Grumbling over weather-related delays this holiday season temporarily displaced consumer complaints about the full-body scanners that are being rushed into service at airports around the country, but the debate is likely to resume as soon as the snow melts.
Passengers' complaints – traditionally given little more than lip service – may find a friendlier reception among at least some of the incoming Republicans elected to Congress. Those of the Tea Party persuasion have let it be known that stopping government waste and protecting individual rights – well, some individual rights anyway -- will be at or near the top of their agenda.
For the defense contractors and high-tech industries that have come to rely on a steady stream of lucrative contracts from the Department of Homeland Security, this is about as welcome as being pulled out of line at the airport for an "enhanced" pat-down.
But fear not. The scanner-makers aren't letting their guard down. They're hiring armies of lobbyists to plead their case on Capitol Hill. The Washington Post reported recently that top scanner manufacturers spent at least $6 million on lobbying during 2010. As public opposition to the scanners grows, it's likely to be an even bigger bonanza for the lobbyists, who are often former government employees or Congressmen.
In fact, citizens who wanly pine for bipartisanship on Capitol Hill need look no farther than K Street, NW, D.C.'s fertile field where "retired" Republicans and Democrats graze among the lush greenery sown by the companies that harvest billions annually from the public coffers.
One such unlikely couple: former U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Linda Daschle, wife of Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), the former Senate majority leader. They labor in the vineyards for L-3 Communications, a New York-based company that has so far won about $900 million of TSA business for its airport body scanners.
Then there's Michael Chertoff. Remember him? Not long ago, Chertoff headed the Department of Homeland Security. After leaving DHS, he worked as a "consultant" for Rapiscan, another scanner-maker.
It's this kind of revolving-door job-jumping that makes would-be reformers, like Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), see red.
Chaffetz made jaws drop in 2009 when he introduced legislation to ban whole-body imaging at airports, saying that, “Passengers expect privacy underneath their clothing and should not be required to display highly personal details of their bodies as a pre-requisite to boarding an airplane.”
“Whole-body imaging is exactly what it says; it allows TSA employees to conduct the equivalent of a strip search. Nobody needs to see my wife and kids naked to secure an airplane. At $170,000 apiece, we can hardly afford the machines,” Chaffetz said back in April 2009.
Industry was quick to respond to Chaffetz, sending up attack squadrons of lobbyists to argue that the scanners provided the most reliable safeguard against terror in the sky. Perhaps more persuasive was the Christmas Day 2009 "underwear bomber," a would-be terrorist who attempted to detonate explosives concealed in his underwear on a flight approaching Detroit.
Even Chaffetz was moved to change his position. A few days after the Christmas Day incident, he said he would support the machines being widely deployed.
But notwithstanding the boxer-bomb fears, privacy advocates and civil libertarians say the king has no clothes.
They argue that the full-body scanners will go the way of the "puffers," the short-lived devices that tried to sniff passengers for explosive residues. They were abandoned as impractical after the TSA spent $30 million on them.
Among the most persistent critics is the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which has filed suit to stop the use of the scanners on the grounds that the procedure is "unlawful, invasive, and ineffective."
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has scheduled oral arguments in the case for March 10, 2011.
In its opening brief, EPIC argued that the federal agency has violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act, and the Fourth Amendment
Whether the new Congress is willing to fight heavy headwinds to throttle back the flow of taxpayer money to the scanner industry remains to be seen.