Last year, in reaction to public anger from members of Congress, passengers and advocates, the TSA contracted with the Army Public Health Command to do independent radiation surveys. But email messages obtained in a lawsuit brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties group, raise questions about the independence of the Army surveys.
One email sent by TSA health and safety director Jill Segraves shows that local TSA officials were given advance notice and allowed to “pick and choose” which systems the Army could check.
That email also suggests that Segraves considered the Army inspectors a valuable public-relations asset: “They are our radiation myth busters,” she wrote to a local security director.
Some TSA screeners are concerned about their own radiation exposure from the backscatters, but the TSA has not allowed them to wear badges that could measure it, said Milly Rodriguez, health and safety specialist for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA officers.
“We have heard from members that sometimes the technicians tell them that the machines are emitting more radiation than is allowed,” she said.
McCarthy, the TSA spokesman, said the machines are physically incapable of producing radiation above the industry standard. In the email, he said, the inspections allow screeners to ask questions about radiation and address concerns about specific machines.
The company’s lobbying campaign
While the TSA maintains that the body scanners are essential to preventing attacks on airplanes, it only began rolling them out nine years after 9/11.
After the attempted shoe-bombing in December 2001, the federal government conducted a trial of a Rapiscan backscatter at the Orlando International Airport. But the revealing images drew protests that the machines amounted to a virtual strip search.
The TSA considered the scanners again after two Chechen women blew up Russian airliners in 2004. Facing a continued outcry over privacy, the TSA instead moved forward with a machine known as a “puffer” because it released several bursts of air on the passengers’ clothes and analyzed the dislodged particles for explosives. But after discovering the machines were ineffective in the field and difficult to maintain, the TSA canceled the program in 2006.
Around that time, Rapiscan began to beef up its lobbying on Capitol Hill. It opened a Washington, D.C., office and, according to required disclosures, more than tripled its lobbying expenditures in two years, from less than $130,000 in 2006 to nearly $420,000 in 2008. It hired former legislative aides to Rep. David Price, D-N.C., then chairman of the homeland security appropriations subcommittee, and to Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.
It started a political action committee and began contributing heavily to Price; Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., then head of the homeland security committee; Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., also on that committee; and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the top Republican on the Senate appropriations committee.
In addition, it opened a new North Carolina plant in Price’s district and expanded its operations in Ocean Springs, Miss., and at its headquarters in Torrance, Calif., in Harman’s district.
“Less than a month after U.S. Senator Trent Lott and other local leaders helped officially open Rapiscan Systems’ new Ocean Springs factory,” Lott’s office announced in a news release in late 2006, “the company has won a $9.1 million Department of Defense contract.”
But Rapiscan still hadn’t landed a major contract to roll out its X-ray body scanners in commercial airports. Indeed, in 2007, with new privacy filters in place, the TSA began a trial of millimeter-wave and backscatter machines at several major airports, after which the agency opted to go with the millimeter-wave machines. The agency said health concerns weren’t a factor.
But with the 2009 federal stimulus package, which provided $300 million for checkpoint security machines, the TSA began deploying backscatters as well. Rapiscan won a $173 million, multiyear contract for the backscatters, with an initial $25 million order for 150 systems to be made in Mississippi.