Op-Ed: Security Measures Should Be More Invasive

Magnetic sensors photographing the outline of a body are already running in a handful of airports. Former Homeland Security Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin supports the use of those machines, and believes their usefulness trumps concerns about discomfort and privacy.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the Opinion Page. The good news is that the only person injured on Flight 253 was the man who allegedly tried to set off a bomb. The bad news is that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was apparently able to carry powerful explosives and a chemical detonator past security checks.

There are devices that might have been able to detect the material, scanners called whole-body imagers, now used at a handful of airports, like Salt Lake City and Miami. But the technology is expensive, could make the security line even slower, and privacy advocates describe it as a virtual strip search.

So what are you willing to give up for security? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site, too. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Clark Kent Ervin is director of Homeland Security Program at the Aspen Institute in Washington. He was formerly the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security during the last two years of the Bush administration. He joins us on the phone today from Lewes, Delaware. Nice to have you with us.

Mr. CLARK KENT ERVIN (Director, Aspen Institute Homeland Security Program): Well, thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And as I understand it, this explosive device, PETN, this explosive was sewn into this man's underwear. Would these whole-body imagers have been able to detect it?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, they certainly would have been, Neal. I had been advocating for their deployment, these whole-body imagers. There are different kinds, really - millimeter wave technology, backscatter machines - for quite some time. And as you noted, they've only now been deployed in limited numbers at just a number of airports throughout the country.

Had those scanners been in place, an anomaly would have been noted on the screen. Something - it would have been apparent, what was taped to this man's leg, and that surely would have prompted more intensive screening, at which point, presumably, the explosives would have been detected.

CONAN: And the problems with these devices, the reason there are not more of them?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, the primary problem, really, is not speed. Actually, they're really quite speedy. But it's the other thing you noted, and that is concerns on the part of privacy advocates. And I, myself, of course, am concerned about privacy, but it seems to me that any legitimate privacy concerns with these machines have been mitigated by two factors now.

One, there's technology that allows the body to be transmuted into merely a cartoon stick figure. So it's not as if anyone's genitalia or private parts are being revealed. Instead, it's just an outline of the body. And then, as I say, anything odd attached to the body becomes readily apparent. And second, the person who's actually looking at the image is not right at the checkpoint. That person is located at some remove from the checkpoint.

So it's not as if one is being eyed, as it were, by someone right in front of them. And the final thing is the images are not stored for very long. I think it's just a matter of days. So, as you noted in your introduction, we need to balance security and liberty, and it seems to me the balance has been struck properly with regard to these machines, and they need to be deployed immediately.

CONAN: The extent of concern about this - there was a vote on a non-binding resolution, as a matter, but - as it happened, but nevertheless, overwhelming support for a measure that would have sharply limited the use of this technology in the House of Representatives.

Mr. ERVIN: Well, yes. And, you know, the Congress, actually, is both an advantageous and disadvantageous here. You know, like everyone, the Congress waxes and wanes in what it wants here. A number of people objected these machines on privacy concerns, and Congress reacted in that, and the resolution is the reaction. On the other hand, where these machines have been tested, the public reaction - the people have actually gone through them - has been overwhelmingly positive. And the alternative to these machines is a physical pat down. And it seems to me that a physical pat down is much more intrusive than this electronic one.

CONAN: The TSA has already spent $30 billion on aviation security since 2004. Was that on technology that we don't need, that doesn't work?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, technology expenditures had been a real problem for TSA. There was a recent GAO report that says somewhere close to a billion dollars, 800 million or so, has been spent on 10 different technologies since 9/11. And TSA hasn't engaged in risk analysis to determine whether the technology is deployed against the greatest risks. It hasn't used cost benefit analysis to determine whether the costs of the machines are lower than the benefits, et cetera. And there's also a recent inspector general report that says millions of dollars of equipment that could be useful in detecting concealed weapons are just sitting unused in warehouses.

So, you know, part of the problem is that TSA does not have a permanent leader. Someone has been nominated, a very, very good man, Erroll Southers - who's the deputy chief of police at Los Angeles Airport - for this position, but he's yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Now, he alone, obviously, could not have prevented this incident on a Christmas Day, but I would argue better to have permanently leadership at TSA than not, particularly when it's very clear that al-Qaida remains focused on attacking our aviation system.

CONAN: Is the hang up in Congress?

Mr. ERVIN: The hang up is in Congress. A particular senator, Senator Jim DeMint from South Carolina is holding him up over the, I would argue, ancillary issue of collective bargaining rights for TSA employees. I happen to be opposed to collective bargaining rights, but be that as it may, the issue is we need somebody in charge of TSA who can make the kinds of decisions as to deploying technologies that need to be made.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers involved in the conversation. Our guest is Clark Kent Ervin, the former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We're talking about whole-body imaging devices that could have possibly detected the kind of weapon that was almost successful over Detroit on Christmas Day. And let's see if we can get Andrea on the line, Andrea calling us from Goshen, Indiana.

ANDREA (Caller): Hi. I was just calling to say I'm going to be travelling out of the country. I'm going to be going to Moscow and then to Paris and then back into Chicago. I consider myself very modest, and I would be the first person in line for one of these scans. I don't understand people's reservations at all.

CONAN: The feeling that you're getting peeped at.

ANDREA: I'm sorry?

CONAN: It may be connected to the feeling that you're getting peeped at.

ANDREA: No. No, I don't think so. I mean, if you go in to some dressing rooms, you get peeped at. When you're in some clothing dressing rooms, I don't get - I would be willing to do anything to feel like we're being protected. And the fact that people get so aggravated about waiting in line and doing the security checks...

CONAN: And taking their shoes off.

ANDREA: No. I can't imagine being aggravated about that. I mean, I can't understand why people don't see that this is a real threat and that we're going to have to do - these terrorists are very patient, and we're going to have to be just as diligent and just as patient. I'm willing to do anything.

CONAN: Andrea, thanks very much for the call, and have a good flight.

ANDREA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here, by contrast, is an email we have from Robert in Boston: Increase security measures and screening techniques such as X-rays, eye scanners or smokescreens designed to keep the masses in line. Not only these measures are violations of privacy and civil rights, they will not protect the underlying causes of potential terrorism. Sometimes those in authority go further and, actually, assault and detain innocent people. Americans and other citizens of the world should summon their rebellious spirit and fight against these measures. To paraphrase a great quote, those who sacrifice liberty for the sake of freedom deserve neither. I would add: and will get neither. And so, there are, Clark Kent Ervin, two very different arguments.

Mr. ERVIN: Two very different arguments, indeed. And, of course, you know, I believe has the better Andrea has the better of it. That said, I think Robert makes a good point when he says that these measures don't get to the underlying causes of terrorism. That's right. they don't. They're really two separate issues. We need to focus on the underlying causes of terrorism. How is it that people become radicalized? That's a hearts and minds issues. But we can't afford the luxury of focusing only on that. Unless and until we find an antidote to terrorism, we got to take defensive measures.

And it seems to me, given the choice between having an airport blown up and going through a detector where, as I say, the person looking at the image is at some remove, where the image looked at is not one's private parts and where the image is not safe for any significant period of time. It seems to me the balance is probably struck there, as to security and liberty.

CONAN: Well, let me ask and - about another part of Robert's email - and that is the times that those in authority go further, actually, assault and detain innocent people. That has happened.

Mr. ERVIN: It has, indeed, happened. And I meant to acknowledge that as well. But, you know, this is not a perfect world. And because mistakes have been made, we cannot use that as an excuse to prevent us from doing what can be done to limit to the maximum possible extent the chance that there might be another terror attack.

One thing we have to recognize is that it's an imperfect world. We can't have 100 percent security, even if we give up 100 percent of our liberty. But we can become more secure in measures like whole-body imagers and there are certain kinds of explosive trace detection machines also that need to be used in conjunction with those machines that, if deployed, could have prevented what happened, or what nearly happened, on Christmas Day. (unintelligible)

CONAN: We should also mention bomb-sniffing dogs that might have been able to find it, too. So let's get another caller in. This is Cassandra, Cassandra calling from Charlottesville, Virginia.

CASSANDRA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call, Neal.

CONAN: Sure.

CASSANDRA: I wanted to agree with your emailer and his paraphrasing of Ben Franklin, and that I agree. And it seems like, at this point, with the exception of, perhaps, this whole-body scanner, that there are very few more liberties that we can give up at the airport. And so long as our privacy is not being infringed upon, you know, I'm - I have no problem with that particular scanner. But there seems like we're just giving up more and more liberties. And I do, though - I'm willing to be as patient as it takes.

But my other question - you know, and to turn things around a bit, I do have a question. And while I'm a big advocate of freedom of the press, I want to ask about the (unintelligible) that has been covered in the media with extensive details about the type of bomb, how it was found, or after the fact, or not found the exact type of detonator and exactly how it got through security. Does that not put us more at risk by exposing our weaknesses to terrorists? And should we not be more judicious by way of the press in how these things are covered? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Cassandra, thanks very much for the call. Yes. Has all this amounted to a how-to manual for a PETN bomb?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, Cassandra raises a very good point, Neal, and I'm glad that she raised it. And I wrestled with this when I wrote my book on Homeland Security, "Open Target," some years ago. And my answer to it is that we're not telling terrorists anything they don't know. Terrorists know all about these vulnerabilities: screening vulnerabilities, visa vulnerabilities, et cetera. It's the average American who doesn't know what these vulnerabilities are. And so I applaud the press for making this clear, because the hope is - and the expectation is that once the American people are armed with this information, they'll demand that our leaders in the executive branch in the Congress take the steps that can be taken to limit the risk from these vulnerabilities.

CONAN: We're talking on the Opinion Page this week with Clark Kent Ervin, director of the Homeland Security Program at the Aspen Institute. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Karen(ph). Karen, calling from Palo Alto.

KAREN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

KAREN: Yes. The idea of a body scan that just involves the outline of the body wouldn't do anything about the danger of people hiding these explosives in their body cavities. So I assume the next step would be a body cavity search for each airline passenger.

CONAN: She's right. As far as I understand this technology, Clark Kent Ervin, it would not disclose anything contained in - if somebody had swallowed it, for example.

Mr. ERVIN: Well, that's right. That is right, certainly right. You know, I would note that there was a recent attempt to assassinate the interior minister in Saudi Arabia, Prince Nayef. And the weapon of choice was PET(ph), and it was actually spirited - hidden in the body cavity - the rectum, actually - of the would-be terrorist. And chances are, this technology would not notice that.

On the other hand, as I said earlier, this technology - the whole-body image - should be used in conjunction with other technologies like explosive trace detectors, puffer machines that can be perfected, that would then detect the presence of explosive residue on persons. And if those two technologies were used in conjunction, it's likely that this kind of episode would have been avoided. So we need a number of technologies to pull it simultaneously.

CONAN: All right. Karen, thank you. Here's an email along the same lines from Leah(ph). And she says: The concerns of privacy are a primary concern, but why is no one discussing possible health effects of repeated scans and the types of radiation used to do them? I know one of these devices uses X-rays.

Mr. ERVIN: Well, that's right. And experts have looked at that issue -of course, it's a legitimate question - and they've determined that the amount of radiation to which one is exposed is really minimal. It's much less than the normal amount of radiation that we're all exposed to just going about our daily lives.

CONAN: Here's one, an email that I suggest might not be entirely in earnest. I believe it will come to be being issued jumpsuits to wear before you board the plane. I also could recommend see-through luggage. Public safety is far too important to worry about modesty.

And this is from Clark in Saint Louis: As the airlines are privately owned, why do they not insist on these scanners? And those who choose not to be scanned need not fly. We do not have any right to fly on an airplane.

Mr. ERVIN: Well, that's right. You don't have the right to fly on an airplane. And I further agree that if you don't want to be subjective to these technologies, you have the right to refuse. But at the same time, the airlines have the right - and I would argue - the obligation to refuse to allow you to board airplanes. It's a choice that one has.

CONAN: This is from Matt in Monticello, Iowa: I won't fly because of the fact security is so invasive, it makes me feel that I am the threat. The new measures body imaging are so creepy. It's not worth the feeling that we should all get.

Mr. ERVIN: Well, certainly, you know, he articulates a point of view that many people in this country feel. There's no question but that a number of people are rather strong on privacy and think that the whole-body imaging goes too far. And as I say, it's a choice that people should make.

I would argue that these machines ought to be deployed. And if they're deployed, then people are free to go through them or not. But if they don't go through them, then they oughtn't to be allowed on airplanes, because we can't afford, in the post-9/11 world, the possibility that one person could get through who could be stopped by this kind of technology.

CONAN: One last caller. Let's go to Nathan in San Francisco.

NATHAN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NATHAN: My question is, why are we giving in to cowardice? The - when the Northern Ireland terrorists were attacking the Brits, the Brits would say, damn the inconvenience, and go about their business. Why should we be letting, say, tobacco executives walk around loose? And why are we getting in our cars and driving to work when they're each causing thousands of times the number of deaths that we've ever had from terrorism? That's it.

CONAN: Nathan - well, that's completely different point. And I can tell you, having flown into Belfast many times during the troubles as a reporter carrying a bag full of electronic - I was searched regularly and quite thoroughly, I would say. So that's not entirely true that the British were, well, less sanguine about these problems. In any case, Clark Kent Ervin, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. ERVIN: My pleasure, Neal. Thanks so much.

CONAN: And Clark Kent Ervin is director of Homeland Security Program at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C. He's also former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security during the last two years of the Bush administration, with us today on the line from Lewes, Delaware.

Later today, President Obama is scheduled to make a statement on the attempted bombing in Detroit on Christmas Day. Stay tuned for more on that from NPR News. Tomorrow on this program: from Iraq to Afghanistan, learning the reporting lessons of difficult wars. Stay with us then. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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