The TSA Can't Say Whether Full-Body Scanners Work, Because Its Failures Are Classified


You can thank Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his fizzled underwear bomb for the big rollout of full-body airport scanners that began in 2010, shortly after the Nigerian terrorist tried to bring down a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. But it might make more sense to blame the

Transportation Security Administration (TSA), since it seems quite unlikely that the machines would have detected the explosive powder sewn into his briefs. In a March 2010 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said "it remains unclear whether the AIT [advanced imaging technology] would have been able to detect the weapon Mr. Abdulmutallab used in his attempted attack." Things became clearer this month following another aborted underwear bombing, this one involving a double agent working for Saudi intelligence. After all, why would Al Qaeda try the same technique again, now that we have all those expensive machines peering through passengers' clothing, looking for just this sort of device?

"Quite frankly," an unnamed but "high-ranking" Department of Homeland Security official told The New York Times last week, "I think the likelihood is high that he or she or whatever the device was would have been picked up through the screening abroad at the last point of departure, based on what we have in place in those locations and the partnerships we have." Notably, this official did not say the explosives would have shown up on a full-body scanner. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, pressed this point at a May 9 congressional hearing:

"Just yesterday," Mr. Issa began, "Janet Napolitano — Secretary Napolitano — said there is a high likelihood that Advanced Imaging Technology would have detected the new sophisticated underwear bomb used in the recent or attempted to be used in the recent plot in Yemen. Do you agree that there is a high likelihood that advanced imaging would have caught the new bomb?" he asked [a GAO] auditor who had worked on an examination of the T.S.A.

"That's a very interesting question," said Stephen Lord, the director of homeland security and justice issues for the Government Accountability Office. "I would have great difficulty answering that in open sessions, sir. We've done a classified report."

Mr. Issa said: "We'll take that, and I'm going to predict that it's going to be no, they couldn't. But the actual answer will remain classified."

Well, not really. Issa presumably has seen the full report, so he knows the answer is no. Likewise Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who recently told The New York Times, "The latest device, which was designed specifically to thwart what we've got in place, probably would've gotten through rather easily." TSA Administrator John Pistole conceded that "no one knows without equivocation whether that kind of device would get through until we test it." A report issued last week by Issa's committee and Mica's committee calls the AIT scanners "ineffective." Pistole says "we're working with the manufacturers to improve the technology." He emphasizes that the scanners are just "one of the layers of defense against potential bombs." Ah, the layers! Even if none of them works on its own, together they achieve a security synergy that stops underwear bombers. Notice how former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley dances around the effectiveness of full-body scanners in his comments to the Times:

The screening is vastly improved since 2009. The question is whether the person would have gotten the bomb on, and would the bomb have worked. On both of those I would say no.

No, the question is whether these expensive, privacy-invading machines can detect a form-fitting underwear bomb, which was the justification for installing so many of them and for using them as a primary screening tool. Hawley's evasiveness is reminiscent of the TSA's response to the dude who posted a video in March explaining "How to Get Anything Through TSA Nude Body Scanners."  As Mike Riggs noted, a TSA blogger replied that "for obvious security reasons, we can't discuss our technology's detection capability in detail," while assuring the flying public that "imaging technology has been extremely effective in the field" but cautioning that AIT scanners are just "one layer of our 20 layers of security." Two of the other layers he mentioned: "behavior detection," which Mica points out has never been validated, and "federal air marshals," which Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller and University of Newcastle engineering professor Mark Newcastle deem "not worth the money" in their 2011 book on anti-terrorism measures.

In a 2010 column, I noted the short-lived passenger rebellion against full-body scanners. For additional examples of fighting terrorism with invasive incompetence, see J.D. Tuccille's recent piece telling "The Terrible Truth About the TSA" and James Bovard's classic 2004 exposé "Dominate. Intimidate. Control." More on the TSA here.


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  1. TSA Administrator John Pistole conceded that “no one knows without equivocation whether that kind of device would get through until we test it.”

    I would be surprised to learn that AQ doesn’t have a rapescanner (or just access to one) somewhere for just this purpose.

    1. Hell, Penn and Teller own a metal detector just like the one they use in airports and use it in their act. I doubt purchasing a rapescanner can be that difficult. In fact, I’d be willing to bet some enterprising security guard for a warehouse could have easily let one go without notice, seeing as most of the ones manufactured have never come out of storage.

      1. I’m sure there is no way for a civilian to legally acquire such a device.
        After all, the only possible motivation for doing so would be terrorism.

        1. There is also no way a Mexican drug lord can legally acquire an arsenal of firearms in America and easily get it across the border.

          With that in mind, I wonder if the DoJ is spiriting rapescanners around the world in an attempt to more easily control airport secueity.

        2. One sold on Ebay two months ago. It was a RapiScan unit.

  2. Re: Airmarshals
    I spotted an Airmarshal on a flight to Shanghai. Middle-age guy, not particularly good shape, never took off the seedy sport jacket, aisle seat near the back of the plane, looking really bored (even compared to everyone else on a 19 hour flight).

    Anyone wanting the plane could easily make sure he was the first to go.

    More security theater.

  3. The whole airport security shuck-and-jive is just plain tiresome. If the U.S. were really under attack by a sophisticated and determined terrorist organization, bombings and shootings would be occurring every friggin’ day in malls, sports stadiums, nightclubs, on buses and trains, on and on and on. It wouldn’t be that hard, particularly for fanatical suicidal types who don’t care about the personal consequences.

    And yet, practically nothing. There’s a few ridiculous plots that always seem to involve an undercover fed egging on some retarded idiots, but little or nothing that’s real. There’s certainly nothing–even counting the government-inspired plots–that equates to a full-bore attempt to “make us part of the Caliphate” or whatever else the chickenhawks are always wetting their panties about.

    I suppose it’s working for the chickenhawks though. Soon the American skies will be filled with drones and we’ll be expected to not only accept it but to actually be grateful for it!

    1. Well the problem for terror cells like Al Queda is that all their best and brightest, the ones smart and talented enough to carry out their assignments, end up dead–because that’s the point of suicide missions.

      It’s no different than any other business: you won’t last long if you can’t maintain a talented pool of workers.

      1. Yeah – it’s not like they have much to offer for an inducement to join. “We have a great health plan and 401(k)!” isn’t going to fly.

    2. If the U.S. were really under attack by a sophisticated and determined terrorist organization, bombings and shootings would be occurring every friggin’ day in malls, sports stadiums, nightclubs, on buses and trains, on and on and on. It wouldn’t be that hard, particularly for fanatical suicidal types who don’t care about the personal consequences.


      I’ve always thought the fascination with airports is just stupid. And for a while, remember, police in many cities would SEARCH YOUR CAR just if you wanted to park at the airport (and some still do). WTF? An airport parking garage is no different than one somewhere else. In fact, it’s probably less of a juicy target than a garage in a downtown area or a shopping mall. What the hell is so special about an airport?

      OF COURSE we don’t want crazies bringing guns or bombs (or boxcutters) on to planes, but Jesus Christ, if they were really that scared of bad guys, we’d be getting patted down in every shopping mall and grocery store, too, and we’re not. So that tells me that the real answer is just a flexing of state power because a.) people in power always want to entrench themselves, b.) the makers of the machines are getting rich off the stupid pieces of junk, and c.) the unions and the politicians are getting rich, too, because the federal workforce is expanding.

      The whole thing is just nonsense.

      1. It seems to me that it is a combination of lack of creativity and doing what they can get away with. Lack of creativity in that airplanes were used in the one successful attack, so that’s what is focused on in the response. And airport security was something people had already sort of accepted. Also, a lot of people just don’t fly very often if at all and so don’t really care much.

      2. I’ve tried to communicate this to so many people. 20/20 hindsight of Truthers notwithstanding, 9/11 was a stroke of genius. Previously, a hijacking was one thing — afterwards, it was another. That change is permanent, as Flight 93 so aptly showed. So this all happens, and what do you do? You let your enemy completely define the problem space going forward.

        The interesting question to me is: is al-Qaeda as clueless as the governments of the world, that this is what has happened, or are they playing everybody for suckers? Just kicking back and laughing as the free countries of the world voluntarily throw away their freedoms for no real reason at all.

    3. That’s what I’ve been saying all along. If there really was an effective and determined terrorist group trying to fuck things up in the US, there would be a lot more attacks going on and there woudl be no way that the current security apparatus would catch every single attempt to blow up a plane.

  4. It enriches people well connected to politicians and it makes people more accepting of arbitrary authority. The rape scanner is never going away.

    1. Patriotic cat cries when he reads this, but he doesn’t disagree.

      1. What about a cat? Were you requesting kitty pictures?

        1. Well, I was referring to #24 on this list, but yeah, any picture of a cat will do.

        2. KITTEH!

  5. Even if none of them works on its own, together they achieve a security synergy that stops underwear bombers.


    If you have five independent layers of security each with a 50% failure rate, the probability of the layers all failing is about 3%.

    Now, in this case it’s likely the layers are not truly independent, but this is not ipso facto an invalid argument.

  6. Dark Horse Candidate Dean’s Short List Platform:

    (1) Abolish the TSA. It does nothing that local/private/FBI shouldn’t be doing.

    (2) Pursue and prosecute financial crimes in connection with the housing collapse and subsequent hi-jinx. Naked shorting, fake foreclosures, and at the tippy-top of the list: Corzine.

    (3) A transfer tax to fully fund all federal benefits at levels that taxpayers are willing to pay. Fiscal crisis reduced to manageable proportions, in one stroke.

    (4) No US troops posted overseas unless they are (a) fighting a war declared by Congress or (b) maintaining a naval or air base. Most overseas bases closed.

    (5) All federal rule-making suspended. Current federal rules to be revoked unless and until approved, word-for-word, by Congress as legislation. No additional rule-making goes into effect without Congress approving the new rule as legislation.

    (5) Tax code revoked. New tax code implemented with two or three brackets, no deductions except a personal deduction, and capital gains indexed to inflation. Brackets set so code is revenue neutral. Business taxes paid based on GAAP net income.

    Personally, I think that platform would do rather well in the polls.

    1. You’ve got my vote.

    2. If you let me have 15-30 min alone with that faggoty douchenozzle Corzine and help you refine your plans for Medical Care Reform, you got my support.

      1. Why, Dr. M, you would be my nominee to replace Sebelius, of course.

    3. #4 should probably include embassy Marines, unless the embassies are being closed as well.

      1. Well, naturally, the Marines can stay.

    4. If I may make two suggestions RC, WRT to 5) and (I assume) 6):

      5) All must have sunset provisions attached with the length of duration to be determined by Congress, but I would personally prefer at least once between elections for Congress. No exceptions; otherwise the law is nullified.

      6) The only deduction on which I would not yield is charitable deductions. It’s our money, not theirs.

      1. I don’t want to open the door for any kind of tax code social engineering. Your decision on what to do with your money should be untainted by fedgov nannying.

        And the whole business of the feds micromanaging charities and generally sticking their nose in to that end of society under the tax code is something we can do without.

        You want to give to charity? Fine. You don’t? Fine. You want the feds to give you a gold star and a tax break if you do? Not under God-Emperor President Dean.

        1. Grudgingly agreed. You are right; I would hate to see many medical charities go poof, though. But that assumes that people would stop giving, and I don’t think that would be the case.

          Plus the whole point of simplifying the tax code is keeping more of our hard earned money to do with what we wish.

      2. You’re going to yield, doc. And you’re going to like it.

    5. Why can’t #1 include Depts of Energy, Education and Agriculture?

      1. This is a punchy shortlist.

        Naturally, Energy, Education, and Agriculture are dead departments walking.

    6. You don’t seem to have any solutions for health care.

      Might I suggest repealing the ER must-treat law and making every prescription drug other than antibiotics over-the-counter?

      And using the corpses piled outside the ERs to make biodiesel. It’s a win-win.

      1. I have many an idea that incorporates both of those concepts, Tulpy Poo.

        Repealing COBRA (and EMTALA) and streamlining HIPAA is going to be a challenge, however.

        The Pharma aspect would still be a hard sell on some areas, and would have to be staggered for implementation. Instant Schedule V for MMJ with until PrezDean ends the WoD.

        I would first tackle the insurance aspect and take many a whack at Medicaid and fix Medicare with emphasis on phasing it out. Of the two, Medicaid is the worst and the biggest money pit.

      2. You don’t seem to have any solutions for health care.

        Oh, yeah.

        Medicare is a straight voucher program. Medicaid is converted to a no-strings block grant while its phased out.

        Keep in mind, of course, that the funding for these programs is subject to annual transfer tax collections. Americans can have as much welfare as they are willing to pay for, so I think a lot of our problems on the entitlement front could be made self-liquidating, so to speak, under the new dynamic that a transfer tax would create.

  7. You use to be able to bring party favors on a plane in the underwear. That’s dead now. I’ve heard that all the TSA has ever caught is drugs. And not the NARCO-TRAFICANTE drugs…but a $20 bag of weed or some coke or XTC here and there.

    People are just going to start shoving things up their ass. Including bombs.



  8. Oh, and thanks for the nude image of rather in the OP. Never gets old.

  9. The scan pictures suggest TSA was scammed last week-

    That wasn’t Secretary Kissinger they frisked at the airport.

    It was Madelaine Albright packing a pistol in her Henry suit.

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