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Only 400 of 2,200 Body Scanners Are In Place at Airports So Outrage at TSA Likely to Grow as More Are Installed

Robert Poole
November 24, 2010, 10:05pm

Defenders of the TSA’s intrusive new airport screening procedures (including The Nation) keep pointing to last week’s CBS News poll that showed 81% of Americans supposedly support full-body airport scanners. CBS said:

Although some civil rights groups allege that they represent an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, Americans overwhelmingly agree that airports should use the digital x-ray machines to electronically screen passengers in airport security lines, according to the new poll. Eighty-one percent think airports should use these new machines -- including a majority of both men and women, Americans of all age groups, and Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike. Fifteen percent said airports should not use them.

That number seemed completely out of whack with the widespread opposition we’ve been seeing. First of all, there are only 400 body scan machines in place and operating at U.S. airports. There are 2,200 screening lanes at 450 airports, and unless Congress forces a change in policy, all of those lanes will get body-scanners—but not until the end of next year. So even if every adult citizen in the CBS poll had taken one flight recently, he or she would have had an 82 percent chance of going through a lane without a body-scan machine. It’s easy to tell a pollster the politically correct answer if you’ve never actually encountered the new screening procedure. But as more scanners are installed and people are forced to choose between body scans and pat-downs, the public is likely to become more infuriated with the TSA.

This may already be happening anyway. Two other surveys came out this week that countered the CBS findings. Zogby International, polling likely voters, found:

The implementation of full body scans and pat downs by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as part of security enhancements at our nation's airports will cause 48% of Americans and 42% of more frequent fliers to choose a different mode of transportation when possible, a recent Zogby International Poll finds.

Overall, 61% of the 2,032 likely voters polled from Nov. 19 to Nov. 22, oppose the use of full body scans and TSA pat downs.  Republicans (69%) and Independents (65%) oppose in greater numbers than Democrats (50%).

And a USA Today/Gallup poll of adult fliers (people who have flown at least twice in the past year) found nearly the same percentage—57%--bothered or angered by the new procedures. Asked more specifically about just the body scanners, only 42% are angry or bothered by them, which suggests that the aggressive pat-downs are the greatest source of upset, as might be expected.

Polling guru Nate Silver looked at an ABC News poll and concluded “that the public scrutiny of the new screening procedures is significantly increasing.” Silver wrote:

It is perhaps foolish to predict how the T.S.A. will respond this time — when they have relaxed rules in the past, they have done so quietly, rather than in response to some acute public backlash. But caution aside, I would be surprised if the new procedures survived much past the New Year without significant modification.

Hopefully, what we've been seeing the past week or so is that Americans are not willing to continue to give up more personal liberty for what amounts to enhanced security theater at the airport.


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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