WASHINGTON — Body scanners that look under airline passengers' clothing for hidden weapons could be in nearly half the nation's airport checkpoints by late 2011, according to an Obama administration plan announced Monday.
The $215 million proposal to acquire 500 scanners next year, combined with the 450 to be bought this year, marks the largest addition of airport-security equipment since immediately after the 9/11 attacks. There are only 40 body scanners in a total of 19 airports now.
"It's a move in the right direction," aviation-security consultant Douglas Laird said. "We need to scan all passengers."
The push for more scanners accelerated after the failed Christmas Day attempt to bomb an airliner near Detroit. Bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded Flight 253 in Amsterdam after walking through a metal detector with powder explosives hidden in his underwear. Police allege he tried to trigger an explosion by igniting the powder, which caught fire but did not cause any serious damage before Abdulmutallab was subdued by the crew and passengers.
Privacy advocate Marc Rotenberg called the scanners "a deeply invasive intrusion" that would inconvenience millions of innocent travelers with screening that takes longer than metal detectors. "We'll have another Homeland Security Department program for the war on terror used almost exclusively on Americans," said Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Laird said the administration should emphasize installing body scanners in major European airports "because that's where the threats come out of." European countries such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are adding the scanners. Countries such as Germany and Italy are considering the technology, which creates black-and-white images of passengers under their clothing.
Senior House Appropriations Committee member Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., welcomes the plan to spend $215 million on 500 new scanners next year. "The American people understand that this threat is real, and if we can provide equipment that will make their flights safer and prevent another attack, they will be supportive," Lowey said.
Among the other aviation-security upgrades the administration proposed in its 2011 budget:
Increasing the number of airport officers who patrol terminals looking for suspicious passengers to 3,350 from 3,000.
Increasing the number of bomb-sniffing dogs used at airports to 1,080 from 805.
Adding an unspecified number of air marshals to international flights.