BRUSSELS – Fearing a rift with the United States, the European Union said Thursday it may force resistant member states to use the full-body scanners being pushed by the Obama administration in the wake of the failed Christmas Day bombing.
Britain, the Netherlands and Italy already have joined Washington in announcing plans to install more of the devices — which can “see” through clothing — in the aftermath of the attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
But there are deep divisions among European nations, with countries such as Spain and Germany calling the scanners intrusive and a potential health risk.
A trans-Atlantic divide over scanners could throw air travel on lucrative routes — already reeling from the economic downturn — into further disarray.
“The (EU) is considering an initiative on imaging technology to reinforce passenger security, while at the same time addressing the conditions for using such technology, in particular, privacy, data protection and health issues,” said a statement released following a meeting of European aviation security experts.
Even if the EU decides to mandate the use of body scanners, it could take many months before the decision is turned into binding regulations all 27 member nations must comply with.
Paul Wilkinson, former director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland, said he hopes that a rift between the U.S. and EU can be avoided because flight safety must be the prime concern.
Wilkinson said terror groups have used flights to the United States as staging grounds for attacks. “So the danger from European airports cannot be discounted, and that should be a consideration when the EU considers its response.”
U.S. officials say a Nigerian suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day by injecting chemicals into a package of pentrite explosive. He failed to ignite the explosive.
Abdulmutallab, 23, was indicted Wednesday on charges including attempted murder and trying to use a weapon of mass destruction to kill nearly 300 people.
In Washington, President Barack Obama declared anew Thursday that U.S. authorities had the information to prevent the botched attack but failed to piece it together. He announced a range of changes designed to fix that, including wider and quicker distribution of intelligence reports, stronger analysis of them and new terror watch list rules.
Body scanners — which some say could have detected the explosives that were reportedly hidden in Abdulmutallab’s underwear — currently employ one of two imaging technologies.
The millimeter-wave version uses high-frequency radio waves that engulf the passenger to project a stylized human figure onto the computer screen. So-called backscatter technology employs very low-energy X-ray radiation to achieve a similar result.
The American College of Radiology has said a passenger flying cross-country actually is exposed to more radiation from the flight at high altitude than from either of the two types of scanners the U.S. Transportation Security Administration is using — the same systems used in Europe.
Neither technology poses concern for any health risks “since they don’t penetrate into the body,” said James Hevezi, head of the radiology group’s medical physics commission and physics chief at Cyberknife Center of Miami, a cancer treatment center.
But that has not allayed fears among many Europeans, who consider the machines potentially dangerous for the health of passengers and airport workers. An attempt by the EU in 2008 to mandate their use floundered because European legislators opposed the move, citing possible radiation dangers and calling for more studies on the health and privacy issues involved.
As a result, the EU has until now allowed individual member states to decide whether or not to use body scanners at airport checkpoints. Both the Netherlands and Britain have conducted experiments with the machines, and have decided to procure dozens to equip their airports.
Germany has resisted and will only deploy scanners if it can be shown that they definitely improve security, do not pose a health hazard and do to not infringe upon privacy rights, Interior Ministry spokesman Stefan Paris said.
Spain too has expressed skepticism about the need for body scanners, and the French government remains uncommitted.
Privacy campaigners say the technology, designed to reveal concealed liquids, explosives or weapons violates European law by producing sexually explicit images of the passengers.
Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman with the Muslim Council of Britain, said the Islamic group has privacy concerns about full body scanners but is not taking a position on the issue until more details emerge.
“We have concerns for both Muslim men and Muslim women,” he said. “They must be covered up in front of strangers. There are concerns about what exactly the scanners will reveal.”
Some experts have questioned the effectiveness of scanners in detecting possible explosives concealed underneath a passenger’s clothing, saying the expensive devices contribute only marginally to improved security.
“I’m struggling to discover the logic for adopting the scanner technology,” said Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, an independent watchdog on surveillance issues.
“Any security expert knows this is a red herring, a diversion from the real issue,” he said. “The biggest failure in this case was a failure of intelligence.”