WASHINGTON — After 23-year-old Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a flight from the Netherlands to Detroit last Christmas with enough explosives to bring down the plane, officials at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport decided to build a better mousetrap.
So they installed more than a dozen full-body scanners capable of detecting metallic and non-metallic materials, including explosives, gels, powders and liquids.
In the 11 months that the devices have operated, Schiphol largely has avoided the privacy and safety uproar that surrounds passenger screening at U.S. airports on the eve of the holiday travel season.
Ironically, the Dutch can credit their relative success to good 'ole American ingenuity: the kind that the Department of Homeland Security is now considering.
Unlike the backscatter imaging devices that provide revealing body images and which have stoked concerns about radiation, the system at Schiphol uses radio waves to detect contraband.
The Woburn, Mass., firm that manufacturers the system, L-3 Communications Security & Detection Systems, claims on its website that the radio waves are "10,000 times lower than other commonly-used radio frequency devices."
If the software identifies a passenger carrying explosives, an outline of the problem body area is displayed on a generic mannequin figure instead of on the actual image of the passenger's body. The mannequin image, which appears on the operator's control panel, "can then be used by security personnel to direct a focused discussion or search," the company website reads.
The "automatic threat detection" system dubbed "ProVision ATD," sells for $40,000 to $150,000 and doesn't use ionizing radiation or X-rays.
In May, the Transportation Security Administration ordered 200 of the less-advanced ProVision systems to screen passengers at U.S. airports. These units don't feature the "automatic threat detection" capability that can highlight parts of the body without generating actual images. But TSA has contracted with L-3 to develop software upgrades that could provide that capability for the agency's 200 units.
It's unclear how soon the updated software will be made available, but it should go a long way in eliminating the current controversy.
On Wednesday, in testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, John Pistole, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, acknowledged that the new target recognition imaging was "the next generation."
"The only concern I have about that is there are currently a high rate of false positives on that technology, so we're working through that," Pistole testified. "But we are currently testing that today. We have been for several months."
He was responding to concerns voiced by three Republican senators that the DHS was slow to update its equipment. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said in an April letter to Janet Napolitano, the DHS secretary, that the new technology "appears to be superior to the whole body screening technology that is now being installed at U.S. airports."
Pistole said Wednesday that a number of companies are developing and refining new imaging devices and techniques to counter the growing terror threat, but the kinks are still being worked out. He said that false positive readings for contraband result in more pat-downs. "So we're trying to stay away from that," he added.
According to the TSA, airport security has detected more than 130 prohibited, illegal or dangerous items this year thanks to the new scanning equipment. And more than 99 percent of airline passengers choose the imaging technology over alternative screening methods.
But that hasn't stopped a growing backlash among passengers, pilots and privacy and safety advocates, who feel the new imaging systems are intrusive, unhealthy and just plain uncomfortable.
On Wednesday, Pistole admitted the pat-downs have been more aggressive. But children under age 12 are exempted from the searches, he said.
Adults, however, are another story. And Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., told Pistole Wednesday that he doesn't like the stepped-up hand searches.
"I've seen them firsthand in airports in Florida. I wouldn't want my wife to be touched in the way that these folks are being touched," LeMieux said. "I think that we have to be focused on safety, but there's a balance."
This week, the Rutherford Institute, a conservative civil liberties group, filed a federal lawsuit against Napolitano, DHS and Pistole, on behalf of two airline pilots who refused to undergo the whole-body screening. The suit seeks to ban DHS and TSA from "continuing to unlawfully use" the imaging technology and enhanced pat-downs.
"Forcing Americans to undergo a virtual strip search as a matter of course in reporting to work or boarding an airplane when there is no suspicion of wrongdoing is a grotesque violation of our civil liberties," said a statement from Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead.
But the daughter of a woman who died in the Sept., 11, 2001, terrorist attacks called for more patience from the flying public.
In a statement Wednesday, Carrie Lemack, whose mother, Judy Larocque, was aboard American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center's North Tower, challenged those critical of airport safety personnel.
"I feel obligated to implore all those opposing aviation security measures to instead propose alternatives to ensure the safety and security of the flying public. Simply complaining about current aviation security tactics is not enough. To deny the evolving threat we face is foolish."
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