March 22, 2010, 8:57 PM — A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows that the Transportation Security Administration plans to install more than double the number of whole body scanners at U.S. airports than originally planned.
Instead of deploying 878 units by the end of 2014, the TSA now plans to install as many as 1,800 scanners -- or advanced imaging technologies -- at U.S. airports. Rather than using them as an optional, secondary screening measure, the TSA's revised strategy calls for the increasing the use of the devices as a compulsory, primary screening measure "where feasible," the report said.
The TSA's revised plans stem from the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt of Northwest Flight 25. The new plans will cost the TSA an additional $2.4 billion in staffing costs alone, the GAO said.The report called on the TSA to do a complete cost-benefit analysis of the technology to determine an optimal deployment strategy going forward.
"While GAO recognizes that TSA is attempting to address a vulnerability exposed by the December 2009 attempted attack, a cost-benefit analysis is important as it would help inform TSA's judgment," the report said.
The TSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Whole body scanners are designed to detect nonmetallic weapons and explosives concealed under a passenger's clothing, such as the explosive PETN powder that the would-be Christmas Day bomber, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Abdul Mutallab, concealed in his underwear. The technology is being rolled out at 30 major U.S. airports, most recently at Boston's Logan International and Chicago's O'Hare.
Supporters of the scanners say the technology is vital to bolstering security at U.S. airports. Despite complaints by travelers subjected to whole body scans, the technology appears to be supported by a majority of Americans. A USA Today Gallup poll taken in the aftermath of the failed bombing attempt indicated considerable support, with 78% of the respondents favoring the use of whole body scanners if it improved airline security.
Privacy groups and others opposed to the technology , meanwhile, claim that use of the scanners amounts to a strip search of air travelers. Security analysts and even the GAO itself have called for a thorough review of the effectiveness of the technology in day-to-day airport security operations.