Thursday, December 30, 2010

AOL News: Are TSA Scanners Safe?

As long as I'm already making friends at Dept. of Homeland Security, I'll stick with the TSA stuff for one more post.  An investigation by AOL news shows that the job of maintaining and calibrating the TSA's funky new body scanners belongs to "somebody else," although nobody is really sure who.

According to
The Transportation Security Administration says that when working properly, the backscatter Advance Imaging Technology X-ray scanners emit an infinitesimal, virtually harmless amount of radiation.

The problem is that the TSA offers no proof that anyone is checking to see if the machines are "working properly."

The TSA ticks off a litany of groups that it says are involved with determining and ensuring the safety of the controversial devices, including:

•The Food and Drug Administration
•The U.S. Army Public Health Command
•Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
•The Health Physics Society

However, AOL News has found that those organizations say they have no responsibility for the continuing safety of the alternative to TSA's grope.
Why worry about maintaining the machines?

To assure that the doses are as low as they are billed to be, it is imperative to accurately calibrate the machines and carefully monitor their performance.

A spike in the intensity of the scanning beam, or a slowdown or pause in the timing of that beam's sweep across a traveler's body, could cause significant radiation damage, AOL News was told by a radiologist and two radiological health physicists, who are trained and certified to ensure the safety of those exposed to or working with radioactive material.

The FDA and many state radiation safety offices license, inspect and monitor almost all medical radiation devices everywhere they're used. But even identical X-ray machines used in nonmedical government venues fall outside FDA scrutiny, the agency said last week.

Nevertheless, the TSA maintains that when it comes to the safety of the full-body scanners, "everything is working fine," an agency spokesman told AOL News.
So who does verify the safety of these machines?

"The safety of our scanning systems are routinely and thoroughly tested by the manufacturer, FDA, the U.S. Army, the Health Physics Society, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and others," the spokesman said when asked last month how the TSA knows if the scanning system is safe.

But in interviews with those same safety sentinels, AOL News found that none of the groups was doing any routine testing of operating scanners in airports. Further, they all said they have no responsibility to monitor the safety of those passing through the airport scanners.

For example, the FDA says it doesn't do routine inspections of any nonmedical X-ray unit, including the ones operated by the TSA.

The FDA has not field-tested these scanners and hasn't inspected the manufacturer. It has no legal authority to require owners of these devices -- in this case, TSA -- to provide access for routine testing on these products once they have been sold, FDA press officer said Karen Riley said.
You can read the entire article here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

New TSA Policies Not Protecting Us

Not long after a Canada Free Press article broke news that a leaked U.S. Department of Homeland Security memo supposedly called for creating an enemies list of people who agitated against the new enhanced TSA security screening procedures, I had a guest column in the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette agitating against those very TSA security screening procedures.  [Hat tip to Between Two Rivers blog, where I first read about the DHS/TSA enemies list.] 

My column in the paper (which appeared Monday Dec. 13th, with the above title) was edited for space and brevity, but I present here my original long-winded submission:

The Transportation Security Administration’s new procedures, which involve taking naked body images of or giving intense pat-downs to American citizens without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, would have been unfathomable to most Americans a decade ago. Now, however, many view them as a necessary trade off to make us safer against the terrorist threat. But how much safer do they make us?

The procedures are being justified as being in response to the 2009 “Underwear Bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. However a report from the Government Accountability Office, the auditing and evaluation arm of Congress, concluded that it was “unclear” whether the new scanners would have detected the materials used by Abdulmutallab. Ben Wallace, an ex British Army officer who later worked for a defense firm that made such scanners, says that it’s “unlikely” that they would.

The debate may be moot because Al Qaeda has already developed a way of eluding the scanners, as well as the pat-downs. In an assassination attempt against a Saudi prince in 2009, an Al Qaeda operative snuck a pound of explosives and a detonator through security in his rectum. A device hidden in this manner could only be detected by a full body cavity search. So it’s “unclear” to “unlikely” that the TSA’s new procedures would make us safer against an “underwear bomber” and are useless against cutting edge suicide bomber tactics.

If the scanners don’t make us much safer, then how did we end up with them? According to David Rittgers, an analyst at the Cato Institute: “An army of executives for scanner-producing corporations — mostly former high-ranking Homeland Security officials — successfully lobbied Congress into spending $300 million in stimulus money to buy the scanners. But running them will cost another $340 million each year. Operating them means 5,000 added TSA personnel, growing the screener workforce by 10 percent. This, when the federal debt commission is saying that we must cut federal employment rolls, including some FBI agents, just to keep spending sustainable.”

Borrowing more money to purchase marginal technology and increasing spending to employ it, at a time when the U.S. appears on the verge of economic collapse, does not make us safer.

Then there are privacy and Fourth Amendment concerns. According to one congressman, the scanners “offer a disturbingly accurate view of a person’s body[.]” British officials banned their use on people under 18, for fear of running afoul of child pornography laws. Documents obtained by Electronic Privacy Information Center show that the scanners “include the ability to store, record, and transfer images” and “include hard disk storage, USB integration, and Ethernet connectivity” that raise significant privacy concerns. Comparable scanners that more adequately address privacy concerns are available and used in Europe, but then former DHS officials don’t sell those scanners.

The Fourth Amendment states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons […] against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated[.]” According to law professor Jeffrey Rosen, as an appeals court judge in 2006, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito said that to be constitutionally “reasonable” airport screening procedures must be both “effective” and “minimally intrusive” as well as “well-tailored to protect personal privacy.” The new TSA procedures seem to miss the mark.

Most Americans don’t need to hear legal opinions to know that the TSA searches are an affront to their liberties. As the millions of people lying in mass graves around the globe would surely attest if they were able, when a government begins to disregard the rights and dignity of its people and the people do nothing, we are all decidedly less safe.

Benjamin R. Cashner is a freelance writer from Monticello and a member of the Iowa Libertarian Party. He blogs at and is a contributing writer at Iowa Freedom

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Blasts From the Past

Last Christmas I got a Barnes & Noble gift card that I used to buy Brian Doherty's book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.  Although it's a great book, I'm still working on it since it will often sit unmolested on my nightstand for weeks on end.  Periodicals always seem more pressing and, given my work schedule, my pillow usually seems more alluring than the book.

Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and also the author of This Is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground and Gun Control on Trial: Inside the Supreme Court Battle Over the Second Amendment.  In Radicals for Capitalism, Doherty traces the philosophical evolution of the libertarian movement and provides brief biographies of many of its influential thinkers.

Lysander Spooner
One of these early proto-libertarians was Lysander Spooner.  Spooner (1808-1887) was an American anarchist (before allegations of bomb-throwing nuts ruined the term) and a staunch abolitionist.  He is best known for illegally starting his own postal service, the American Letter Mail Company, to compete against the USPS.

In one of my favorite quotes, Spooner explains the difference between a highwayman (robber) and the government: 

The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: Your money, or your life... [But] the highwayman [...] does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. [...] He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a 'protector[.]' Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you[.] He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful 'sovereign,' on account of the 'protection' he affords you. He does not keep 'protecting' you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, [and] shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.
Another influential libertarian was Isabel Paterson (1886-1961).  Paterson was a  journalist, novelist, and a leading literary critic.  Her 1943 book The God of the Machine featured a chapter titled "The Humanitarian with the Guillotine."  (You can read the entire chapter here.)  In it she includes a warning about those who demand to "help" their fellow man, even those who don't want to be helped (which then usually requires the coercive force of government):
Isabel Paterson
If the primary objective of the philanthropist, his justification for living, is to help others, his ultimate good requires that others shall be in want. His happiness is the obverse of their misery. If he wishes to help "humanity," the whole of humanity must be in need. The humanitarian wishes to be a prime mover in the lives of others. He cannot admit either the divine or the natural order, by which men have the power to help themselves. The humanitarian puts himself in the place of God.
I look forward to reading more little pearls of wisdom like these in Radicals for Capitalism.  Hopefully I'll have it all read by Christmas... next year.

[Addendum- 12/17/2010: In my own defense I should add that I did get a few other books last Christmas that I did finish reading and that I didn't use the gift certificate to get Radicals for Capitalism until awhile after Christmas.  Whew!  I feel better getting that off my chest.]

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