By Colby Itkowitz of the Morning Call
During a vote in June, Lehigh Valley Congressman Charlie Dent raced around the House floor urging his colleagues to defeat legislation that would forbid full-body scans as the primary security at U.S. airports.
Dent, the Republicans' point person on transportation security issues on the Homeland Security Committee, warned that traditional metal detectors would not pick up more advanced explosives being sneaked onto an airplane. His efforts that day fell short.
But the failed Christmas Day attack, allegedly by a Nigerian man on a jetliner en route to Detroit, has shed new light on airport security and its vulnerabilities.
The chemical cocktail that 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to use as an explosive on a Northwest Airlines jet would not have been detected by standard metal detectors. But technology that scans underneath a passenger's clothes would have picked up the explosives.
On Wednesday, Dent said he plans a full-fledged effort to jump-start the debate on implementing full-body scans as widely as possible. He said he is encouraged by comments from President Barack Obama that suggest the White House will review airport screening policies.
''I'm going to kick up some dust down in Washington and say we have to resurrect this issue,'' said Dent, who represents the 15th District. ''We had a 10-minute debate on it and not a lot of members were paying close enough attention to it. They are going to understand it better now.''
The decision to prohibit full-body scans as the primary screening technology was part of a larger debate on legislation to reauthorize programs under the Transportation Security Administration, an agency formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The main argument against the technology is concern over invasion of privacy.
During a congressional hearing in June on the issue, the TSA's acting administrator, Gale Rossides, said the official who views the full-body scan is in a remote location and does not see the passenger's face. The technology, she said, does not store the image or allow it to be transmitted.
Privacy advocates have called the body scanners a ''virtual strip search,'' but new software projects a stylized image rather than an actual picture onto a computer screen, highlighting the area of the body where objects are concealed in pockets or under clothing.
Currently, the technology is in use at 19 airports in the United States. The TSA can deploy it at other airports, but the legislation Dent attempted to stop would limit its use to secondary searches. That bill has not been voted on in the Senate.
At the June hearing, Rossides almost seemed to foreshadow last week's attack.
''Those who intend to do harm today have moved way beyond metal items, and they are in fact looking for things that they can conceal,'' she said. ''They are looking for things that the walk-through metal detector cannot detect and the whole-body imaging technology can.''
But some worry the technology debate will overshadow a larger problem of failed intelligence and a breakdown in communication.
Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant in Colorado who has worked in the industry for 35 years, said full-body scanning could only be a slice of the solution.
''If it becomes a be-all solution, then it misleads us to believe better passenger screening will make us more secure,'' Boyd said. ''We're just as vulnerable as we were on Sept. 10
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