Rush Holt on TSA full-body scanners: “head-long rush to embrace fallible technology”

Rush Holt, Chair of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel and co-Chair of the Congressional Biomedical Caucus, wants a meeting with John Pistole, Administrator of the TSA. On Holt’s mind: potential health effects of the full-body scanners now deployed to 68 airports across the country – including Newark, JFK & LaGuardia.

Holt’s Biomedical Caucus was briefed by Dr. David Brenner of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University, a heavyweight in the field. Brenner had some scary stuff to say: devices now in use deliver “20 times the average dose [of x-ray radiation] that is typically quoted by TSA”. That radiation’s called “back scatter” and when you go through the scanners, the majority of that radiation strikes the top of the head. That’s where most of the nearly one million cases of basal cell carcinoma develop in people each year: top of the head.

Excessive radiation is a “cancer rate multiplier” which must scare the bejeezus out of those already diagnosed with cancer, and being treated and tested with radiation, as Sen. Diane Allen said last week (at mark 1:35 in the video). The required alternative, a more invasive “pat-down,” has already meant some awful airport scenarios for other cancer patients.  Holt, a scientist himself, wants further research into the potential health risks, and called on the House Appropriations Committee to freeze scanner funding until the GAO finishes its ongoing examination of the technology. Holt:

I appreciate the challenges we face in trying to prevent terrorists from boarding American airliners.  That same background also gives me an understanding of why TSA’s current obsession with fielding body imaging technology is misguided, counterproductive, and potentially dangerous.

Then there’s the big question of whether these scanners even work to detect concealed weapons. Jane Hamsher does a great job tracking John Pistole’s own claims (yes, the same Administrator Holt wants to talk to) and putting them through the truth strainer.

Rush Holt’s entire letter to TSA’s John Pistole is after the jump. It’s fierce, and worth reading. Here’s what TSA has to say.

The Honoroable John Pistole


Transportation Security Administration


601 South 12th Street

Arlington, VA 20598

Dear Administrator Pistole,

When Americans witness three year-old children being aggressively patted down by TSA screeners-as was the case this month-our airline security screening system is broken.

As a scientist and the chairman of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, I appreciate the challenges we face in trying to prevent terrorists from boarding American airliners.  That same background also gives me an understanding of why TSA’s current obsession with fielding body imaging technology is misguided, counterproductive, and potentially dangerous.

In March, the Congressional Biomedical Caucus (of which I am a co-chair) hosted a presentation on this technology by TSA, as well as a briefing by Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University on the potential health effects of “back scatter” x-ray devices.  As Dr. Brenner noted in his presentation and in subsequent media interviews, the devices currently in use and proposed for wider deployment this year currently deliver to the scalp “20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry.”

Dr. Brenner has pointed out that the majority of the radiation from X-ray backscatter machines strikes the top of the head, which is where 85 percent of the 800,000 cases of basal cell carcinoma diagnosed in the United States each year develop.  According to Dr. Brenner, excessive x-ray exposure can act as a cancer rate multiplier, which is why our government should investigate thoroughly the potential health risks associated with this technology.

Additionally, it appears that these devices can detect explosives or other dangerous objects inside of body cavities.  As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a March 2010 report on the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) program, “While TSA officials stated that the laboratory and operational testing of the AIT included placing explosive material in different locations on the body, it remains unclear whether the AIT would have been able to detect the weapon Mr. Abdulmutallab used in his attempted attack based on the preliminary TSA information we have received.” A head-long rush to embrace fallible technology will only give the public the illusion of increased security at the expense of their privacy and dignity, with no assurance that the use of these machines will actually deter or detect terrorists before they act.

Further, news reports from earlier this year detailing how the U.S. Marshalls Service was inappropriately storing scanned body images at a U.S. court house raise clear concerns about the privacy protections needed to manage this technology.  I am aware of at least one lawsuit pending against the Department of Homeland Security that alleges that the technology violates the Privacy Act, the Administrative Procedures Act, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

I understand that TSA told GAO investigators that “the AIT’s capability to store, print, transmit, or save the image will be disabled at the factory before the machines are delivered to airports, and each image is automatically deleted from the system after it is cleared by the remotely located security officer.”  However, I am not aware of any independent (i.e., non-TSA) inspection of the existing devices that confirms that they have been modified as described.  Nor am I aware of any TSA directive prohibiting personnel who are operating AIT’s from having personal videorecording devices (such as smartphones) on their person while operating the machines.  Absent such a prohibition and independent confirmation that the AIT’s ability to store and transmit images are disabled, I fail to see how the Congress and the flying public can have confidence that the very legitimate civil liberties and privacy concerns of passengers have been addressed.

Finally, let me return to the images of that little girl being frisked by a TSA screener.  What behavioral indicator led the screener in question to believe that little girl needed such an invasive pat-down?  If no valid behavioral or other threat indicator was present, why did the screener conduct the aggressive frisking?  If the girl’s mother or father were deemed a threat, why were they not segregated for further questioning, in private?  The entire episode has served as a symbol of an invasive, technology-driven passenger screening process that is not making us safer, even as it humiliates, degrades, and enrages a public that deserves far better from those ostensibly seeking to protect them.

I’ve visited Israel many times in my life, including this fall.  I have been impressed by how effective-and minimally intrusive-their airline passenger screening system is, particularly given the daily terrorist threat to Israel’s citizens.  Clearly, our government would learn much from their system.  If a country as small and threatened as Israel can effectively protect their flying public, there is no reason why American children and their parents cannot be protected using the same layered, common sense-based system employed by Israel.

Like other members of Congress, I am hearing from my constituents about this issue, and as one of them observed to me, “Forcing us to choose between the new, body-scan machines which will subject us to possible risk of radiation, with strangers viewing our naked bodies; or being subjected to humiliating touching of our private parts is unacceptable.  We have traveled extensively in foreign countries, and their methods of using well trained personnel at layered checkpoints is less intrusive and far superior.

How can Americans be treated this way?”

I agree, which is why I am asking you to meet with me to discuss:

1)    Any reports from independent entities that have validated the effectiveness of the AIT systems currently being fielded to detect the full range of explosive threats known or anticipated to be employed by potential terrorists.

2)    Whether any independent entity has verified that the AIT machines have been modified so as to ensure that no permanent record of a passenger scan is retained, retransmitted, or otherwise copied either directly from the AIT machine itself or by TSA or other personnel utilizing any form of videorecording technology.

3)    The measures TSA has taken to address GAO’s concerns and recommendations regarding the employment, cost-benefit analysis, and expected over all costs of fielding these AIT systems.

4)    The measures TSA has taken to improve and validate its Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, as discussed in GAO’s May 2010 report on the program.

5)    Why TSA does not systematically use watch list-derived intelligence information to screen passengers more selectively via AIT systems and the SPOT program.

6)    Whether or not TSA has sought or received recommendations from the government of Israel about how TSA could improve its screening programs without invading the privacy of passengers.



Member of Congress


Comments (3)

  1. Nick Lento

    A determined terrorist who was prepared to take down an airplane is also going to be sufficiently motivated to do whatever it takes to plant a highly explosive device up their butt or possibly even surgically implanted abdominally……so THAT person will NOT be captured by this technology.

    Further, the creation of these long lines where passengers wait to be screened is itself a security issue since any sick/evil/crazed bastard with an explosive device (or some other kind of nefarious dangerous substance) could simply deploy on site BEFORE getting to the pat down and achieve their desired result.

    We DO have to deal with the threat of terrorism but unless we do so intelligently and courageously, we will continue to be letting the terrorists win by allowing their threats to cow us into becoming an unfree and a terrified nation.   THAT is what they WANT!!!

    Sadly, I dare say, much of the “war on terror” is driven by political and commercial interests….not to mention the “natural” tendencies of bureaucracies to metastasize.

    We can’t afford the waste of time and money involved in our ineffectual efforts…..but that’s the least of the cost.   Our current approach is slowly strangling the very freedoms we wish to protect!  All as we engage is asinine wars that break our treasury while serving to create MORE terrorists!!!!

    People get really pissed off when they feel/believe that they are being invaded and occupied by a foreign power….and especially so when they see that that power is propping up a corrupt government that abuses its own people!   NOTHING justifies terrorism!!!  But there are clear and predictable reasons for it…and we MUST get real about facing up to those realities!!!

    Frankly, just about all we’ve done since 9-11 has been a stupid waste of money time and blood…….spending more millions of these scanners (which are being sold by a company that is associated with the former head of Homeland “Security”) is just one more instance of the wrong headed approach we have taken to terrorism and foreign policy in general.

    Sadly, there are interests that will continue to reap billion dollar profits off of all this insanity….and I dare say that those interests are what’s driving our policies.

    The issue of the scanners/pat downs is just the tip of a large iceberg.


    I generally disagree with Republicans…but this one is raising some valid points!!!

  2. ken bank

    El Al doesn’t use scanners or pat-downs because they cause long lines and, as pointed out, create the same security hazard.

    They do pre-screen their passengers and do background checks.  Those with suspicious backgrounds are interviewed before they board the plane.  I saw it described as an “X-Ray of the mind”.

    For better or worse, without profiling, we just have to get used to the scanners, the pat-downs and the long lines.

  3. The Wizard

    when the TSA offers a happy ending for a reasonable fee.  


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