House passes Chaffetz bill banning 'invasive' airport screenings

Published June 4, 2009 4:19 pm

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Freshman Rep. Jason Chaffetz scored his first legislative victory Thursday, nabbing more than 300 votes to limit the use of airport screening devices that peer through travelers' clothes.

Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who originally thought he would have to withdraw his bill for lack of support, drew votes from Democrats and Republicans to ban the primary use of "whole-body imaging" technology, which uses radio waves to check passengers for potential weapons.

Chaffetz said the pictures gleaned from those scans essentially show naked bodies and no one could guarantee the images wouldn't end up being saved or copied.

"I want to have as much safety and security on the airplanes" as everyone else, Chaffetz said. "But there comes a point when, in the name of safety and security, we overstep that line, and we have an invasion of privacy."

Salt Lake City International Airport is one of 19 airports nationwide testing the new technology, which involves taking a 360-degree picture of a traveler with radio waves. The images, with faces blurred, then are checked by a Transportation Security Administration official elsewhere -- which Chaffetz argued still goes too far.

"You don't need to look at my wife and 8-year-old daughter naked," he said, "to secure that airplane."

The American Civil Liberties Union backed Chaffetz's effort, arguing the images produced are humiliating and an assault on passengers' dignity.

But the bill, which now goes to the Senate, faced opposition from within Republican ranks, with California Rep. Dan Lungren asserting that it would curb a necessary security tool. Lungren, who noted he had an artificial hip and often faced pat-downs by airport officials after setting off metal detectors, said the imaging machines could help detect such things as small improvised explosive devices, plastic explosives or other weapons.

"We have been working for many years since 9/11 to try and come up with devices that will allow us to be able to detect those kind of things that, if brought on airliners, would be a threat to passengers," Lungren said, and whole-body imaging meets that need.

Chaffetz's bill permits the machines to be used a secondary screening devices but not as primary tools.

The TSA, which declined comment on Thursday's vote, has noted that the machines are being used as primary screening devices in six airports and up to 99 percent of passengers have opted to undergo that type of screening, "demonstrating a widespread public acceptance of it."

Chaffetz dismissed the need and said that any machine that "can tell a difference between a dime and a nickel" and in which faces can be seen so clearly that they must be blurred afterward isn't something Americans want.

Earlier Thursday, Chaffetz feared his measure would fizzle and nearly pulled it. In fact, the bill failed an initial voice vote but passed 310-118 on a tallied vote.

After attaching it to a TSA funding measure, he celebrated victory.

"Not bad for a rookie," Chaffetz said.

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How Utahns voted

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, supported Chaffetz's measure while Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, didn't vote.

About the bill

The House voted Thursday to limit the use of "whole-body imaging" now employed at 19 airports, including Salt Lake City International.

The machines use radio waves to detect prohibited items, including nonmetallic threats, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

But Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz and other critics say the devices essentially are a strip search that allows security officials to peer through passengers' clothes.

Chaffetz's bill, which now goes to the Senate, permits the machines to be used as secondary screening devices but not as primary tools.



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