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TSA body scanners: safety upgrade or stimulus boondoggle?

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The TSA received more stimulus funding than any other single agency, company, or organization: $1 billion for aviation security. Most of that money was allocated to screening checked baggage. But $266 million went toward improving checkpoints by acquiring five types of screening equipment: chemical analyzers; explosives detectors; bottled-liquid scanners (which should allow passengers to carry water and shampoo through security checkpoints); enhanced X-ray scanners for carry-on bags; and the AIT scanners.

The first three scanners cost between $30,000 and $50,000 apiece. The X-ray machines cost anywhere from $70,000 to $200,000. The AIT scanners cost close to $170,000 each.

The stimulus money didn’t initiate the scanner upgrade. Instead, it sped up the deployment of a program that was severely behind schedule and over budget.

In 2002, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated that all five kinds of scanners would be at full capability by December 2009. But in a June 2010 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that TSA hadn't even "begun acquisition activities" for the four types of scanners that screen materials. As a result, the timetables have been pushed back. According to current estimates from DHS, the bottle scanners should be fully functioning by June 2011, and all the other scanners by June 2015.

The deployment of AIT scanners was also severely delayed. TSA had planned to have 114 new scanners in airports by the end of March, but instead had seven. The fact that some 385 AIT scanners are now operational – and another 100 are expected to be in place by the end of December – is almost entirely due to the boost from the stimulus money.

The program is also over budget. Originally estimated at $2.6 billion, the life-cycle costs for all five kinds of scanners has ballooned to $4.3 billion, the GAO reported. So what was originally a seven-year plan is now a 13-year plan with almost $2 billion in overruns.

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