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Airport scanner firms relying on Washington insiders

WASHINGTON — The companies that build futuristic airport scanners take a more old-fashioned approach when it comes to pushing their business interests in Washington: hiring dozens of former lawmakers, congressional aides and federal employees as their lobbyists.

About eight of every 10 registered lobbyists who work for scanner-technology companies previously held positions in the government or Congress, most commonly in the homeland security, aviation or intelligence fields, according to a Washington Post review of lobbying-disclosure forms and other data.

Among Washington lobbyists as a whole, only about one in three has previously worked in government, according to the Center for Responsive Politics research group.

Many of the scanner companies are on pace to spend record amounts of money for lobbying this year on Capitol Hill, where they see potential problems as some lawmakers push for limits on airport-security practices. Top scanner firms have reported spending more than $6 million on lobbying this year, records show; that doesn't include industrial giants such as General Electric, which also dabbles in scanning technology and has spent more than $32 million on lobbying this year.

The stepped-up lobbying efforts by the industry come amid growing rancor on Capitol Hill over the Transportation Security Administration's use of airport full-body scanners, which are undergoing their first widespread deployment during the holiday travel season.

The agency has purchased nearly 500 of the cutting-edge scanners — at $200,000 or more each — and plans to buy thousands more, so any restrictions would pose a major threat to the industry's bottom line.

The industry made a strong lobbying push over the past two years to help derail any proposed limits, including legislation aimed at restricting or banning the use of full-body scanners by the TSA.

That came after the House stunned the industry last year by overwhelmingly approving a bill by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, forbidding the TSA from using body scanners as primary passenger-screening tools at airports.

The vote prompted a frantic scramble by scanner lobbyists to halt the measure in the Senate, according to legislative aides and others familiar with the battle. The effort was bolstered by the failed "underwear bomber" plot last December, which hastened calls for increased scanner use.

The industry took a creative approach to selling the controversial technology on Capitol Hill. One of the largest suppliers of scanners to the TSA, L-3 Communications of New York, rolled the equipment onto Capitol Hill this year to show lawmakers and legislative aides how the machines work. The chief lobbyist for another company, California-based Rapiscan Systems, had a body scanner installed in his Crystal City, Va., office for demonstrations.

Chaffetz, who has been named incoming chairman of a House homeland-defense subcommittee, said in an interview that the underwear plot undoubtedly helped stall his proposal in the Senate. "On Capitol Hill, nobody wants to be seen as soft on terror," he said.

Industry officials argue that the complaints about airport body scanners have been overblown and point to polling data suggesting that most travelers do not object to them. Scanning experts say the industry, at the urging of the TSA, is rapidly moving toward developing scanners that focus on potential problem areas rather than graphic whole-body images.

TSA spokesman Greg Soule said industry lobbying has no bearing on who has won agency contracts, which are awarded competitively on the basis of rigorous performance and reliability standards. He said the use of imaging technologies has led to the discovery of more than 130 prohibited passenger items since the Christmas bombing plot a year ago.

In making its case, the industry relies heavily on old Washington hands with powerful connections, according to lobbying disclosure records and interviews.

The roster of lobbyists for L-3 Communications includes former GOP Sen. Alfonse D'Amato from New York, and Linda Daschle, a former federal aviation official who is married to Thomas Daschle, former Democratic Senate majority leader from South Dakota. L-3 has won nearly $900 million worth of TSA business, including for its "millimeter-wave" machines used for airport body scans, government records show.

A Boston area scanning firm, American Science and Engineering, employs two former TSA officials as Washington lobbyists, as well as former Rep. Robert "Bud" Cramer, D-Ala., according to disclosures. The company's recent Department of Homeland Security contracts include $67 million for vehicle screeners at border crossings.

Former homeland security chief Michael Chertoff, a longtime advocate for increased use of passenger scanners, worked until recently as a consultant for Rapiscan, which provides "backscatter" X-ray scanners to the TSA. Chertoff did not register or act as a lobbyist, although he spoke publicly in favor of the technology.

Privacy and civil-liberties advocates and other critics argue that the industry's lobbying ties have encouraged a frenzy of TSA spending on technologies that are often untested or ineffective, fueled in large part by fears of a terrorist attack.

A prime example, critics say, was "puffers," precursors to body scanners that sought to sniff passengers for explosives residue. The program was abandoned as impractical after the TSA had spent $30 million on the machines, which were made jointly by GE and Smiths Group, a London-based firm.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog group, predicts a similar fate for full-body scanners. "A lot of taxpayer money will have been wasted on the body-scanner technology because of the disproportionate role of lobbyists in the policymaking process," he said.

Airport scanner firms relying on Washington insiders 12/24/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:44pm]
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