Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Airport Body Scanners, Conflicts of Interest, and New Polling

While I do want to tackle some other privacy issues here I feel there's still more for me to do on this topic...because let's face it, the issue is hot right now. Before I get to a compilation by Alternet of the 5 worst passenger pat-down experiences to date as well as op-ed's by both Ralph Nader and Thom Hartmann on the subject, I'd like to make a larger point on the growing anger directed towards TSA agents themselves.

Namely, I want to separate myself - in no uncertain terms - from what has become a right wing effort to turn this issue into yet another vitriolic assault on Obama, public employees, and the government in general.

For one, these scanners were authorized by President Bush, not Obama (though clearly I wish the President will see the light and stop using them).

Second, in NO WAY do I want to play a part in the growing hostility being directed at individual TSA workers. The right wing has long been trying to demonize public employees, using disinformation and scare tactics to do so. The primary reason is public employees happen to be the last remaining bastion of union membership. So I want to be clear, that while there are obviously some TSA agents that are abusing their positions, the larger point is that its the POLICY that's the problem, not public employees.

Third, I don't support privatizing airport security - which is what this whole assault on government and public employees is really about. Let's face it, this is a perfect issue to use to reinforce the right wing frame that all government is bad. But I would ask do we really want more Blackwaters? Do we really want corporations seeking to profit off fear running airport security? Why would anyone think their policies would be any better? In fact, at least government is accountable, on some level, to voters. Corporations aren't. And god knows we've seen how poorly privatization of other commons has turned out.

Now, with that said, it should be no surprise that there continues to be a constant slew of stories (some exaggerated I might add) of passenger indignities resulting from these aggressive pat downs. For the complete stories go here. But briefly, those are:

1. TSA agent feels around inside woman's underwear
2. Man has to board plane covered in urine
3. Cancer survivor forced to remove prosthetic breast
4. Agents search half-naked 5-year-old child
5. Pants pulled off senior citizen on his anniversary

Growing Influence of the Security Technologies Industry

I am pleased that Michael Chertoff, Former Department of Homeland Security, and his connection to these scanners is finally getting more press attention. Here's the scoop, Chertoff is now head of the Chertoff Group, the lead cheerleader for the Full Body Scanner Lobby.

Ever since the Christmas Day Bomb Scare, he's been making the rounds championing these scanners as a way to detect hidden explosive devices. A few days after making these press rounds the Washington Post revealed that Chertoff represents Rapiscan - a manufacturer of these full body scanners. The problem of course was that Chertoff neglected to mention this fact to a scared shitless American public...even as he shilled for a machine that wouldn’t have stopped Abdulmutallab (underwear bomber) anyway.

Within days, Chertoff’s client received an astonishing $173 million to manufacture and install these machines in airports across the country, again, a
fact he wasn't making known in ANY of the interviews.

As Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org, which opposes the use of the scanners noted at the time, "Mr. Chertoff should not be allowed to abuse the trust the public has placed in him as a former public servant to privately gain from the sale of full-body scanners under the pretense that the scanners would have detected this particular type of explosive."

Rapiscan has already sold 150 full body scanners to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with a price tag of $25 million. By the way, the original orders for body scanners were made in 2005, during the Bush administration when Chertoff was still head of Homeland Security.

On that note, let me second what Thom Hartmann wrote today:

"As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote on February 17, 1775 in his notes to the Pennsylvania Assembly, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

If we are serious about stopping Middle Eastern zealots from attacking us, instead of blowing up our own Fourth Amendment right to be secure in our persons, let's stop blowing up Middle Eastern countries. When the Obama administration pulls our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and works hard to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, then I'll believe our government really cares about our safety.

Until then, it's just theatre - with a few millions in profit for Chertoff and his friends. Michael Chertoff? Come over here and bend over, please."

But back to the lobbying power and influence of this burgeoning industry. At the start of this year the Washington Examiner ran down a list of all the former Washington politicians and staff members who are now part of what it calls the "full-body scanner lobby". This included:
  • One manufacturer, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is American Science & Engineering, Inc. AS&E has retained the K Street firm Wexler & Walker to lobby for "federal deployment of security technology by DHS and DOD." Individual lobbyists on this account include former TSA deputy administration Tom Blank, who also worked under House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
  • Chad Wolf -- former assistant administrator for policy at TSA, and a former aide to Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., a top Senate appropriator and the ranking Republican on the transportation committee -- is also lobbying on AS&E’s behalf.
  • Smiths Detection, another screening manufacturer, employs top transportation lobbying firm Van Scoyoc Associates, including Kevin Patrick Kelly, a former top staffer to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who sits on the Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee. Smiths also retains former congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.
  • Former Sen. Al D’Amato, R-N.Y., represents L3 Systems, about which Bloomberg wrote today: "L-3 has ‘developed a more sophisticated system that could prevent smuggling of almost anything on the body,’ said Howard Rubel, an analyst at Jefferies & Co., who has a ‘hold’ rating on the stock."
James Ridgeway of Mother Jones makes an important point on this too, stating, "Airport security has always been compromised by corporate interests. When it comes to high-tech screening methods, the TSA has a dismal record of enriching private corporations with failed technologies, and there are signs that the latest miracle device may just bring more of the same."

And it doesn't stop there. The CEO of one of the two companies licensed to sell full body scanners to the TSA accompanied President Barack Obama to India earlier this month.

Clearly these connections are paying off as the number of scanners jumped from 40 at the start of this year to 373 installed at 68 airports across the USA as of last week,” reports USA today. “The TSA is scheduled to have deployed 500 scanners, which cost roughly $170,000 each, by Dec. 31, and a total of 1,000 by the end of 2011.

Understanding who's behind these machines and what their motives might be for promoting them is critical - because it strikes at the heart of our burgeoning surveillance state. Thanks to a great post by Robert Cruickshank today, I want to include two other insightful ways to view this whole "digital strip search" or "grope" issue.

Digby writes:
That's why this is security theater. We are chasing phantoms by pretending that if we stop people from carrying a bottle of shampoo on an airplane that we are safe. If you are so scared of terrorism that you're willing to throw logic out the window and subject yourself to ever more irrational safety procedures for no good reason, you'd better think twice about ever leaving your house. That, of course, is exactly the point of terrorism. And authoritarian police states.

And Melissa McEwan takes issue with the blithe dismissals of concerns about sexual assault at the hands of the TSA:

there are practical and valid objections being made by people with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities, and survivors of sexual violence....Those millions of people are not just potentially "inconvenienced." Being triggered does not mean feeling hassled or being annoyed or having your feelings hurt or getting upset. It means experiencing a physical and/or emotional response to a survived trauma, having a significantly mood-altering bout of anxiety. Someone who is triggered may experience anything from a brief moment of dizziness, to a shortness of breath and a racing pulse, to a full-blown panic attack.
With that, let's get to my featured article today by none other than consumer rights champion Ralph Nader. Nader writes:

The technology has already been challenged by recognized academic specialists on both safety and efficacy grounds. After six months of testing at four major airports, Italy is likely to drop these scanners, finding them ineffective and slow. The European Commission has also raised "several serious fundamental rights and health concerns" and recommends less-intrusive alternatives.

Back in the USA, the legal volleys have begun. Two weeks ago, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research center, filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Department of Homeland Security. The suit alleges violations of the Fourth Amendment, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act and the Administrative Procedure Act (which calls for public hearings).


The department says full-body imaging is aimed at prevention. If so, why do passengers on the 15,000 U.S. registered business aircraft escape screening? Why, nine years after 9/11, is the department still way behind in the screening of air freight on passenger and cargo planes, where far more dangerous packages can bring down a plane?

For more than 40 years, public interest groups have been advocating for airline safety. After the numerous hijackings to Cuba in the late 1960s, we and air security experts pressed the Federal Aviation Administration to require airlines to strengthen cockpit doors and latches — to no avail. It took the 9/11 attacks before the FAA required the airlines to retrofit. Stonewalling, long a bureaucratic obsession in these areas, must end. A good start would be addressing these uncertainties:
  • Radiation: Homeland Security should respond when physics professor Peter Rez of Arizona State University calculates the radiation dose to be 10 times higher than the department is asserting. Or when David J. Brenner of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research says that using these scanners — with up to 1 billion whole-body X-ray scans per year in the U.S. — "may profoundly change the potential public health consequences to the population."
  • Malfunctions. John Sedat, one of four scientists at the University of California-San Francisco who is questioning the department's technical assertions, said these machines could stall, giving passengers "severe burns if not worse." He points out that "software fails often."

One area in which I agree with Secretary Napolitano: Cooperation of the public is key to averting attacks. So it seems counterintuitive to antagonize the very people you're counting on to help you get the bad guys. Meantime, Homeland Security is turning TSA agents, who are at some radiation risk themselves, into government gropers without either suspicion or probable cause. People want security, but they do not like irrational, ineffective, invasive and hazardous over-reach.

DHS continually refuses to hold thorough public hearings or to answer reasoned technical, economic and other policy challenges to its practices. Congress must assert its authority to end what one TSA risk analyst has called its "culture of stupidity."

Click here to read the rest of the article

With that, let me point you to my article from last week published in the California Progress Report entitled "A Hobson's Holiday Travel Choice: Digital Strip Search or Get Groped?"

I should point out that we are starting to make some progress, as a new Washington Post poll shows that half the American public opposes the controversial enhanced pat-downs and that almost two thirds of Americans – down from 80 percent earlier this month - support the scanners.

For actions to take, as I point out in my piece, "You can sign Firedoglake’s petition to investigate the TSA, EPIC’s petition urging suspension of the use of these machines, and join the Facebook page “Stop Airport Strip Searches”. Then, on November 24th, if you do choose to fly, and don’t mind the delay or the pat down too much, Opt Out of using the scanners." And, the ACLU has joined the fray, sign their petition here.

1 comment:

Leonard said...

Thank you for this essay, it exposes the sham of the National Security State in all its shameful abuse of power. You also provide sources and context which elevate the article above mere conjecture or assertion. The information confirmed my embedded belief with your intelligent articulation that our government is bowed down by a swarm of individuals who mingle greed and power with public service, to the decay of our land, country, and government.