Thursday, January 7, 2010

Op-Ed from The Hill magazine

In the wake of the recent attempt by Al Qaeda-linked Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate an explosive aboard a transantlantic flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, the debate over how to best protect Americans from these kinds of threats has dominated our discourse. Yet, sadly, as occurs all too often after incidents such as these, the first reaction by many who occupy elite perches in Washington and on cable television has been to propose curtailing the rights of passengers.

One example of this has been particularly galling. Over the past week and a half since the failed attack, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff has been ubiquitous, showing up on television and in print, to promote body scanners made by a company that also happens to be a client of his, Rapiscan. The most telling aspect of his marketing campaign was that until called out by CNN Anchor Cambell Brown, he neglected to even disclose his financial relationship with the company that would benefit most from his on-air Billy Mays act.

Beyond Chertoff’s advocacy, the simple reality that is there are measures available that will be even more effective than invasive one he has been touting, ones which will not add one more indignity and delay to boarding flights for the rest of the public. According to Dr. Kenneth G. Furton, Professor of Chemistry at the International Forensic Research Institute at Florida International University, using canines would be a much more promising tactic to prevent explosives from being smuggled aboard commercial jets.

Recently, in reaction to the claims of those such as Chertoff that body scans are the one and only answer, he offered “I am surprised by the rush to implement yet another developing technology that is both expensive and not proven to be able to reliably detect the explosives used in this last terrorist event. There is extensive research reinforcing the proven ability of detector dogs to detect explosives without the intrusive privacy issues involved in full body scanning. It is not certain that even with a high resolution image of a traveler's groin region that a half cup of explosive powder would be detectable."

This is not to say that there is no role for a variety of methods in preventing terrorism, perhaps even body scans. But this feels like yet another move towards the mass purchase of some very expensive equipment that is unproven. A knee-jerk reaction to a serious problem that must be solved at the highest levels by experts, not by what makes some people feel better or spending a large amount of taxpayer money on unproven methods because someone with good connections in Washington and among television bookers says so.

I don’t claim to have all the answers. Or know what all Americans are thinking. But I can tell you that the 27,000 members of my organization, FlyersRights.org, who have weighed in on this subject with emails, calls, texts, etc. , are overwhelmingly against the loss of privacy that goes with using body scanners. These are hardened travelers, but many have reached the breaking point when it comes to giving up their rights to one more supposed panacea. In fact, when asked point blank whether body scanners would have stopped Abdulmutallab on Meet The Press recently, John Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism aide, answered “I think it’s an unknown.” Not exactly an endorsement.

Dr. Furton agrees with Brennan’s sentiment. He recently offered that “it’s like someone said since we are x-raying luggage and that’s working let’s also x-ray the passengers and then everything will be covered. Of course that implies an extremely na├»ve view of security screening. Nobody believes that the x-ray scanners used to scan luggage, detect everything in people’s carry ons, so why would a full-body x-ray scanner made by the same company be expected to detect everything on the person with the carryon?”

Benjamin Franklin famously said “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We must listen to these great words and employ the methods most likely to protect us. And we must not give into fear and give up our rights without first examining the likelihood of success and what the costs will be to our freedom, no matter what certain famous talking heads are saying on television.

Kate Hanni is the President of FlyersRights.org.

Dr. Kenneth Furton, Professor, Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry
Founder and Director Emeritus, International Forensic Research Institute
Florida International University, ECS453