STEVE INSKEEP, host:
You can except to hear a lot in the coming days about airport scanning equipment that can help detect explosive devices hidden on a passenger's body. It's likely to come up when Congress holds hearings next month about gaps in airport security.
But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, lawmakers themselves have been among those reluctant to deploy the machines.
PAM FESSLER: The equipment is designed to produce full-body images of airline passengers and presumably anything they might be trying to hide. Individuals enter a booth at the security checkpoint, where they're exposed to x-rays or radio waves, which produce a cartoon-like image. It's easy, according to this promotional video from the Transportation Security Administration.
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Man: When a passenger encounters this technology at an airport, they will enter the whole body imager and wait for direction from the security officer on where to place their feet and hands. The whole process will take a matter of seconds.
FESSLER: But in June, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to restrict the use of the machines. The vote was not only big, but bipartisan. Lawmakers said they were concerned that the pictures were too intrusive and questioned their effectiveness.
That's what also worries privacy groups, which have mounted a major campaign against the machines now being tested at 19 U.S. airports. They say there's no guarantee the pictures won't be misused.
Ms. LILLIE CONEY (Associate Director, Electronic Privacy Information Center): There's nothing to prevent images from being retained even when they say they won't be retained.
FESSLER: Lillie Coney is associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group at the forefront of the campaign. She says it's not clear whether, in fact, the machines could even stop a determined terrorist.
Ms. CONEY: If they're still not going to guarantee that there won't be people who get by, then what's the tradeoff? Who in fact will be the casualties of technology that's deployed, that will literally strip away human dignity?
FESSLER: That's a big exaggeration and one that could cost lives, says Michael Chertoff. He pushed to get the advanced imaging equipment into airports when he was Homeland Security secretary under President Bush.
Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Former Secretary, Department of Homeland Security): When they talk about it as your virtual strip search, of course it's not a strip search. They minimize the fact that we have a program in place so that we don't maintain the images. Once the image is seen it's discarded and they simply dismiss that.
FESSLER: He notes that the Transportation Security Administration has made other accommodations to meet privacy concerns. For example, the images are viewed remotely by an officer who doesn't see the individual being screened at the checkpoint. Chertoff says the machines are crucial because existing metal detectors can't pick up dangerous explosives, something that's been known for years. He hopes now people will listen to reason and the program can move ahead.
Mr. CHERTOFF: I hope what does not happen is that months goes by, nothing happens, and then the ACLU is back and nobody's on the other side.
FESSLER: And indeed he has some cause for concern. There's inevitably an outcry on Capitol Hill to do something right after an attack or an attempted attack, but as time passes, interest can wane - especially if the potential solution is expensive and controversial.
In this case, the imaging machines cost more than $100,000 apiece, and privacy groups say they're not backing off their fight, that what they fear most is a knee-jerk reaction to last week's incident. Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee and favors the new machines, says it's not going to be easy finding a solution.
Representative BENNIE THOMPSON (Democrat, Mississippi, Chairman, Homeland Security Committee): We'll just have to explain in more detail how this kind of equipment is necessary if we're going to be confident that all is being done to protect the public.
FESSLER: But he admits it's also likely that someday terrorists will find a way to evade the new machines, as they have other detection methods. That's why most security experts say the country can't rely on just one piece of technology, that there has to be layers of security - things such as effective watch lists, canine teams and monitoring airport crowds for suspicious behavior.
Clearly, there were multiple failures last week. Thompson says the challenge is finding the best combination of things that will actually work.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.