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TSA Slips Scanner Re-Testing into Busy Friday News Day

Friday was a busy news day: a presidential press conference in the wake of Japan’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, as well as Wisconsin reverberations after passage of the GOP’s union-busting bill. And the ongoing Charlie Sheen background buzz we’ve all had to get used to recently.

So you’d be forgiven for missing this gem in The USAToday, from America’s Transportation Security Administration, the folks who previously waxed positively rhapsodic about the safety of their scanners:

The Transportation Security Administration announced Friday that it would retest every full-body X-ray scanner that emits ionizing radiation — 247 machines at 38 airports — after maintenance records on some of the devices showed radiation levels 10 times higher than expected.

That’s right — they are retesting every single scanner. But the retest is due to a math error, the TSA would have us believe:

The TSA says that the records reflect math mistakes and that all the machines are safe.

Well, math is hard. “Abundance of caution,” and all that, right? No, actually, the retests are because The USAToday and lawmakers started asking (three months ago!) for the tests to be made public:

The agency’s review of maintenance reports, launched Dec. 10, came only after USA TODAY and lawmakers called for the release of the records late last year.

How recently were safety claims being made about the scanners? Just Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was vouching for the machine’s safety:

As recently as Wednesday, the agency vouched for the safety of the machines, with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano telling a Senate committee that independent studies concluded the machines are “more than safe.”

“The amount of radiation is approximately (the same as that received) as two minutes in the air,” Napolitano said.

I seem to recall the previous safety claims being something like “one minute in the air” so maybe Secretary Napolitano was trying to prepare the American public for a doubling of their risk.

Concerned Susan Collins is concerned:

The TSA “has repeatedly assured me that the machines that emit radiation do not pose a health risk,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a written statement Friday. “Nonetheless, if TSA contractors reporting on the radiation levels have done such a poor job, how can airline passengers and crew have confidence in the data used by the TSA to reassure the public?”

The TSA may not be good at math, and they may suck at keeping their own Department’s Secretary up to speed on their planned retests, but one thing they are really good at is media management. “Hey, let’s put this out while the whole world is watching some really important news, not just Charlie Sheen!”

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Teddy Partridge

Teddy Partridge