Posted Online: Aug. 12, 2012, 5:00 am

Editorial: Naked truth about TSA

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The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

Photo: McClatchy Newspapers
Transportation Security Administration officials demonstrated the new full-body scanner at Sea-Tac Airport in SeaTac, Wash.
In a normal world, one might expect a middle-aged, bearded, bespectacled guy getting naked in an airport to be the object of ridicule.

But not the one which 50-year-old John Brennan and scores of other victims of Transportation Security Agency airport screeners inhabit.

Sir Godiva, or the Naked American Hero, as he has been called, has won praise far and wide for mooning screeners and passengers at the Portland International Airport -- well, worse than that, he gave them the Full Monty.

Even a judge was on his side after the airport had him arrested for stripping to his all-together at the prospect of a more intensive search by TSA screeners at Oregon's busiest airport. Last month he was acquitted of a charge of indecent exposure.

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge David Rees said, "It is the speech itself that the state is seeking to punish, and that it cannot do."

Good for Judge Rees, though it makes us wonder what he might have experienced at the hands of those notorious screenings. These days it seems as though just about everyone has been a victim of overzealous airport security, or they know someone who has.

An army of those folks responded to Mr. Brennan's protest via the Internet and they celebrated, along with him, when the judge found him "not guilty" last month.

That doesn't mean he'll walk away scot-free. The TSA is investigating and could impose a huge fine or put him on the no-fly list for interfering with its screening process.

The fact that TSA is pursuing the case is no surprise given the agency's apparent inability to even recognize that the airline passengers its employees regularly violate have constitutional rights. Take, for example, the agency's continued failure to seek public comment regarding its highly intrusive full-body imaging scans.

In a column which appeared in Viewpoints Friday, Robert L. Crandall, former CEO of American Airlines, and Marc Scribner, a policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, reminded us that though 700 scanners are operating in nearly 190 airports across the nation, we still don't know whether this highly intrusive technology is making us any safer. "Yet because TSA failed to solicit public comments about the scanners -- in violation of federal law -- the agency is flying blind," they wrote.

Despite a July 2011 court order to "promptly" begin putting together rules for allowing public comment, a year later TSA still hadn't done so, claiming it does not have the resources to begin a public comment process.

Nonsense! As Messers. Crandall and Scribner tell it, TSA's discretionary budget is "larger than that of the entire federal judiciary and a staff larger than those of the Departments of State, Labor, Energy, Education, and Housing and Urban Development combined."

And it's not as though the agency has to hammer those public comments out on stone tablets. The same technology which made Mr. Brennan and international star would ease the collection of comments and data regarding full-body scan screening.

Last month, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which had filed the suit against the Department of Homeland Security, petitioned the D.C. court to enforce its mandate.

"This rulemaking is the only way to determine whether TSA's air travel security regime is worth its huge costs and adverse effects on the public's well-being," Crandall and Scribner write. "Several independent analyses have found that TSA's use of these machines would be economically wasteful even if they worked as well as TSA claims, but may actually make us less safe."

We don't know, for example, whether the scanners are worth their $500 million purchase price. Indeed, there has been congressional testimony which suggested that the body scans, in too many cases, fail to recognize such dangerous threats as explosives.

But security and cost aren't the only concerns regarding scanners they say "may be endangering the public's health and driving consumers to far more hazardous forms of transportation."

The naked truth is that the agency should have to prove that the benefit to public safety outweighs the high cost of full body scanners to personal privacy and the public purse.