House Republicans face off against former DHS official over TSA X-ray machines

Mike Riggs Contributor
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Amidst the outcry over the TSA’s new screening procedures — an X-ray machine that depicts passengers’ genitals with precision, a full-body pat down that goes up every crevice and around every curve — one man has dared to go against the grain. Former DHS Assistant Secretary Stewart Baker appeared before the House subcommittee on National Security Wednesday, where he testified that critics of the TSA’s scanning equipment are “making a privacy mountain out of a mole hill.”

The hearing was held to determine whether the full-body X-ray scanners used at airports across the country are effective and safe, and to what degree they conform to the American expectation of privacy.

Nearly across the board, the consensus was that the machines are not and do not.

The TSA is “so quick to deploy technology at an outrageous cost and invasion of privacy just to use technology,” subcommittee chair Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, said.

“Every member of Congress should be required to see the extensive failure rate,” said Rep. John Mica, Florida Republican, in reference to a classified report that contains, among other things, reports written by Mica and his staff as they personally tested — and outwitted — TSA checkpoints across the country.

House oversight committee Chair Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, upped the ante when he told the committee that a TSA screener had recently told him his congressional ID was fake, and then requested to see the congressman’s California driver’s license.

The expert witnesses also skewed pro-privacy. Alaska Democratic state Representative Sharon Cissna testified about refusing to enter the X-ray machine or be patted down, on account of having recently undergone a masectomy, and because she experienced “bad touch” as a teenager. Cissna was “felt up” despite her objections, which she said triggered a form of sexual assault PTSD.

Marc Rotenberg from the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Fred Cate from the University of Indiana argued that the scanners were neither effective (they reportedly would not have detected the bomb used by the Underwear Bomber in Christmas 2009), nor their use consistent with the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

There was even a doctor in attendance, David Brenner of Columbia, to testify about the harmful levels of radiation emitted by back-scatter X-ray machines.

And then there was Baker, who defended the machines as the best possible solution currently available for a problem that has no perfect solution. The real problem with the TSA’s technology, Baker argued in his testimony and during the hearing, are “privacy lobbyists.”

“Privacy concerns are counter-productive,” Baker told Chaffetz when asked about the “mole hill” line in his written testimony. “If we had listened to privacy advocates, we would have no machines deployed” that could stop the kind of bomb used by the Christmas Day bomber, Baker argued. “It’s the result of privacy lobbying. It’s counterproductive.”

Now a partner at the international law firm Steptoe & Johnson, Baker was the first assistant secretary for Policy at DHS, a position he held from 2005 to 2009.

In his written testimony, Baker chided the privacy advocates he was seated next to for obstructing less invasive TSA security measures.

“Some of the same groups and people who campaigned against letting TSA use travel data to distinguish among passengers are here today criticizing the TSA for treating everyone with an equal degree of suspicion,” Baker wrote.

Baker argued that a TSA-run trusted passenger system would perhaps spare frequent fliers the indignity of being pat down or scanned, but that the U.S. “can never have a program that guarantees reduced levels of inspection….We will always need more random checks to al-Qaeda from trying to game the system.”

In response, Chaffetz said that he had recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, where secreted bombs are a common occurrence. Chaffetz said that he did not see a single back-scatter X-ray machine while he was in-country, and that the troops relied far more heavily on trained dogs. This was especially relevant, Chaffetz said, in light of Baker’s claim that his dog had given him more aggressive patdowns than the TSA.

No one from the TSA attended Wednesday’s hearing, due to the presence of Rotenberg, who is suing the TSA to stop using its back-scatter machines.

Chaffetz said that TSA Administrator John Pistole’s last-minute decision to back out of the hearing was “inexcusable and embarrassing,” and “highly inappropriate.”

A staffer for the subcommittee said that the TSA has since agreed to attend a later hearing.