GAO: Scanners Wouldn't Have Prevented Detroit Plot The Government Accountability Office said recently that had body scanners been used at airports, they may not have thwarted the attempted Christmas Day bombing on a Detroit-bound flight. Spencer Hsu, who covers homeland security for The Washington Post, offers his insight.
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GAO: Scanners Wouldn't Have Prevented Detroit Plot

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GAO: Scanners Wouldn't Have Prevented Detroit Plot

GAO: Scanners Wouldn't Have Prevented Detroit Plot

GAO: Scanners Wouldn't Have Prevented Detroit Plot

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/124838054/124838031" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Government Accountability Office said recently that had body scanners been used at airports, they may not have thwarted the attempted Christmas Day bombing on a Detroit-bound flight. Spencer Hsu, who covers homeland security for The Washington Post, offers his insight.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And Washington Post correspondent Spencer Hsu joins us to tell us what they found. Welcome to the program.

SPENCER HSU: Good to be with you.

BLOCK: And let's talk first about that bombing attempt on Christmas Day. The man charged in that attempt allegedly had a pouch of explosives sewn into his underwear. What did the GAO conclude about the scanners and whether they would have picked that up?

HSU: The issue here is that the amount of explosive powder was about 80 grams, that's about a quarter cup full.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

HSU: And then even if the machine operator had seen it, that operator would've had to make a decision to perhaps call for additional screening or questioning. And then there would've been a question of whether that interrogation or a physical pat down would've actually detected something in the location where he had it.

BLOCK: At the same, though, that bombing attempt was cited by the Obama administration as a main reason for this plan to double the number of these scanners at airports. This report seems to be saying maybe that's not worth the time or not worth the money.

HSU: That's exactly the point, I think. TSA says, look, we've never said that there's a single magic bullet or silver bullet solution...

BLOCK: So to speak, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HSU: ...so to speak, thank you. That this is better than the existing alternatives, which are basically metal detectors. And this, you know, in this case the individual apparently was, you know, provided the explosive material after other people had handled it. So it's not even clear that additional conventional explosive screening would have detected it.

TSA: look, it's better than what we have now. GAO's point is, well, maybe there should be another cost-benefit analysis to see if this $3 billion expense that's being accelerated, just how significantly it would've helped against this threat.

BLOCK: And is there any sense that TSA is doing that, is looking at this program and rethinking it in any way?

HSU: You know, to do a cost-benefit analysis you have to know what the benefit is, which means you have to know how significant the threat is. In this case, that's one of those imponderables. You have a mysterious, shadowy terrorist adversary that also reacts to your decisions. And so the, you know, philosophy that security officials have used is, you know, more and more layers to try and trip up somebody at some stage in the attack.

BLOCK: Spencer, there were a number of privacy concerns that have been raised about these body scanning machines before this. Would you expect that this report, which says, you know, we're not even sure if they really work as you would expect them to, does that sort of add fuel to that fire, in a sense?

HSU: The point is, before the Christmas Day bombing, this was politically controversial. Legislators in Europe and even in the House in the United States have recommended a sort of a go-slow approach, and that's what changed after Christmas Day.

BLOCK: Spencer Hsu covers homeland security for The Washington Post. Spencer, thanks very much.

HSU: Thank you.

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