Cancer in the Skies

Here’s a surprise: the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was in such an all-fired hurry to photograph passengers naked with its "whole-body scanners" that it neglected to "fully measur[e] whether the technologies address the most serious risks to aviation." So reports the Government Accountability Office (GAO), whose auditors apparently harbor the same illusion as much of the public: the TSA’s purpose is to protect aviation.

But why should its pornographic cameras differ from the TSA’s other gizmos? The GAO says that "since fiscal year 2002, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have invested over $795 million in technologies to screen passengers at airport checkpoints." Before "investing" close to a billion dollars of other people’s money, you might think these nitwits would research what they’re buying. After all, you and I would before buying a new car or home — but of course we’re spending our own money. Alas, the TSA subjected none of its purchases to "a risk assessment based on the three elements of risk — threat, vulnerability, and consequence," nor did it "[develop] a cost-benefit analysis and performance measures." And no wonder: even the most nervous of Nellies would clamor to abolish this absurd agency could she see a cost-benefit analysis, let alone performance measures.

Meanwhile, the auditors note that the TSA squandered our billion on such boondoggles as "the ETP [u2018explosive trace portal,’ popularly u2018known as "puffers" because they blast air on passengers’ — sic for u2018suspected terrorists’ — u2018and then analyze particles that float off their clothes or skin for hints of a bomb’], the first new technology deployment initiated by TSA, [which] was halted in June 2006 because of performance problems and high installation costs" — but only after the agency bought 200 of them at $160,000 a pop. And that princely price doesn’t include the aforementioned installation or "annual maintenance costs … [of] as much as $48,000 for each device." It then exiled this extremely expensive "deployment" from airports to a warehouse in Texas. Why? Because, the GAO explains, "although TSA tested earlier models, the models ultimately chosen were not operationally tested before they were deployed to ensure they demonstrated effective performance in an operational environment. Without operationally testing technologies prior to deployment, TSA does not have reasonable assurance that technologies will perform as intended." Translated from the Jargon, that means, "TSA never took these contraptions for a test-drive under actual conditions." Or, as the Washington Post put it, puffers "took too long to screen passengers, and they often broke or were unreliable because they could not withstand the dust, grime and jet-fuel fumes in airports." Duh.

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In fact, the agency seldom if ever "measures" whether any of its machines or procedures "address the most serious risks to aviation." And that’s been the case since Day One. The TSA wasn’t an honest response to a legitimate problem; instead, politicians capitalized on 9/11 to create yet another bureaucracy. Everyone but taxpayers and passengers benefitted: Feds whom 19 jihadists had outfoxed looked as though they not only knew something about security but cared, too (“After 9/11,” said the former chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Christopher Cox [R-Calif.], “we had to show how committed we were by spending hugely greater amounts of money than ever before, as rapidly as possible"); the airlines, rightly tired of paying for the ineffective security the FAA required, no longer had to ("Governments must take full responsibility for the costs of security," says Giovanni Bisignani, the Director General of the International Air Transport Association. "…too many governments single-out aviation to pay for its own security…. Governments cannot justify protecting citizens in parks, stadiums and train stations but passing the buck to industry when citizens enter airports to board planes…."); a job with the TSA gave surly high-school drop-outs and ghetto goons the chance to bully their betters while training Americans to kowtow in the police state. Given these advantages, why would the Feds bother to consult experts in security or study the subject themselves before foisting the TSA on us?

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The agency hasn’t researched a thing since, if we discount corporate salesmen’s pitches over lavish lunches. Its former administrator admitted as much when he confessed that the TSA simply inherited rather than invented the system: "The current basics of the checkpoint are remnants from the 1970s," Edmund "Kip" Hawley announced in September 2007, "and not necessarily well-suited for an adaptive terrorist enemy who’s constantly changing their [sic] tactics based on what defenses we put up." Those checkpoints were a political reaction to the skyjackings of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, just as the TSA was to 9/11. Both times, Congress did what it does best: "solved" a problem about which it knows nothing while coincidentally, no doubt, tightening its stranglehold on our lives.

Which brings us to the TSA’s "whole-body scanners." They’re not only smutty and unconscionably tyrannical, some are carcinogenic. The agency "deploys" two different technologies to take its dirty pictures of us. One, millimeter-wave scanning, is "non-ionizing" and supposedly safe. But the other, backscatter X-ray, is as dangerous as it sounds. Dr. David Caskey is a cardiologist in New Orleans who told me, "In the medical industry we try…to avoid even the smallest dose of radiation. Here you’ll be subjected to a rather significant amount. The result can and will be an increase in cataract formation, thyroid cancer, bone marrow suppression, etc."

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Once again, we might suppose that the TSA would investigate the public-health aspects of irradiating two million passengers daily before it installs these monstrosities nationwide. Once again, we’d be wrong — and that despite these sobering words from the Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence and Security: "At beam intensities high enough for rapid imaging of travelers, x-rays would significantly increase long-term cancer risk. Fetuses and infants are especially vulnerable" — particularly if the mother is "in the first trimester when she would likely be unaware of the pregnancy," as Dr. Caskey points out.

The TSA ignores these warnings, and the equipment’s manufacturers dispute them. The latter insist the radiation is harmless, even for frequent fliers. One claims its products are safe "for both operators and scanned individuals," while another alleges that "each full body scan" exposes us to the "equivalent…[of the amount] every person receives each five minutes from naturally occurring background environmental radioactivity." Dr. Jeff Zervas of Montevideo, Minnesota doesn’t buy it. "X-rays are not kind to living tissue," he says. "It does depend on the dose, but less is better. Zero is best."

And that’s for competent personnel who operate the scanners according to directions — a fatal assumption when dealing with your average screener. Dr. Zervas asks, "What happens, for example, if some clown leaves the machine on, and a passenger’s standing in the field? And who calibrates these things? I wouldn’t trust a bureaucrat or anyone else without a stake in its safety to do it properly."

Tragically, passengers cooperate with the government’s carcinogenic peep-show for nothing: the GAO concludes that "TSA has limited assurance that its strategy targets the most critical risks and that it invests in the most cost-effective new technologies or other protective measures."

Just abolish the TSA, already. Geez.