January 22, 2010 | Commentary on Homeland Security, National Security and Defense

Airline Travelers Should Fear Terrorists More Than Full-Body Scanners

Rahm Emanuel said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." And it seems a lot of people in Washington take that mantra seriously. Witness the ferocious debate over the use of full-body scanners in the wake of the Christmas crotch-bomber episode.

The scanning technologies basically allow airport security to look through your clothes to see if anything is hidden underneath. The very idea seems to enrage some, while others appear besotted with the machines. The emotion -- and rhetoric -- are running so high, one suspects the two camps are either ignorant of the legal, testing, and deployment questions surrounding the scanners or they are just playing politics with the issue.

As for those "outraged" by the deployment of the scanners, where have you been since 9/11? These technologies are not new. The Transportation Security Administration has tested and evaluated them for years and given ample opportunity for public comment on how to regulate their use. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees TSA, has even received kudos from the privacy and civil liberties community for the outreach it conducted in developing guidelines for employing the scanners.

Members of Congress and ACLU lawyers have no doubt already stepped through them at one time or another at Washington's Reagan National Airport.

So why is stopping the scanners suddenly a cause célèbre in some quarters? Their righteous-sounding indignation does not bear up well under scrutiny. And the privacy argument seems shakiest of all. If folks truly think the scanners represent an unreasonable search, why didn't they file suit the day the first passenger walked through the machine? One possible reason: There is plenty of case law holding that individuals' right to (i.e., expectation of) privacy is far less when passing through a government security checkpoint than when in their own home. Furthermore, it's hard to argue that a search for bombs hidden in clothing is unreasonable. Richard Reid's shoes and now Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's under­pants have put that argument to rest.

Consider the alternative: a pat down. Since most bombs are hidden in the areas that security officials will feel most uncomfortable touching, an effective pat down requires feeling around the breasts and crotch. Talk about invasive!

Concerns that those scanned would be subject to ridicule are overblown as well. Scanners render faces nondescript. Breasts and genitals are tactfully blurred. The image is seen only by a professional screener, and it is not retained. Sunbathers give away more at the beach.

Arguing that the scanners aren't efficacious doesn't hold up so well, either. They were used during Saddam Hussein's trial so suicide bombers wouldn't sneak into the courtroom. They have been tested extensively by the TSA. Are they perfect? No. But no screening technology is.

Every system has its shortfalls. Bomb dogs tire quickly, and there aren't enough of them to go around. They can't find hidden guns and knives. Additionally, many people are scared by dogs, which can be disruptive. Explosive-trace technologies have limi­tations, too. The detection systems used to swab bags are too slow to allow universal screening. And, like dogs, they're useless for detecting knives and guns.

Scanners make sense. Yet security zealots who want to put them at every checkpoint in every airport are equally wrongheaded. Even full-body scanners can be beaten. One technique is the "booty bomb." Explosives are either placed in the anal cavity or swallowed, then set off with an external detonator like a cellphone. A body scanner wouldn't find a booty bomb.

"Scans for some" makes sense. "Scans for everyone" doesn't. Erect a Maginot line of scanners in every airport in the world, and airplanes will suffer the same fate as the French at the onset of World War II. Put all your security eggs in one basket, and the enemy will find a way around it … no matter how technologically advanced that basket is. The hard truth: Terrorists can't be stopped with defense alone.

An unseemly rush to buy more body scanners will shift resources from the most effective means of countering terrorists: a good offense. Without question, the best security tactic is to stop terrorists before they even enter an airport. Effective counterterrorism operations find and take down plots before they are put in motion. That's how authorities disrupted the 2006 London-based plot to smuggle liquid explosives onto United States-bound flights.

Next best, security needs to funnel suspicious travelers into secondary screening where scanners as well as other technologies and techniques can be used to keep malicious actors off airplanes.

Let's not let security-vs.-liberty diatribes hijack the debate. Keep the focus where it belongs: on how best to fight terrorists. Scanners don't undermine our privacy or freedom. In fact, they help keep terrorists from killing us -- the ultimate deprivation of liberty. On the other hand, they are no cure-all for terrorism. They should be used judiciously.

Ready why full-body scanners are a waste of taxpayer dollars and an invasion of privacy, by Kate Hanni of FlyersRights.org.

James Jay Carafano is senior research fellow for national and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in U.S. World Report and News