House lawmakers expect to take up legislation Wednesday that would prohibit government security officials from using controversial whole-body imaging machines to screen airplane passengers at primary airport checkpoints.
The machines are being tested at 19 airports by the Transportation Security Administration, with six airports allowing passengers to voluntarily go through them at primary security checkpoints and the rest using scanners at secondary checkpoints.
The machines use millimeter-wave technology that shows a three-dimensional image of a passenger without clothes. The images allow security officials to determine whether somebody is hiding threatening objects under their clothes.
But lawmakers and civil liberties advocates say the machines raise too many privacy concerns. In response, Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., have offered an amendment to the TSA authorization bill that would prevent the machines from being used at primary checkpoints.
"The TSA does great work, and I appreciate what the men and women are doing there trying to secure airplanes," Chaffetz said in a video on his Web site. "But whole-body imaging goes too far."
"It basically looks at your body naked. ... According to the TSA, they can even see the sweat on somebody's back," Chaffetz added. "Nobody needs to see my kids ... and see my wife naked in order to secure an airplane."
TSA is evaluating its trial use of the scanners to decide whether more airports should use whole-body imaging at its primary checkpoints.
"Over the course of testing this technology as the primary screening procedure in six airports, 99.6 percent of passengers choose this technology over other screening options," a TSA spokesman said. "Passengers who do not wish to receive millimeter-wave screening can use the walk-through metal detector and undergo a pat-down procedure."
TSA officials argue that privacy safeguards are in place. The security official who views the image is at a remote location; facial images are blurred; and images are deleted immediately after viewing.
While the amendment from Chaffetz and Shea-Porter is likely to get bipartisan support when the TSA bill comes to the floor Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats are at odds over other provisions in the overall bill, which is the first agency authorization bill since TSA was created.
In a Homeland Security Committee report accompanying the bill, Republicans complained that Democrats were rushing the measure to the House floor with "unclear and unfunded mandates under an artificial sense of urgency."
One provision Republicans oppose would allow the president to determine whether former detainees at the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be prevented from flying if they are released into the United States. Republicans want such former detainees to be automatically put on the no-fly list even if the Obama administration no longer considers them a threat to national security.
Another disputed provision would delay by two years a mandate requiring TSA to screen all air cargo coming into the United States by passenger plane by August 2010. In the committee report, Republicans wrote that the original deadline was one of several that Democrats created "for political gain, without regard to feasibility or cost."
The Democratic majority "now finds itself in the difficult situation of walking back those policies," the GOP lawmakers added.