- Becky Akers
Campaign for Liberty -
"We were very lucky this time," quavers Joe Lieberman, the supposedly independent senator from Connecticut dedicated to defeating Israel's enemies with American lives and money. He was speaking of Northwest Airlines' Flight 253 and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt at self-immolation thereon. Joe waved his cowardice proudly, rallying Nervous Nellies to his standard: "[B]ut we may not be so lucky next time, which is why our defenses must be strengthened. . . .why isn't whole body scanning technology that can detect explosives in wider use?"
Well, for starters, because it's completely, indubitably, diametrically unconstitutional. Alas, most Americans, particularly those elected to Congress, shrug at the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of "unreasonable" searches (and searches don't come any more unreasonable than "whole body scanning," during which the Transportation Security Administration's [TSA] screeners photograph you naked, right through your clothes, at airport checkpoints).
Still, the Constitution isn't the only treasure these X-rated X-rays assault. Dignity and modesty also sustain knock-out blows -- and you needn't be a prude to think so. The American Civil Liberties Union is hardly a bastion of bashfulness, yet it denounces whole-body imaging as "a significant -- and for some people humiliating -- assault on the essential dignity of passengers that citizens in a free nation should not have to tolerate." Meanwhile, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) compared such scans "to a 'virtual strip search' for all air travelers . . . The level of detail uncovered [is] akin to a disrobing in public: the images seen by the screeners reveal the outlines of nipples and genitalia."
Yet the TSA insists that this is the price passengers pay for safety in the skies. Politicians and the media have picked up the cry in the wake of the Briefs-Bomber: they, too, babble that we die unless we expose ourselves. Are they right? Or are there other agendas?
The tale of the TSA's whole-body imaging is as sordid as it is cynical. Though the agency pretends these smutty scanners are a recent, revolutionary weapon in the War on Terror, it's actually been trying to push us into them since 2002. The story offers a case-study in the power-lust and dishonesty that typify the not only the TSA but government in general.
The TSA employs two technologies that photograph through clothing. One is millimeter-wave imaging; proponents (which is to say the TSA and the manufacturers) insist these non-ionizing waves are totally safe for human tissue. And Marie Curie never dreamed the nifty isotopes she studied would one day kill her, either.
The other technology, backscatter X-rays, are as carcinogenic as they sound. They may be a weaker version of the X-rays your dentist or doctor orders -- the ones for which they cover you with a lead apron and flee the room -- but they are ionizing all the same. Even bureaucrats and politicians ought to know better than to unleash an insult this toxic on us; the Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence and Security advises, "X raying of passengers... has...been out of the question due to the negative health effects.... At beam intensities high enough for rapid imaging of travelers, x rays would significantly increase long-term cancer risk. Fetuses and infants are especially vulnerable.... some health physicists argue that frequent flyers and women who are pregnant but do not yet know it might still receive unacceptable cumulative doses from backscatter systems."
No matter. The TSA seems never to have considered, much less studied, whole-body imaging and its effects on the public's health. In fact, its website ignored the issue until recently, though now it justifies irradiating us by asserting, "We, and all objects around us, generate millimeter wave energy - and we are exposed to it every single day. Backscatter technology uses low level X-ray and a single scan is the equivalent of two minutes of flying on an airplane."
Then the TSA helpfully and hilariously lists "Domestic locations" for "Other Advanced Imaging Technology deployments." These include the "Department of Corrections facility (PA)[,]. . . Montana State Prison[, and the] Utah State Correctional Facility." Now you know why you feel like a prisoner at the airport.
The power whole-body imaging gives jailers over inmates explains why the TSA loves this dangerous and invasive technology as much as passengers loathe it. The TSA has never been about security: screeners routinely miss weapons in tests -- and, as the Briefs-Bomber proved, in real life. Instead, they prey on passengers, robbing and beating them; one man has even died at the TSA's hands. Were our rulers genuinely trying to protect us, they would abolish the agency. But they prize the TSA because it boosts their power -- the raw, physical power of a police state.
Governments throughout history have wanted to search their subjects -- and they've usually done so with impunity. Searches flex the State's muscle in a few ways. First, they uncover things governments forbid mere peasants to own, whether those things are weapons that could be turned against rulers; pamphlets urging rebellion, Bibles, the Koran or George Orwell's Animal Farm; drugs, homemade alcohol on which no tax has been paid, or imports that undersell protected domestic industries. Other contraband simply offends official whims: the American EPA frowns on certain fuels while chewing gum enrages Singapore's dictators. Being able to search anyone at any time allows a government to find and confiscate whatever it doesn't like while punishing those who dare defy it.
The State reaps another enormous benefit: the humiliation of a search horrifies so deeply that folks seldom protest anything authorities do. Instead, they cower. They try never to draw attention or stand out from the crowd. Above all, they do nothing to invite retaliation from officials. Fear keeps them compliant and accepting regardless of the other abuses their government dishes out. Exhibit A: the downcast eyes and subservience to screeners' orders, however ridiculous or immoral, in checkpoint lines.
No wonder the TSA has ceaselessly tried to foist whole-body imagining on us. From the start, it yearned to scan every passenger on every flight (and ultimately, anyone who ventures into public, judging from its hopes of expanding to mass transit). Nor has it quailed at fibbing, and fulsomely, to achieve that goal. It was barely up and running before it began its campaign at Orlando International Airport. That was within months of 9/11, but even with catastrophe fresh in their minds, and despite the TSA's grotesque "choice" ("either we photograph you naked, or we'll grope you in a full pat-down"), passengers balked at flashing their flesh for government's agents.
So the TSA lied. It denied its ambitions to scan all passengers on all flights; rather, each time it installed the technology at another airport, it demurred that it was only a test.
It also denies that the scans are graphic, instead claiming that "the images are cartoonlike sketches that show only outlines of each passenger . . .. 'There's a privacy-security balance,' spokeswoman Ellen Howe said. 'We can see what we need to see without seeing what we don't need to see.'"
The agency scoffs at worries that screeners would stockpile scans showing what they don't need to see. According to spokesperson after spokesperson, images "are never stored" or "saved." No less a charlatan than Edmund "Kip" Hawley, then the TSA's boss, declared, "Privacy is ensured through the anonymity of the image: it will never be stored, transmitted or printed, and it will be deleted immediately once viewed." Amy Kudwa, yet another spokesperson, went him one better: not only "won't" screeners save scans, they "cannot": "The machines 'have zero storage capability, so the images cannot be stored, transmitted or printed. . .'"
Unfortunately for Amy, manufacturers brag about their machines' storage as a selling point. (Or did. Rapiscan Systems lists "FAQ's" on its website. Number 10 is, "Can the Secure 1000 images be saved?" Indeed, they can -- easily: "If saving images is enabled then the images acquired with the system can be saved on the system's hard disk or transferred to floppy disk for training and legal documentation. The stored images can be recalled and viewed on the system monitor or on any IBM compatible personal computer with color graphics." Intriguingly, though "FAQ #10" still appears in the list of questions, the answer no longer does -- at the TSA's request?)
Kip's claim that screeners won't save images is as mendacious as Amy's that they can't. Though the TSA's website now promises that "all machines are delivered to airports with [the store, print, transmit or save] functions disabled," who's to say someone somewhere won't figure out how to override that? The website also claims screeners "are not permitted to take cameras, cell phones or photo-enabled devices into the resolution room" -- just as they're "not permitted" to actually strip-search women in stairwells. Yet they did so at Washington's Reagan National Airport in 2004 while supervisors cheered them on.
Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU is far more realistic than Kip and Co. "As this technology becomes commonplace, you're going to start seeing those images all over the Internet." They'll "have high commercial value" -- especially "when a celebrity like George Clooney or someone with an unusual or 'freakish' body goes through the system." And why not? Manufacturers shouldn't be the only ones to profit from our nudity.
The TSA also maintains that we aren't really naked if its voyeurs can't clearly see our faces: "millimeter wave technology blurs all facial features and backscatter has an algorithm applied to the entire image." We're supposed to drop our inhibitions because "The officer who assists the passenger [sic for 'orders him into the scanner'] never sees the image the technology produces," while "The officer who views the image is remotely located, in a secure resolution room and never sees the passenger." In the best Orwellian tradition, the TSA assures us that this "further protect[s] passenger privacy" even as it strips us naked.
Finally, the TSA played its trump. It posed a false dichotomy that the corporate media obligingly parroted: screeners will either grope us or photograph us naked. This trap continues snaring too many passengers. Yeah, they say, they'd rather be ogled than molested. But there's a third option: abolish the TSA.
The agency's deception and doublespeak failed to fool passengers into performing a strip-tease. And so, in 2007, the TSA rolled its obscene contraptions into a handful of airports nationwide despite the opposition. This time, it stayed mum rather than boasting about how its new toy vanquishes terrorists by photographing our bare bodies. In fact, it didn't even post signs at checkpoints explaining the gizmos and their capabilities, and the only warning on its website was misleadingly mild: "Millimeter wave detects weapons, explosives and other threat items concealed under layers of clothing without any physical contact. It is a promising alternative to the physical pat-down." Naturally, unwitting passengers "preferred advanced imaging technology. In fact, over 98 percent of passengers who encounter this technology during TSA pilots prefer it over other screening options [sic for "pat-downs"]." That's testimony to our hatred of the TSA's groping, not endorsement of its virtual strip-search.
By April 2009, Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) had famously decided that "Nobody needs to see my wife and kids naked to secure an airplane." His bill restricting the TSA's use of whole-body imaging to "secondary screening," i.e., only those passengers the TSA has "selected" for "additional screening," had passed the House and awaited the Senate's vote. But wait: "experts" swear whole-body imaging would have caught the Briefs-Bomber! And so Chaffetz sighed, "You know [the legislation] passed in the House with overwhelming support on both sides of the aisle, but you know I think the Senate will be very reluctant. And I understand why."
Don't we all. So the TSA will capitalize on its incompetence at stopping the Briefs-Bomber by fulfilling one of its most cherished dreams: humiliating all passengers on all flights.
It's almost too convenient.