Legislator feuds with TSA over scanners

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

Alaska state Rep. Chris Tuck is running TV ads telling people they can skip the new body scanners at Alaska airports and should call airport police if the Transportation Security Administration gets too frisky with the resulting pat-downs.

But Tuck is wrong in making the claim that "inappropriate images are taken and stored" with the security scanners, according to the TSA.

Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat, started running the ads Sunday night during the KTUU news, which airs statewide. The commercial is scheduled to appear during the morning and 6 p.m. newscasts for a total of eight airings through Wednesday.

Tuck said the air time is costing him $2,060 and that he's paying for it out of his Public Offices Expense Term, or POET, account, which is a place legislators are allowed to put surplus campaign cash after winning an election.

"I'm hoping to be able to properly inform people of their rights going through security," Tuck said in an interview Monday. "I think that people who don't fly frequently don't know what their rights are. ... During the holiday season sometimes that's the only time that people get a chance to fly."

TSA installed body scanners at the Anchorage airport on Dec. 9. They placed scanners in Fairbanks soon after. They'll arrive in Juneau and Ketchikan in the coming months. The scanners at the airports in Alaska and elsewhere have newer software, different from the older scanners that show unclothed images and raised privacy issues in the Lower 48.

These newer scanners do not show an actual image of the traveler who is being scanned. Instead, the scanner's display shows a generic, gray human cutout form. Any objects hidden beneath the passenger's clothing are indicated by images of small, yellow squares.

Tuck's 30-second ad, in which he's seen standing in front of the Alaska state seal and identifies himself as a representative, begins by noting that "TSA installed new body scanners at our airports."

"These machines still allow TSA screeners to see through your clothes. ... If you don't want inappropriate pictures of you or your children taken and stored, or if you're concerned with the possible health effects, all you have to do is say, 'I opt out.' It is your right," Tuck says in the ad.

"Instead, they will pat you down. And if they touch you inappropriately, call the airport police," he concludes.

TSA officials have repeatedly said that the images from its body scanners are not stored. That includes the older and more controversial devices used in the Lower 48 as well as the newer version of the scanners that have been installed at Alaska airports. The device at Alaska airports is basically a see-through enclosure that the passengers enter and raise their arms, at which point two sensors rotate around their body, emitting electromagnetic waves.

TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said Monday the waves detect concealed objects but don't produce an image.

"The technology does not take a picture; it's bouncing electromagnetic waves off the body ... there is no image to store," she said.

Tuck said in a phone interview Monday that a CNN reporter had "just informed" him that the Alaska scanners cannot store traveler images.

"Might be my mistake on that one," said Tuck, although he said he has not seen documentation and thought the older body scanners used in the Lower 48 do store images. He was also skeptical that the Alaska scanners are incapable of storing unclothed images and challenged TSA to provide him the opportunity to check out the machines and make sure.

"I would like to have TSA prove to me that these machines are incapable of storing it," Tuck said.

Tuck said he always opts for a private pat-down when he is traveling and confronted with a body scanner.

"The reason why I do the private pat-downs is because, as a political official, I don't want there to be a picture of me, because everybody has a phone and cameras, a picture of me with my arms up being frisked as if I'm a criminal," he said.

Asked about Tuck's statement that passengers should call airport police if they are touched inappropriately, TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said Monday that passengers should ask to speak to a supervisor if there is a problem.

Dankers said the electromagnetic waves are harmless and meet all known national and international standards.

"If you think of some of the other things that emit a signal, like a cellphone, it's significantly less than that," Dankers has said.

The older version of the scanners uses more controversial X-rays but TSA maintains they also do not pose a health risk.

Tuck said people should not have to sacrifice their dignity to travel. The scanners aren't effective anyway, he said.

"All we're doing is creating security theater, giving Americans the belief that they are safer. But the real question is, 'Are we safer?' " he said.

Anchorage travel analyst and TSA critic Scott McMurren applauded Tuck's effort. McMurren said he believes TSA does store the images.

"They have to store them; how else would they go back and see them if there is an issue?" he said.

But McMurren said that the bigger point is that the body scanners are "invasive, degrading, ineffective and expensive."

Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9/11 commission, said in a report this summer that body scanners are "not effective at detecting explosives hidden within the body." There has been sharp dispute over whether Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who passed through airport screening in Amsterdam and then boarded a Christmas Day 2009 flight with plastic explosives sewn into his underwear, would have been stopped by a full body scanner.

TSA's Dankers maintained on Monday that the new body scanners would indeed have stopped the so-called "Underwear Bomber." She said the "Shoe Bomber" -- Richard Reid, who tried to detonate explosives in his sneakers during a 2001 flight -- is a different story because the electromagnetic waves don't bounce off the bottom of the feet. She said that is why passengers are asked to remove their shoes going through security.

Reach Sean Cockerham at scockerham@adn.com or 257-4344.

Video: Rep. Tuck's ad
Photos: Anchorage airport scanners
Anchorage Daily News