Controversial airport scanners identify more crooks than terrorists

December 11, 2010


checkpoint Indianapolis International has used body scanners for about two years, but more often since July. Cash, cocaine and booze are among their most frequent finds. (IBJ Photo/ Eric Learned)

Body scanners and pat-downs are supposed to make passengers safer by detecting devices that could bring down an airplane.

But the federal government’s latest, more-intrusive screening measures appear more useful in finding drugs and wads of cash than tools of terror, a review of Indianapolis Airport Police records suggests.

Guns and other potentially deadly items have been detected most often using conventional screening methods, such as metal detectors and bag X-ray machines.

Through November, at least seven of the 11 firearms/ammunition discovered at Indianapolis International’s two checkpoints were picked up by bag X-ray machines. Typically, the passengers said they forgot the guns or ammo was in their bags.

None of the police reports reviewed by IBJ indicated a gun or other dangerous device was detected by body scanners, which are controversial for their ability to reveal intimate details of a passenger’s body and for small amounts of radiation they emit.

The results didn’t surprise Minnesota-based security technologist Bruce Schneier.

“It’s pre-9/11 screening that’s doing the job,” said Schneier, who calls the latest measures “security theater.”

The Transportation Security Administration stepped up use of body scanners and pat-downs in the wake of the failed attempt last Christmas by “the underwear bomber.” The Nigerian man placed explosive material in his underwear in an attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit.

Cash and drugs

So imagine the red flags that went up among Indianapolis TSA screeners on Oct. 17, when the body imager on Concourse A detected an “anomaly” on the body of a man carrying both Nigerian and U.S. passports.

Gabriel Orobosa Ighile, 52, of Terre Haute, had a boarding pass to Detroit, where he was to catch a flight to Amsterdam and then travel to Abuja, Nigeria.

A subsequent pat-down discovered the anomaly was $19,800 in cash, 2,800 Nigerian naira and five British pounds, stuffed into his pocket.

After some phone calls, airport and TSA investigators learned Ighile was a 15-year employee of the U.S. Department of Justice who was working as an education specialist at the federal prison in Terre Haute.

“[Ighile] stated that he was forced to take cash on his trip because credit cards are virtually useless in Nigeria,” airport police said in their report.

Ighile was cleared to fly to Detroit.

The following day, the TSA screeners at Concourse B checkpoint thought they were on to something when 29-year-old Emmanuel Arrington, of Kokomo, stepped into a body scanner.

The TSA agent watching the screen observed “anomalies in the front groin area and buttock area,” wrote the airport police officer called to the scene.

A TSA agent conducting a “front and rear” pat-down couldn’t find anything. “Sweating, shaking and acting very nervous,” Arrington produced an ID with a picture that obviously was not of him, according to police.

The airport police officer found the scanner anomaly—a white oval pill with a “V” on one side, in Arrington’s pocket. He was wanted on a warrant out of Cass County for allegedly dealing in cocaine, according to the police report.

The body scanner proved a handy law enforcement tool. But in this case, at least, it was irrelevant as far as detecting an onboard terror threat.

Five of the nine drug busts documented by airport police at the checkpoints involved suspects whose illegal booty was detected by the controversial body scanners.

Perhaps the best-known bust was Oct. 10, when U.S. Airways flight attendant Floydrina Williams, 39, of East Point, Ga., stepped into a scanner. A suspicious blip on the image led to a pat-down that discovered wrappers police say were filled with cocaine. Williams initially tried to pass them off as tampons.

She was arrested.

On it goes, with a handful of other reports documenting discoveries of cocaine, marijuana and, in one case, a bottle of booze.

Last July 14, Oregon resident Jon Crawford was asked to raise his shirt after the imaging machine detected a big blip—a half-pint of Jack Daniels. After police determined Crawford wasn’t drunk, they scolded him and let him board his flight.

Scanners worth it?

So is this the highest and best use of controversial technology and screening methods that have caused uproar among passengers at airports nationwide?

“If there is any evidence that these scanners are making us safer, I haven’t seen it,” said Christopher Elliott, of Elliott.org, a passenger advocate site based in Washington, D.C.

“Actually, there’s some evidence that the scanners are dangerous, both in terms of potential radiation exposure and potential threats to our privacy, if not our civil liberties,” Elliot said. “I’d be curious to see TSA’s evidence that the scanners have made air travel safer. If it exists.”

Predictably, the TSA said it does not discuss specifics.

But the agency said that, nationwide this year, it has detected more than 130 “prohibited, dangerous or illegal items” using the body scanners. Many of those items are surrendered to TSA directly, without the assistance of local law enforcement, said TSA spokesman James Fotenos.

To the extent that those items pose a substantial threat, or violate the law, Indianapolis Airport Police are called to checkpoints, however, as TSA personnel generally don’t have authority to arrest.

Fotenos said the “advanced imaging technology” devices at Indianapolis were, until this July, used as a secondary screening technology, “meaning fewer passengers went through the technology than do today.”

The devices can detect both metallic and non-metallic items, such as liquids, plastics, powders and gels concealed on someone’s body, he said.

But security guru Schneier said manufacturers of the machines have stated that they would not have detected the type of explosive used by the would-be underwear bomber.

Schneier said there are two types of terrorists. One is the “nut case” who works alone who can be foiled by pre-9/11 security measures. The other is the sophisticated, well-funded representative of Al Qaeda or another sponsor of terror and, “honestly, nothing is going to stop them at the airport.”

He said Al Qaeda operations are often a step ahead of the TSA. When the agency confiscated box cutters and corkscrews from passengers, the terrorists attempted to use liquid explosives. When liquids were banned, they tried PETN in their underwear, and on it goes. “It’s a stupid game.”

Public acceptance

In spite of a media frenzy over new detection measures, passengers have been mostly compliant.

That’s despite attempts like the national protest on Nov. 24, orchestrated by WeWontFly.com, that encouraged passengers to opt out of a scan in favor of a pat-down.

“I was stopped by people who were appreciative of the extra precautions,” Indianapolis Airport Police Chief Bill Reardon said of the Thanksgiving travel period.

Nor have the rules appeared to affect business for Indianapolis-based Grueninger Travel Group, which handles corporate and leisure travel arrangements and operates the Ambassadair Travel Club, said principal Michael Grueninger.

Indianapolis did make national news last month when a Connecticut man was arrested at Indianapolis International for allegedly punching a TSA screener in the chest after being led through the imaging machine. The 51-year-old man claimed he was kidding with the TSA agent.•


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