THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The Netherlands and Nigeria said on Wednesday they would use full-body scanners at airports after a failed Christmas Day attack on a U.S.-bound plane by a 23-year-old Nigerian suspect who passed through both countries.
Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport will begin using the scanners — which “see” through clothing — within three weeks to check people traveling to the United States, after consultations with U.S. authorities, the Dutch interior minister said.
Nigeria will equip its international airports with the scanners in the New Year, an aviation official said.
In the United States, the botched attack aboard the Detroit-bound U.S. airliner has prompted congressional calls for greater use of body scanners that advocates say would have detected non-metallic items like explosives smuggled aboard.
The attack exposed what President Barack Obama on Tuesday called “human and systemic failures” in U.S. security agencies, and spurred speculation that U.S. intelligence chief Admiral Dennis Blair or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano could be forced to resign.
The White House was standing by Blair, saying the four-star admiral had the full confidence of the president. “This is not about one person or one agency,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Although the Christmas Day attack was on an inbound U.S. flight where security checks abroad are critical, the September 11 2001, attacks all involved hijackers on internal U.S. flights.
Current use of whole-body scanners is limited to 19 U.S. airports and is optional, with pat-downs an alternative.
Full-body scanners, unlike the standard archway metal detectors currently used in airports around the world, use radio waves to generate a picture of the body that can see through a person’s clothing and spot hidden weapons or packages.
Concerns over cost and privacy have so far hindered the widespread use of the technology, with critics arguing it is unacceptably intrusive.
Dutch Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst said standard procedures were followed properly in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of trying to blow up the flight from Schiphol to Detroit on Christmas Day.
“We will make these (scanning) machines, about 15 in total, available for flights to the United States within three weeks’ time,” ter Horst told a news conference in The Hague.
But since Schiphol has twice as many gates for U.S. departures as scanners, not all flights will be covered by the new machines. Passengers on flights not subject to the new scanners will instead receive thorough pat-downs.
Ter Horst said normal metal detectors could not spot explosives, and the use of the full-body scanners would have helped prevent Abdulmutallab from taking them onto the aircraft.
But she warned there was no 100 percent guarantee the new detectors would have enabled airport security to catch him.
Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority chief Harold Demuren said Nigeria had started the process of acquiring the body scanners.
“These are new machines. Not many airports in the world are operating them right now, but Nigeria is determined because of the new face of the threat we are seeing, to acquire them,” Demuren told reporters in Lagos.
“This will be taking place in the New Year. We plan to acquire them at all our international airports,” he said.
International airlines serve Nigeria’s capital Abuja and the commercial hub of Lagos from across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. There are also direct flights to the United States.
There was no sign that other countries would rush to follow the Dutch and Nigerian leads. Representatives for the Paris and Zurich airport authorities, contacted by Reuters, said they had no plans to introduce body scanners.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper he had nothing against body scanners in principle but they could only be deployed after efficiency, health and privacy guarantees were met.
“If there is a piece of equipment that preserves personal rights, I have no problem with it — but we haven’t got that far yet,” he said.
Judith Sargentini, a Dutch GreenLeft member of the European Parliament, said people should be able to choose between a body scan and being frisked (patted down).
“We don’t know what happens to the images that are being taken. Are they stored, are they thrown away?” she told the BBC.
“Say you have a handicap that is very clear. Say you are Miss Holland, and the image can be sold to The Sun, The Mirror (tabloid papers), or the Dutch equivalent of that.”
In Britain, a spokesman for the British airports group BAA, which manages its biggest airports including Europe’s busiest by passenger numbers Heathrow, said: “The introduction of full-body scanners will require a change in European legislation.”
Abdulmutallab flew first from Lagos to Amsterdam, arriving early Christmas morning, before heading on to Detroit. He has been charged with trying to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 with almost 300 people on board.
Additional reporting by Aaron Gray-Block and Ben Berkowitz, Nick Tattersall in Lagos, and Ross Colvin in Washington; writing by Charles Dick; editing by Mohammad Zargham