Head Strong: Scanner whiners need some perspective

The feds are losing control of the debate over the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) new full-body scanners and enhanced pat-down techniques. A combination of well-intentioned privacy concerns and Internet lore could spell doom for the public acceptance of the new measures.

It's not so complicated. Upon reaching an airport's security area, travelers are asked to undergo a full-body scan by an Advanced Imaging Technology scanner. If they don't want the scan, they can opt for a pat-down by a TSA official. Simple, and yet there are so many rumors about this procedure that there's a need to separate fact from fiction.

Last week, multiple callers to my radio program expressed the concern that Muslims dressed in hijabs or other traditional clothing can opt out of both the scan and the pat-down. While it's true that some Muslim American groups in February said the scanners violate Islam's sense of modesty and should be avoided, those groups advised their supporters to undergo the pat-downs.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations recently issued a travel advisory informing Muslims that if they object to the scanners, they can request a private pat-down administered by a security official of the same sex - the exact same right every American has regardless of ethnicity or creed.

When I interviewed TSA chief John Pistole about the supposed exception, his answer was unequivocal: "Everybody goes through the same process."

Here's another story making the rounds: The full-body scanners will give you cancer. I find it ironic that we hold cell phones to our ears for hours a day, vegetate in front of computer screens, and cook our food in microwaves, and yet some worry about a body scan that takes seconds on the rare occasions when most of us fly.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote last week in USA Today that the machines had been deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

It's not that the machines don't emit radiation. By all accounts, they do. But as Pistole reiterated in my conversation with him, those organizations had indeed assessed the devices and "all found that the radiation from these machines are well within the acceptable safety limits." That does not dissuade James Babb, a local man who is cofounder of the group We Won't Fly, who told me in an interview that the same Johns Hopkins report asserted that because so many millions of Americans would be scanned, somebody was bound to get cancer as a result.

Pistole's response: "There have been other people who have their assessment of the study who have come up with this idea that given the millions of air hours people are flying, there is a possibility out there at some point that somebody may - so many 'mays' built in here - may have some additional exposure concerns."

Bottom line: Walking through the scanners means encountering a minuscule amount of radiation.

Here's another concern: The scanners and pat-downs are a blatant invasion of privacy. A thirtysomething Internet sensation from California has been whining about his "junk," creating the impression that he'd been asked to turn his head and cough. This is pure kvetching.

Here's the reality: The TSA official viewing the scanned body images does so in a walled-off location in which cameras of any kind are prohibited. That official does not interact with fliers. The official who does deal with the fliers does not see the images. Sensitive areas of the images are blurred.

That hasn't stopped the rumor that outlines of one's genitals could end up on somebody's Facebook page. In other words, that scanner images could be saved and distributed. To this Pistole said: "The machines that we have deployed at airports are deployed in a way that has all those capabilities rendered inoperable. So we don't have the opportunity to either store, transmit, do anything with those images. They are deleted as soon as the person is cleared."

And remember, travelers who don't want to be scanned can opt for the pat-down. They can request that the procedure take place in a private area - in front of a chosen travel companion.

I asked Pistole just how invasive a well-performed pat-down should be. "The pat-down needs to be thorough enough to detect well-designed, well-concealed, nonmetallic, especially explosive, devices such as we saw . . . last Christmas," he said.

Have we really reached a point where that is objectionable?

The system isn't perfect. Most alarming is the fact that the full-body scans only operate skin-deep. Meaning that if a terrorist were perverse enough to hide explosives in a body cavity, the scanner wouldn't detect it. (To address that, I continue to believe we should consider the commonalities of those seeking to kill Americans - the dreaded p-word, profiling.) While this issue is disturbing, it also makes cries of privacy violation less credible. It's doubtful that those who complain most about the scanners would approve making them even more invasive.

Indeed, absent from the security whining is any credible alternative. So, too, is acknowledgement of the real reason the TSA must scan and pat each person boarding a plane: There are terrorists out there who want to strike America via its air-travel system.

The fact is, these enhanced security measures are a small price to pay for securing that system. It's true that travelers have a right to privacy, but that right shouldn't outweigh my right to fly with my family knowing we're secure because each of our fellow passengers has been properly screened.

Contact Michael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com.