter device is notoriously bad at spotting liquids or semi-liquids, which is exactly what explosives like C-4 or plastique are. Moulded to blend smoothly with the skin, he said, such explosives, even on the outside of the body, would be virtually indistinguishable from flesh, especially on a person with folds of skin on the body.
Just to be sure I am not going off the deep end on this subject, I emailed Steve Elson, the intrepid former Navy Seal who worked on the federal government’s Red Team, which was deployed in the years before 9/11 to test airport security by infiltrating through check points. This they did with ease; but no one ever paid any attention to their reports. Since 9/11 Elson has worked on and off with television crews, continuing to penetrate airport security carrying with him all manner of guns and IEDs, and for the most part avoiding detection. In a CBC program last year at this time, the Canadians reviewed the air security situation and found it to be wanting. The reporters also got hold of a redacted report from the Canadian transport people which raised questions about the effectiveness of full body scanners, especially when they are used in combination with metal detectors: A person passing through one machine after another would have to place their arms in different positions and the Canadians found the body scanners would fail to detect objects like rings or bracelets on extended arms because the mechanism could not reach high enough to take them in.
The Washington Post recently carried a list of people exempt from body scanning, including cops and military in uniform. (They might have added members of Congress. Republican House Speaker-apparent John Boehner, on a commercial flight recently, simply walked around the device, and ducked both the zapping and the groping.) I asked Elson about the exemptions, and he replied:
When I was traveling through Chicago last January on my way to Toronto to do an interview, I had some time between planes. Got a sandwich. No place to sit down so I literally walked into the back of a checkpoint that was enclosed by glass so everyone could see what was going on, sat down on a bench and ate my sandwich, and watched. No one touched the pilots. Ergo, all I needed was a pilot’s uniform, bought or stolen, and a photoshop badge. Put explosives on my body, no metal, walk through, pick up my stuff and off to the plane. Likewise, I could do something similar on the ramp. Best time is in cold weather and snow storms. Do it as night approaches. People don’t care about security, just getting the job done and getting out of the weather. Steal a bag tag, make an unauthorized entry (no problem), walk up to a plane and throw it in with 50 lbs explosive.
Elson has always contended that the body scanner couldn’t detect explosives in body cavities. In his email he added this: “The machine can see through a thin layer of clothing and probably detect explosives strapped to the body.” But he pointed out that Leslie Stahl on “60 Minutes”worried about exposing private parts, but noted she could see a woman’s bra. “If she could see the bra, that means she could not see through the bra. A bra bomb or explosives molded to the breast wouldn’t be seen,” he continues. “And a woman, because of her anatomical construction, could easily… bring a several pound IED fully assembled with timer, detonator, power sources right through the checkpoint. If scanned or patted down it would make no difference. Once on the plane she has the option to leave it in the plane…and get off.” Ellison warns that a well planned Al Qaeda operation, “if they did it right, could knock down 50 planes in 30 minutes. Think about what that would do to US air operations.”
In my opinion, the best answer to airport security is the mass deployment of dogs. Give me a friendly German Shepherd, and I’ll gladly submit to being sniffed, rather than patted, wanded, or scanned. But unlike the scanner companies, dogs have no powerful lobbyists, like former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, to advocate on their behalf.
James Ridgeway, an occasional columnist for ThisCantBeHappening!, is senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones Magazine. For 30 years he was Washington correspondent for the Village Voice. He has his own blog called Unsilent Generation