October 7, 2008

Airport Bomb Scans Move into Busy Terminals

By Thomas Frank

Every traveler in the post-9/11 era gets watched at airport checkpoints. But sometime soon, you may be checked for a bomb at the airport entrance.

Fearing that terrorists with suicide vests may blow up crowded sections of airports, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for the first time is looking at ways to scan people as they walk through terminals. Machines recently tested at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and Denver International Airport could pave the way for more airports to get the technology.

It works this way: A scanner is mounted on a tripod at a busy part of an airport terminal, pointing at people 30 feet away. The $210,000 machine, which looks like a spotlight, reads the energy emitted from a human body. It looks for "cold" spots where dense objects -- such as bombs -- block energy.

When the scanner sounds an alarm, a screener can call police to handle anyone who seems dangerous.

The machine was tested in August and September, and could be added at more airports, train stations and ferry terminals, TSA spokesman Christopher White said.

The TSA effort comes amid concern about terrorists targeting airports. Two weeks ago, Pakistan placed airports on high alert after a bomb threat to the airport in its capital. In July 2007, terrorists drove an SUV into the Glasgow Airport in Scotland, igniting a blaze that killed no one.

"As you close up holes (on airplanes), terrorists have to find other ways to set something off," aviation-security consultant Rich Roth said. An airport attack "is what everybody's afraid of, and it's a valid fear."

The scanner, made by Virginia-based QinetiQ North America, does not produce still images of passengers and poses no health risk because it does not emit energy such as X-rays, White said.

In the test at Denver, the scanner led to two people being questioned by police, White said. Neither was arrested. Two people also were questioned in Minneapolis and weren't arrested.

"We didn't catch any terrorists, but we don't know who we may have deterred because of the unit," said David Barrett, the TSA security chief in Denver.

In Minneapolis, airport deputy operations director Tim Anderson initially feared passengers would find the scanner intrusive. Most people, however, were curious and "pretty accepting," he said.

Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union said the machines will subject innocent people to extra scrutiny by generating false alarms for things such as back braces. Meanwhile, he said, terrorists will evade scrutiny by simply avoiding the scanners, which sit openly in terminals.

"These only create the illusion of security," Steinhardt said.

A passenger wearing a body brace under a shirt might set off the alarm, said Wally Miller, QinetiQ's head of transportation security.

Roth said false alarms "are going to happen," but he said terrorists trying to evade the scanners could appear suspicious and come under scrutiny from screeners. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>