Airport scanners still in storage

February 23, 2010

President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan included $25 million for airport screening machines capable of detecting explosives like those carried by the Christmas Day bomber.
But more than a year after passage of the stimulus, the Department of Homeland Security has yet to install a single scanner paid for by the bill.
“We have not outlined our deployment schedule as yet,” said Amy Kudwa, a DHS spokeswoman. “We’re very actively working on a deployment plan. That process has not been completed.”
Records show that it took the department almost seven months just to order the 150 Advanced Imaging Technology units covered by the stimulus bill. A spokesman for Rapiscan, the California-based company that builds the machines, said the company has since delivered more than 100 of them to the Transportation Security Administration.
And that’s where they remain.
“TSA is in the process of accepting delivery of the initial 150 units purchased,” TSA spokesman James Fotenos told POLITICO Monday evening. “TSA is staging for their deployment and anticipates complete delivery to the agency by April. TSA is working closely with airports to install these units.”
Similar scanners are already in use at airports in 19 U.S. cities, but some of the nation’s busiest airports don’t have them, including New York’s JFK and La Guardia, Chicago’s O’Hare and Washington’s Dulles.
In part because of privacy concerns – the scanners create such detailed images of airline passengers that it’s easy to see a person’s gender – the TSA publishes the location of the scanners currently deployed and tells people how they are used – i.e., as primary screening machines or as secondary checks on travelers.
But DHS won’t say where the stimulus-funded machines are headed.
Kudwa says the department has been working on plans for months but has not released any information because of security concerns. The process “just simply takes time whenever you’re deploying airport technology,” she said, particularly if pilot-program testing is involved.
That didn’t stop the department from celebrating its investment in airport security as part of this month’s one-year anniversary of the stimulus bill. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano marked the occasion by visiting Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to inspect one of the scanners at work – but the airport started operating advanced machines in 2008, well before President Barack Obama took office.
A DHS press release on Napolitano’s airport visit said that DHS has “invested Recovery Act funding in communities across America,” including “$25 million for 150 AIT units, which detect metallic and non-metallic threats, including explosives, on passengers in a matter of seconds.”
It did not say that not one of those 150 units has actually been deployed.


A Homeland Security official said the first machines will be operating within two weeks, at airports to be announced soon. All 450 machines are scheduled to be in use by Dec. 31. The delay resulted from selecting airports and negotiating for the space, then working with the airports on such issues as remodeling to provide privacy rooms, the official said.


In the wake of the failed Christmas Day plot, Obama stressed the importance of airport screening.


“There’s no silver bullet to securing the thousands of flights into America each day, domestic and international,” Obama said Jan. 7. “Even before the Christmas attack, we increased investments in homeland security and aviation security. This includes an additional $1 billion in new systems and technologies that we need to protect our airports — more baggage screening, more passenger screening.”


Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2011 includes a nearly $215 million increase to build more of the scanners, with the goal of installing AIT machines in three-quarters of the country’s busiest airports. The budget also includes $218 million to pay new TSA staff to operate the machines.


The extra money for the machines had to come out of other areas of the Homeland Security budget, sources said–and the choices of where to cut have some members of Congress steaming. The Coast Guard, for example, lost about 3 percent of its funding and plans to eliminate five of the waterborne counterterrorism teams that were created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.


New York Rep. Peter King, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, blasted the decision to cut New York City’s maritime counterterrorism team–and pointed out that while the administration might be learning the lessons of the Christmas Day attack, it is ignoring others.


“In preparing the 2011 budget, the Obama administration must have forgotten to consider the fact that terrorists in 2008 launched a deadly waterborne attack on Mumbai, India’s financial center. The heavily armed terrorists arrived in the city by boat before killing and wounding more than 400 in a nearly three-day series of coordinated attacks,” King said.


A Republican aide contrasted the response with the Bush administration’s changes in the wake of the 2006 attempts to bring down transatlantic flights using liquid explosives.


“We changed security procedures and banned liquids,” the aide said. “Did the government dump half a billion dollars into developing liquid scanners? No.”


Before the underwear bomber, the scanners faced serious opposition from privacy advocates.


Members of the House tried to block DHS from using the scanners as primary screening devices last year because of the privacy concerns. The House voted 310-118 to add an amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), to the Homeland Security appropriations bill that would have prohibited the TSA from using the machines for passengers’ initial scans at airports. The amendment died in the Senate.

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