Napolitano: “Very, very, very few” people get TSA patdowns

posted at 11:36 am on May 17, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

How many people actually suffer through TSA patdowns at airports?  Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says, “Well, actually, very, very, very few people get a pat-down.”  That’s three verys, which is kind of like a triple-dog dare — and PolitiFact decided to take up Napolitano on the dare.  As it turns out, Napolitano’s claim depends on your definition of “few” … and probably “very,” too:

Atlanta TSA spokesman Jon Allen told us that during March, 3 percent of air passengers were subject to a pat-down. The TSA collects this data by monitoring “data from select airports throughout the year,” he wrote in an email. That number is “consistent with that of previous time periods.” …

PolitiFact Georgia therefore took the TSA figures and did some math. The TSA’s Allen told us that “on an average day, about 2 million people are screened at TSA checkpoints.” Three percent of 2 million is 60,000 people.

That means that over the course of a month, roughly 1.8 million people receive a pat-down. That’s more than four times the population of Atlanta.

That doesn’t sound like “very, very, very” few people to us.

It depends on your perspective.  That can also describe the number of people covered under waivers granted at HHS for ObamaCare, too.  I’m betting they use four verys over at HHS to describe the impact of waivers.

PolitiFact gave Napolitano a “pants on fire” verdict for this claim, but it may not be the only one for TSA this week.  ProPublica reported yesterday that TSA claims of safety for the scanners that travelers can use to avoid the gate grope may not be as safe as TSA claimed, and that the science behind their claims cannot be reproduced to check it:

But some scientists with expertise in imaging and cancer say the evidence made public to support those claims is unreliable. And in anew letter sent to White House science adviser John Holdren, they question why the TSA won’t make the scanners available for independent testing by outside scientists. …

According to the agency and many radiation experts, the dose is so low, even for children or cancer patients, that someone would have to pass through the machines more than a thousand times before approaching the annual limit set by radiation safety organizations.

But the letter to the White House science adviser, signed by five professors at University of California, San Francisco, and one at Arizona State University, points out several flaws in the tests. Studies published in scientific journals in the last few months have also cast doubt on the radiation dose and the machines’ ability to find explosives.

A number of scientists, including some who believe the radiation is trivial, say more testing should be done given the government’s plans to put millions of passengers through the machines. And they have been disturbed by the TSA’s reluctance to do so.

Just to be clear, these scientists aren’t saying that the machines are unsafe, either.  What they’re saying is that the methodology used by TSA for their safety and dosage claims is flawed, and that they object to the lack of access to the technology so that independent tests can be conducted.  In fact, the mere suggestion of an independent study appears to shock TSA:

After her article was published, Smith-Bindman was contacted by a TSA public affairs officer. During the conversation, she suggested that she or other outside scientists be allowed to test the machine. The official was shocked by the suggestion and said such access could tip off people who want to avoid detection, Smith-Bindman said.

One scenario posed by scientists is that of mechanical failure.  The backscatter beam moves quickly, thanks to a high-speed rotating wheel that keeps it from sticking on one point of a body, which could create medical problems.  Scientists are concerned that machines in operation 24/7/365 could experience malfunction in the wheel.  TSA says that they have fail-safe systems and emergency stop buttons to keep passengers safe, but that’s not what Johns Hopkins researchers found:

When Johns Hopkins researchers visited the Rapiscan facility, the automatic termination appeared to work. But the full results of the shutoff tests are redacted.

What’s more, the test system didn’t have an emergency stop button.

Do you feel very, very, very safe now?  I wonder what pants on fire look like in a backscatter image …


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