Washington » Rep. Jason Chaffetz on Sunday defended his legislation to ban primary screening of airline passengers with whole-body imaging machines just days after a Nigerian man apparently attempted to blow up a flight landing in Detroit with chemicals he smuggled on board.
Chaffetz, R-Utah, pushed legislation through the House earlier this year that would prohibit U.S. airport screeners from using imaging machines which can peer through clothes to detect weapons or explosives. Former and current government officials said Sunday that such devices may aid in thwarting the ability of terrorists to bring aboard incendiary materials.
"It's a difficult balance between protecting our civil liberties and protecting the safety of people on airplanes," Chaffetz said Sunday. But, "I believe there's technology out there that can identify bomb-type materials without necessarily overly invading our privacy."
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian national, was charged Saturday in Michigan with two federal crimes, attempting to destroy an aircraft and placing a destructive device aboard that plane. Passengers and members of the flight crew subdued Abdulmutallab after smelling smoke and hearing popping noises.
The flight, which landed safely, originated at an Amsterdam airport, where screening can include whole-body imaging machines, Chaffetz says. It's unclear so far how much screening Abdulmutallab received.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this weekend that the nation should expand whole-body imaging scanners, which use radio waves or X-rays to peer through clothing; such devices are in use at Salt Lake City International Airport.
"This plot is an example of something we've known could exist in theory, and in order to be able to detect it, you've got to find some way of detecting things in parts of the body that aren't easy to get at," Chertoff told The Washington Post . "It's either pat-downs or imaging, or otherwise hoping that bad guys haven't figured it out, and I guess bad guys have figured it out."
Rep. Pete King, a New York Republican and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that airports should be using a full-body scan as well.
"Yes, I think we have to face up to this reality, that we live in a dangerous world where Islamic terrorists want to kill us," King said. "And, yes, there is some brief violation of privacy with a full-body scan. But on the other hand, if we can save thousands of lives, to me, we have to make that decision and we have to come down on the side of saving thousands of lives."
Chaffetz, whose legislation passed the House overwhelmingly but has languished in the Senate, says there are plenty of other law enforcement tools, such as heat sensors, that can detect weapons or explosives, and he noted that his bill would ban only primary use of the body imaging machines; screeners would be able, under his bill, to force a passenger through the machines as a secondary screening tool.
"I fly on airplanes every three, four days," Chaffetz said. "I'm a consumer of the airplanes, but there are other ways I think we can achieve the goal [of safety] without being so invasive on people's privacy."
Chaffetz said that since Abdulmutallab was on a government watch list, he should have been subjected to further screening.