The ShoeScanner was not the only imperfect technology George sniffed out. Back in 2002, he had been instrumental in helping the TSA meet its mandate to purchase and install those massive CT-based EDS machines that scan checked baggage. Having had a front-row seat to the process, George knew it hadn’t been the cleanest operation, but in the years since, he had realized that another device based on older AT technology, widely used standard x-ray machines with more than one pulse generator, provided almost exactly the same security value at less than half the cost of the CT machines.
The main difference between different x-ray scanners is the number of angles they provide. “Regular” checkpoint x-rays, the kind that had been in use since the 1960s, cost about $40,000 and only provide a top-down view of luggage, which can present a serious security limitation. AT scanners run around $150,000 and see three or more angles, providing a good, sharp image of what is inside most suitcases. CT scanners are at the far end of the spectrum in terms of cost—close to $1 million—and imaging, providing a 360-degree view of a bag. But while CTs provided the most complete picture, ATs were not only considerably cheaper, they were faster and much easier to maintain. In 2001, when the decision on which EDS machines to deploy was made, AT technology was known in the United States and used extensively in Europe. But despite all their benefits, the AT devices were a non-starter.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s Research Development and Human Factors Laboratory in Atlantic City, staffed by a rock-star group of scientists, had given CTs their sole nod of approval—a decision that meant spending $1 billion on those machines versus $150 million for the ATs. And there was not much debate. The lab’s seal of approval decided which vendor would win million-dollar contracts, and the lab had determined that the ATs were unable to detect one particular threat (among hundreds) that could take down a plane. Nobody was going to sign off on an order for a device that the lab claimed left an open door in the nation’s security. That is why, for so many years, the enormous EDS checked-bag scanners have sat in the lobbies of airports from Washington Dulles to Portland, Oregon. An unanticipated consequence was that AT manufacturers, seeing the writing on the wall that TSA would only sign off on the MRI-type machines, abandoned efforts to improve AT scanners. This left a virtual monopoly on billions of dollars or orders for two companies, Invision and L3, until TSA, largely through George Zarur, gave the signal in the 2006 timeframe that TSA would consider AT as a viable competitor. More than ten years later, cheaper, more reliable, faster alternatives to MRI-based scanners might finally be a TSA-approved alternative in 2012.
On my first visit to the FAA lab in July 2005, I got a full tour complete with an explosives demonstration. Because the standards used to test equipment could provide terrorists the key to defeat security technology, the lab operated under a James Bond–like aura of secrecy. The engineers spent their days brainstorming about how to make cleverly disguised bombs and then try their hands at executing them. My walk through one of the Lab workshops was like being backstage at a theatrical prop shop. Luscious chocolate cakes, sports equipment, cool gadgets, and designer clothes were on display, each one a deadly bomb. On a later trip I reviewed results from different body scanners and noticed that the test subjects didn’t look like everyday passengers. I inquired about where the test subjects had come from and heard, “Ah. Well. Ah, we contracted with an Atlantic City modeling agency.”
But once I was sworn in as administrator, I got an earful from airport and airline operations people about the cost and disruption of the CT-only decision. I convened a meeting with a previously-established blue-ribbon panel consisting of airport, airline and TSA executives to revisit the question. But after I left the room, the TSA technology staff dismissed my concerns, saying that I didn’t understand the science. Since they viewed any consideration of AT technology as a security sell-out, change was coming over their dead bodies.