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Forget Fear of Flying, Fear Airport Screening

Posted on Mar 28, 2012

By Amy Goodman

There was terror in the skies this week over Texas, caused not by a terrorist but by a pilot—a Flight Standards captain, no less. JetBlue Airways Capt. Clay Osbon, flying Flight 191 from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Las Vegas, began moving up and down the aisle after the jet was airborne, ranting, according to several passengers, about Iraq, Israel, al-Qaida and bombs, calling on passengers to recite the Lord’s Prayer, saying that they were “all going down.” An off-duty pilot in the cabin went to the cockpit to help the co-pilot with the emergency landing, while passengers and crew subdued Osbon. Osbon, who’d been with JetBlue almost since its founding, was taken to the hospital, suspended with pay, then criminally charged with interfering with a flight crew.

That’s enough to inspire a fear of flying in anyone. But just getting to your airplane these days may present a greater risk to your health than the actual flight.

New airport security screening technology, primarily backscatter X-ray devices, have come under increased scrutiny, as their effectiveness is questioned amid concerns that the radiation exposure may cause cancer. Adding to health concerns are both the graphic nature of the images captured, essentially nude photos of every person passing through the machine, and the aggressive—and for some, humiliating—nature of the alternative to the scans, the “enhanced pat-down” by a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins introduced a bill that would require independent laboratory testing of the X-ray backscatter machines, exactly what a group of University of California, San Francisco scientists called on the Obama administration to do in April 2010. Responding to the TSA claim (provided by the manufacturer, Rapiscan) that the radiation dose is less than “the dose one receives from eating one banana,” professor John Sedat and others wrote:  “While the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high. ... There is good reason to believe that these scanners will increase the risk of cancer to children and other vulnerable populations [including pregnant women].” When this risk is multiplied over 700 million annual travelers, Michael Love, Ph.D., the manager of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine X-ray facility, told Discover magazine, “someone is going to get skin cancer.” The European Union has banned the machines.

While flying the past few weekends, I refused to go through the scanners, which is every passenger’s right, although the option is almost never indicated anywhere (the Collins bill also requires clear signage). I was made to wait while TSA employees were clearly available to conduct what is euphemistically called an “enhanced pat-down.” The agent’s aggressive questioning of my decision to “opt out” was matched only by her aggressive pat-down when I would not give in. Arriving back in New York, a friend who had just flown in from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport recounted how the TSA agent had her hands down the front of my friend’s pants and said, “Feels like you’ve lost some weight”!


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Who gains? The two manufacturers of the full-body scanners have powerful friends. As reported in The Hill and The Washington Post, L-3 Communications, maker of the millimeter wave scanner, hired lobbyist Linda Daschle, wife of former Sen. Tom Daschle. Rapiscan, the maker of the X-ray backscatter machine, reportedly paid $1 million to the Chertoff Group, run by former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff, while Chertoff appeared in the media touting the value of the machines. Each machine costs the taxpayer about $150,000, but that is only the purchase; installation, then staffing, costs much more.

TSA agents themselves may face the greatest risks. A recent TSA inspector general’s report acknowledged that “wing shields be installed to further reduce radiation exposure levels for backscatter operators.” It also noted that TSA employees reported insufficient time for training on the machines. Michael Grabell, a reporter with ProPublica who has written extensively on full-body scanners, told me: “Radiation technicians have told some of the TSA screeners that ‘If I were on these machines, I’d be wearing a radiation badge.’ But the TSA has refused to let them.”

All these concerns have led the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center to sue the TSA and DHS, seeking a halt to the use of the scanners, at least until independent testing of the risks is performed, and the results made public.

Until we know that these full-body scanners are safe, I’m opting out.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,000 stations in North America. She is the author of “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

© 2012 Amy Goodman

Distributed by King Features Syndicate

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, March 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm Link to this comment

The TSA is one function that should be taken over by the airlines and privatize.

Fly at your own risk, if anything happens sue the airlines if you live.

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By jimmmmmy, March 30, 2012 at 4:17 pm Link to this comment

How convenient it is that the 1%ers are not subject to any of these Gestapo tactics when they fly. Private lounge, polite, cursory customs check, private loading and unloading half hour before departure check-in, free food and drinks. Good to live in a democracy Like the U.S.. Yeah right!

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Blueokie's avatar

By Blueokie, March 30, 2012 at 10:00 am Link to this comment

A couple of points about this article.

Most of the “discount” and regional carriers have draconian rules concerning their pilots and flight crews.  More information is needed about Capt. Osborn’s work schedule.  He could easily have been on duty for 36 of the last 42 hours, flying days and nights.  The long term stress of those working conditions, undoubtedly augmented with legal prescription amphetamines and sedatives to maintain it, would lead almost invariably to a psychotic break.  Happily, as those government condoned practices enhance corporate profit, they are not treated as a danger to the flying public.

The TSA was created in the panic of 9/11 to give the public the illusory idea that the government was concerned with safety and security.  The old system was based on the airlines paying the cost of security screeners, the jobs were minimum wage with no benefits that had an annual turnover of 80+%.  The 9/11 hijackers entry to the transportation system via small regional airports through contract carriers was was exploiting the weak link in the chain, even with that, had nominal effort been made the hijackers would have been denied access to the planes.  One of the chief reasons for the formation of the TSA was the externalization of security costs from the airlines to the taxpayer.  Conditions haven’t changed that much for the screeners, excluding the fact that they have fewer workers rights now.  They are essentially recruited with the notion of being Chuck Norris wannabes with government authority to feel up old ladies in wheelchairs and four year olds with impunity.

The “new improved” X-Ray security systems in airports are a joke, as others have noted, commercial cargo that is in the holds of every flight is rarely if ever given any scrutiny at all, as this would “cost” business.  It is purposefully done to invite another incident that will incur another round of the loss of civil liberties and increase taxpayer funding to the corporations of well connected politicians using the revolving door of the military/security complex and “private” business.  How much sense does it make that a low dose X-Ray at the dentist office requires a thick heavy lead apron with the dental technician stepping out of the room, while the X-Rays in airports irradiate everyone waiting in line to step into the machines for their dose, so goons can have the vicarious thrill of having the power to see “naked” pictures of anyone going through the airport that they choose.

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By Anne, March 30, 2012 at 7:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In February 2011 I went through my first backscatter
scanner at the San Diego airport after a great
vacation in CA. By the time I walked away from the
scanner to the boarding gate I was very ill. I spent
my flight home completely miserable, fighting nausea
and extremely weak and dizzy. I then spent an unhappy
week in bed fighting the effects of the scan. To
date, I still have pain in the back of my head where
my barrette was placed, although after more than a
year it doesn’t feel like my head is on fire in that
spot anymore.
I am a simple US citizen. My adventures in dealing
with the government are limited to the DMV,
passports, marriage forms, birth certificates and
filing my taxes for thirty years. I had no idea what
to do about it, but it seemed to me that the right
thing was to inform the TSA about my experience, so
no one else was harmed. I emailed the TSA about my
experience in February 2011. The TSA issued a vague
form reply. I then wrote my two state senators about
what happened with the scanner and the TSA. In a
polite nod to my existence, I received a form about a
related issue. On March 1 Alaska Senator Mark
Begich’s office replied with an essay on scanner
modesty. No mention of the possible radiation danger
to the public my email had addressed. Over one year
later, I have yet to receive any response from Alaska
Senator Lisa Murkowski. I have also had no reply from
another US senator who made a big press announcement
about fighting the dangers of scanners. Apparently,
my junior high gov’t teacher knew nothing, you do
need to be more than a US citizen to rate a reply
from Washington. Although I didn’t think it possible,
my faith in Congress is now sub-glacial.
I have done some research as to why the scanner
harmed me to this extent, when it appeared to do no
harm to my husband or other passengers. I found an
NPR article that offered me a clue. According to the
research by the UCSF scientists referenced in the May
17, 2010 article at, “Scientists Question
Safety of New Airport Scanners” - 5% of 700 million
passengers may be at risk due to radiation
sensitivity. Doing the math, that is 35 MILLION human
beings. Quoting from this NPR article:
“Recent research, Brenner says, indicates that about
5 percent of the population — one person in 20 — is
especially sensitive to radiation. These people have
gene mutations that make them less able to repair X-
ray damage to their DNA.”
The TSA and other government agencies apparently were
made aware of the possible serious radiation risks to
some passengers before implementation of the scanner
program - risks which may eventually create CANCER -
and went ahead anyway. They continue to minimize the
risk to the public. If protection of the public is
their actual priority, logically they should have
finalized research into the effects of the scanners
before rushing to unleash them on innocent travelers.
It is unclear to me at this point if protecting the
planes is considered more important and a higher
priority than the people flying in them. My own life
and others like myself appears to have been and may
still be considered an acceptable loss to those
implementing the scanner program and the government
agencies that support them.
By the way, I still fly. Living in Alaska, I have no
choice. So far, the patdowns are not too bad. I hope
that more people will become informed of the dangers
of these scanners - I will never go near one again.

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By smarly, March 29, 2012 at 12:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As soon as the unconstitutional treatment of passengers began (radiation or molestation), I quit flying. Things will never change unless we decide in large we are not going to put up with such treatment. I’m not holding my breath, though. In spite of all the bumper stickers to the contrary, Americans are the biggest cowards on the face of the earth.

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By John in Kerrville, March 29, 2012 at 9:14 am Link to this comment

I went from San Antonio to Houston.  They have 1 x-ray machine in each terminal. 
Every passenger was required to pass thru it.  Houston is a much busier airport
than San Antonio, but there was also just 1 x-ray machine in each terminal, so
only certain people, supposedly selected at random, went thru it.  Everybody else
just went thru the old metal detectors.  Now does that make sense?

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By Junior G-Man, March 29, 2012 at 9:10 am Link to this comment

Balkas: the TSA is authorized to monitor all modes of transportation, and has begun metastasizing to ground and rail—searching semis outside Atlanta, for example

John and Lisa: even if Americans had the dignity to raise their voices about this, what really matters is that TSA agents have the power to make you miss your plane.

PatrickHenry: I don’t fly either, if I can avoid it. And if the airlines want my business, they should do something about the TSA. America is a plutocracy, after all. However, flying is the safest form of travel. So how many more people die on our highways each year because they refuse to fly?

There is also a gaping hole in airport security that no one seems to mention. I explain it in my new book “Who’s Winning the War on Terror,” which has two chapters on airport security and one about the junk science on which it based.

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By balkas, March 29, 2012 at 7:11 am Link to this comment

next escalation in spying on citizens wld be scanning people on streets, in malls,
doctors/dentist’s offices, restaurants, in billiard pools…..
which might be better than being observed from a car; then trailed on foot;
approached and commanded to answer some questions while ensuring that the
tracked person sees the gun the tracker has on his person….
but living in the greatest country, blessed by god, nation of laws, etc., most
americans wold probably accept all that as well.

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thecrow's avatar

By thecrow, March 29, 2012 at 5:54 am Link to this comment

When Osbon yelled, “They’re going to take us down!”, he meant muslim terrorists, right?

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thecrow's avatar

By thecrow, March 29, 2012 at 5:49 am Link to this comment

Poor Capt. Osbon should have known that with so many “well-dressed men” onboard, he and his aircraft were perfectly safe.

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By John in Kerrville, March 29, 2012 at 5:35 am Link to this comment

Recently after going through the x-ray machine at Airport screening I was told I
required extra screening, which of course turned up nothing.  Fortunately I had
checked in early for my flight!  I asked the screener what had set the machine off? 
He replied that it was probably the metal clips on the suspenders I was wearing. 
Very few people wear suspenders any more, and the machines were not
programmed to recognize them.

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By Bill Fisher, March 29, 2012 at 3:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

TSA only provides an illusion of security but is nothing more than a jobs program for the unemployable. After sixty billion dollars over eight years they can’t cite one success. In two separate GAO tests in 2011, TSA failed to detect weapons 70% of the time and 60% of the freight in the cargo-hold remains unscreened. They confiscate items their website says are allowed while four of their screeners are caught smuggling drugs through security.

There have been 10 TSA screeners arrested this year and 72 TSA screeners were arrested in 2011 for crimes, including rape and murder. Of those, eleven were for sex crimes involving children and four for smuggling contraband through security, which could have easily been explosives. They can’t prevent crime within their own ranks, but we’re supposed to trust this agency with airport security.

This agency is a national disgrace and complete failure. The lack of responsible management explains why so many abuses and failures continue to occur. TSA is too broken to be reformed and must be replaced with something that actually works.

TSA Crimes & Abuses

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By Lisa Simeone, March 29, 2012 at 3:46 am Link to this comment

There are some of us out here who’ve been anti-TSA
activists from the beginning.  We’ve been writing,
blogging about, and trying to publicize TSA abuses for
years now.  And we won’t stop.

But we know that millions of the United Sheeple of
America don’t care.  They’re perfectly happy with the
bullying, robbing, stripping, and groping—as long as
it happens to someone else.  (Then again, there are
those who like to lick the authoritarian boot—the
“Anything For Safety” crowd.)

The instances of abuse are not few and far between;
they are legion.  A colleague and I have been keeping
track of them for the past two years.  Find us at Travel
Underground dot org.  Click on “Master Lists of TSA
Abuses and Crimes.”

And read TSA News:

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, March 29, 2012 at 3:32 am Link to this comment

I quit flying 8 years ago when my 5 year old had to take off his belt for an 18 year old TSA screener at Manchester NH.

After flying for more than 50 years spanning dozens of countries I refuse to be treated as such by idiots.

I can remember the days of Pan Am and stewardesses who treated passengers with respect, now get out of line and face the wrath.

I’ll vote with my wallet, they can do without my business.

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By c peterson, March 28, 2012 at 10:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I always opt out due to flying almost every week. The TSA people are always very surprised to find that I “want” a pat down. They say that I am stupid for listening to scary news stories, My retort is usually something along the lines of “and they also used to fill teeth with lead fillings, and those were totally safe too!” and they get the point.

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By jimmmmmy, March 28, 2012 at 6:53 pm Link to this comment

Good article full of useful info. I’v quit flying commercially because in Canada the police beat and kill people in airport if the become disrespectful

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