Body scanners wouldn’t have caught Northwest bomber

Here’s another hit for airline security. Not only have we discovered pat-downs aren’t effective, now it turns out that full-body scanners wouldn’t have detected the Christmas bomber on Northwest Flight 253.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was overpowered by passengers and flight crew after trying to detonate nearly 3oz of the chemical powder PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) hidden in his underwear with a syringe containing a liquid accelerant to set it off. Neither of these items would have been detected by the scanners because they use a millimeter-wave technology that´s only good for detecting dense objects such as metal, plastic explosives such as C4, and thick plastic. Powders and small amounts of liquids can’t be detected.

Conservative Minister of Parliament Ben Wallace, former adviser at the defense firm Qinetiq, which developed the scanners for airport use, said that in test trails the millimeter waves passed through not only clothing, rendering it invisible, but also liquids, powders, and thin plastics. The very things Abdulmutallab hid in his nether regions to avoid detection in case he got patted down, which he didn’t.

Wallace said that x-ray scanners probably wouldn’t have worked either.

The machines’ limitations were confirmed by Kevin Murphy, product manager for physical security at Qinetiq. The company is developing an improved version.

Last week the Transportation Security Administration ordered $165 million worth of millimeter-wave and x-ray scanners at about $150,000 a pop.