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The Real Problem With Airport "Virtual Strip" Machines

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LAX has 'em. You can find them, in fact, at 19 major airports in the U.S. In the not too distant future, all or most of the nation's 450 commercial airfields will have them, too.

I'm talking about full body scanners that can "see through" passengers' clothing to reveal contraband that might otherwise be missed by more conventional X-ray machines or metal detectors. Critics argue that going through a full body scanner is like being "virtually strip searched," and want them banned on privacy grounds.

The ACLU of Southern California, and like-minded groups across the nation, are opposed to their use. Even one Republican, law-and-order-type Congressman, California representative Tom McClintock, says, just say no!, to full body scanners unless they are used specifically for individuals already singled out for special attention because of suspicious activity or a fishy story that doesn't really check out.

But while the privacy issue is certainly a compelling one, I would argue there is a far better reason to not waste taxpayer money (each machine costs roughly $170 thousand) on more of these contraptions: they don't really do the job!

Now, I don't mean they do not "see through" peoples' clothing. Technically they work like a charm. (Though even the manufacturers admit they might miss something tucked into the skin folds of a rather large...ok, I mean fat...passenger).

What I mean is, by definition, they look for what yesterday's would-be terrorist was up to and not what tomorrow's would-be terrorist is likely to try.

In the course of reporting a story on these machines for radio, I had the opportunity to chat with Bruce Schneier in Long Island, New York. He is, by both his own description and others, "an internationally renowned security technologist" as well as the author of several books. He is often quoted by some of the best news organizations around and has even testified before Congress.

He was very clear about his objections to full body scanners. He pointed out that terrorists are always looking to improve their skills and try to stay one or even two steps ahead of those trying to catch them. By the time law enforcement starts looking for explosives hidden in shoes, the terrorists are sewing the explosives into their undergarments. And, by the time we start screening people with full body scanners for explosives hidden in underwear, terrorist wannabes will probably be, excuse me now, hiding them inside various body cavities where, the makers of the machines readily admit, they would probably not be detected by the current technology.

So, Schneier's point is that in a world where governments have to weigh carefully how they spend money, it is simply not cost effective to invest in an army of these expensive machines to detect something that future terrorists are not likely to try again.

What, then, is the solution?

It all comes down to intelligence--something apparently missing from our so-called intelligence agencies, considering how badly they all blundered their handling of the case of the suspected Nigerian terrorist who, it would appear, came very, very close Christmas Day to blowing up a packed jetliner as it slid down the glidescope to a landing at Detroit's International airport.

Stopping these dangerous clowns before they get within miles of an airport is what the name of the game ought to be. By the time they arrive at the terminal, unless you want to always count on luck, the game may just be over!

Charles Feldman is a journalist, media consultant and co-author of the book, No Time To Think--The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-Hour News Cycle." He has covered police and politics in Los Angeles since 1995. He is also a licensed pilot who has covered many aviation and terrorist-related stories. He is a regular contributor of investigative reporting for KNX1070 Newsradio.