Civil Liberties

The Bizarre Tale of Graft and Sleazy Political Opportunism That Brought Us the 'Porno Scanners'

How we got to the point of full body scans, the massive personal intrusion that represents, and the tens of millions spent for machines that irradiate us.

How did we get to the point of full body scans at airports, the massive personal intrusion that represents, and the tens of millions spent for machines that irradiate us as a consequence of merely flying from here to there?

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The proximate cause is the attempted bombing of a December 25, 2009 Northwest airlines flight. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an engineering student, attempted to mix, then detonate a bomb as Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam made its descent to Detroit's Metropolitan Airport. Mr. Abdulmutallab somehow got on the flight with the chemicals undetected, hidden in his underwear. (Image)

There was furor followed by calls for tighter airport security. Specifically, Michael Chertoff, former Bush Homeland Security chief, claimed full body scanners were the solution. One thing led to another and here we are today. Full body scanners are in 68 airports and planned for 1,000 across the United States by the end of 2011. Those who refuse the full body scans will be subject to "pat-downs, which include searches of passengers' genital areas."

The Missing Link

Right after the Christmas 2009 bombing attempt, two United States citizens, frequent world travelers, spoke up about what they'd both witnessed prior to the flight departing from Amsterdam's Schiphol International Airport. Kurt Haskell and his wife Lori, attorneys from Taylor, Michigan, were sitting near the ticket counter waiting to board Flight 253. They saw two men approached the counter and speak with the agent on duty. One of the men was later identified as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who would later haplessly try to blow up the Northwest flight. The other was a well dressed man in his 50s (the sharp dressed man) who they took to be an Indian national:

"While Mutallab was poorly dressed, his friend was dressed in an expensive suit," Haskell said. He says the suited man asked ticket agents whether Mutallab could board without a passport. "The guy said, 'He's from Sudan and we do this all the time.'"

Mutallab is Nigerian. Haskell believes the man may have been trying to garner sympathy for Mutallab's lack of documents by portraying him as a Sudanese refugee.

The ticket agent referred Mutallab and his companion to her manager down the hall, and Haskell didn't see Mutallab again until after he allegedly tried to detonate an explosive on the plane. 

The Haskell's told their story to U.S. agents investigating the bombing attempt while they and other passengers were held at the Detroit airport. Shortly after being released from the airport, Kurt Haskell posted a comment on a news thread. This was the first of a number of media encounters where the story was told consistently.

A summary article in Wikipedia provides the narrative of the official response to the Haskell's story. "The Dutch counter terror agency" reviewed 200 hours of airport security tapes and announced their conclusion that Abdulmutallab had no "accomplices," effectively questioning the accuracy of the Haskells' report. Security officials claimed  the Haskells' report by claiming that the video tape at Schiphol showed no one assisting Abdulmutallab at the ticket counter or anywhere else. The Haskells responded by saying, Show us the tape. At that point, "Federal agents" spoke to ABC's Brian Ross and said, Well, maybe there was a sharp dressed man and here's what he did.


This rejoinder by "Federal agents" is an endorsement of the reasonableness of the account by Kurt and Lori Haskell and, by implication, an admission that their account is correct.

Would Scanners Have Stopped Abdulmutallab?

We know that federal law enforcement quietly allowed the Haskell's story to stand through the statement to Brian Ross. Since key elements of the story have not been formally investigated, we don't know if Abdulmutallab went through normal check-in or if, as witnessed and indicated, he somehow bypassed normal security requirements. We don't know who the sharp dressed man is. We don't know the full extent of the system breakdown that allowed all of this to happen.

We do know that the bomber's father, Umaru Mutellab, one Africa's wealthiest individuals, told U.S. intelligence authorities that his son was a terrorist a month before the bombing. We also know that Abdulmutallab's name was placed in a terrorism database a month before the Christmas flight. However, his name was not transferred from that database to a watch list of 14,000 essentially nominated for the no-fly database, nor was the name transferred to the 4,000 member official no-fly list.

In the furor over the event, a clear voice emerged with a solution to future problems like that presented by the underwear bomber. Michael Chertoff, long time Bush national security official offered these unqualified assertions on December 27 in the Washington Post and December 28 in the New York Times:

Washington Post, Dec 27: "This plot is an example of something we've known could exist in theory, and in order to be able to detect it, you've got to find some way of detecting things in parts of the body that aren't easy to get at," Chertoff said. "It's either pat-downs or imaging, or otherwise hoping that bad guys haven't figured it out, and I guess bad guys have figured it out." 

New York Times, Dec. 28, 2009: "In recent days, Kip Hawley, the former T.S.A. director, and Michael Chertoff, the former homeland security secretary, have called for the rapid installation of a new generation of whole-body scanners that can look underneath clothing to search for hidden weapons or explosives, which officials consider the single most significant aviation threat today..." 

From that point forward, the focus on preventing future terror threats to air travel focused on full body scanners. On January 15, 2010, the New York Times appended the December 28, 2009 article with this statement:

"Articles on Dec. 28, 29 and 30, about the apparent bombing attempt on a flight to Detroit, discussed the use of full-body scanners for airport security. They cited Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of homeland security, as supporting wider use of the scanners. Mr. Chertoff has confirmed in several recent interviews that a manufacturer of the devices is a client of his consulting company. That connection should have been noted in the articles." 

Chertoff was caught red handed shilling for full body scanners in behalf of a company that was a client of Chertoff's consulting company. He was busted in public by the New York Times editor.

What was the outcome? Chertoff's original, self-interested assertion prevailed. We have full body scans headed for 1,000 airports and, for those who don't want the radiation, the national security grope, invasive searches of the passenger's genital area.

Never mind the first hand eye witness accounts by Kurt and Lori Haskell. Never mind the report by one of the most prominent public figures in Nigeria, the bombers father, that his son was a terrorist and the lack of decisive action on that tip off. Never mind the never released 200 hours of Dutch security footage that could have proven without a doubt the existence of a facilitator, the sharp dressed man who accompanies the bomber.

All of this reveals a systemic defect in anti-terrorism activities, one that, if corrected, could have more efficiently and effectively prevented future terror threats everywhere by logical changes in policies and practices. Instead of decisive action on this clearly documented problem, we now have full body scanners proposed by a Bush era security official with a clear conflict of interest.

Perpetual 9/11

The underwear bomber incident is, in some ways, 9/11 writ small. A credibly identified terrorist is allowed to board U.S. commercial airliner with little scrutiny. There is a tragic outcome. Clear breakdowns in security are exposed, breakdowns that make no real sense to citizens -- failure to put Abdulmutallab on the no-fly list, for example. Congress and others fail to truly examine any of this, while the public is whipped into a fury. Instead of a real solution, a serious, unflinching investigation into who was responsible and why crazy policies are in place that appear to coddle identified threats, we end up with a solution that makes little, if any sense -- full body scanners.

Full body scanners share a common trait with the misdirected solutions to avoid a future 9/11 -- the Patriot Act, illegal wiretapping, suspension of habeas corpus, torture, etc. The scanners represent a major intrusion into our lives, a violation of our rights, a likely health hazard, and a major diversion from the real issue at hand -- incompetence and/or deception in the handling of identified threats to the nation, individuals who somehow bypass the very security protections put in place to stop their attacks. 

For more of Michael Collins' work, check out The Money Party.