Body-scanner makers spent millions on lobbying

USA Today

The companies with multimillion-dollar contracts to supply American airports with body-scanning machines more than doubled their spending on lobbying in the last five years and hired several high-profile former government officials to advance their causes in Washington, records show.

L-3 Communications, which has sold $39.7 million worth of the machines to the federal government, spent $4.3 million to influence Congress and federal agencies during the first nine months of this year, up from $2.1 million in 2005, lobbying data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show. Last year, the company spent $5.5 million on lobbying.

Its lobbyists include Linda Daschle, a prominent Democratic figure in Washington, who is a former Federal Aviation Administration official.

Rapiscan Systems, meanwhile, has spent $271,500 on lobbying so far this year, compared with $80,000 five years earlier. It has faced criticism for hiring Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, who has been a prominent proponent of using scanners to foil terrorism. Officials with Chertoff’s firm and Rapiscan say Chertoff was not paid to promote scanner technology. It spent $440,000 on lobbying in 2009.

The government has spent $41.2 million so far on Rapiscan’s machines.

“This is how business gets done in Washington,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “The revolving door provides corporations like these with a short cut to lawmakers” and other decision-makers.

The use of body-scanning machines, which will be installed at most of the nation’s 450 commercial passenger airports by the end of 2011, has ignited controversy in recent weeks with passenger groups filing lawsuits to block their use, citing privacy and health concerns. Others are urging passengers to refuse to be scanned during a national “opt out” day on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving.

In a statement, Transportation Security Administration officials said the agency awards contracts on a competitive basis and selects products “through a comprehensive research, testing and deployment process.”

The lobbying by both firms has covered a broad array of topics. This year alone, L-3 Communications, a major defense contractor, reported lobbying on nearly two dozen bills, ranging from homeland security appropriations to legislation governing military construction.

Among the bills targeted by L-3 lobbyists: Legislation proposed by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, that would limit the use of the scanners at airports. Under his plan, the full-body imaging scanners would be used only as a backup screening measure.

“I’m concerned that these machines are too invasive,” he said. “With 2.2 million air passengers, 450 airports, 50,000 TSA agents and a machine that looks at you naked, that’s a formula for disaster.”

Chaffetz’s measure passed the House by wide margin last year, but it stalled in the Senate in the wake of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s alleged attempt in December 2009 to ignite an explosive powder on a Northwest flight to Detroit.

At the time, Chertoff heavily promoted the use of full-body scanners at airports. The attempted Christmas Day bombing contributed to the bill’s demise, Chaffetz said, “But I also routinely heard that ‘Secretary Chertoff believes this is the right thing to do. Who are you to challenge him?’ ”

Earlier this year, Flyersrights.org, a non-profit passengers’ rights group, slammed Chertoff’s work for Rapiscan. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, revived the issue last week when he took the House floor to criticize his role in promoting the scanners.

Chertoff, who served in the Bush administration, provided advice to Rapiscan for a four-month period on “non-aviation security issues,” said Peter Kant, a Rapiscan executive vice president. He is no longer a consultant to the company, Kant said.

Chertoff spokeswoman Katy Montgomery said Chertoff’s firm “played no role in the sale of whole-body imaging technology” to the government, and he was “in no way compensated for his public statements.”

Montgomery said Chertoff “has consistently expressed long-held beliefs in the deployment of effective technologies and techniques that eliminate security vulnerabilities, such as those illustrated last year during the terrorist attempt on Christmas Day.”

Daschle, meanwhile, lobbied against Chaffetz’s bill on behalf of L-3 Communications. Daschle, the wife of former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, has represented the company since 1997.

Daschle said explosive devices that cannot be detected by traditional X-ray machines represent a real threat to aviation security, and government officials with access to classified information understand that. “I don’t think it was Linda Daschle that made the difference” in L-3 Communications’ success, she said. “I think it was people understanding what the threat is and seeing these capable solutions.”

Rapiscan’s lobbying spending has grown as the company has grown from a company that once focused on providing X-ray machines at courthouses and schools to a firm engaged in border security, whole-body scanning at airports and detecting improvised-explosive devices on the battlefield, Kant said.

The company also has been required to report more of its in-house lobbying to Congress in recent years, he said.

Among Rapiscan’s lobbyists: Beth Spivey, a former aide to ex-Senate majority leader Trent Lott, records show. Hiring lobbyists with Capitol Hill experience does not grant the company special access to lawmakers, Kant said. “It has nothing to do with access,” he said.

“It has to do with understanding how the business of legislation works. You want someone who knows how legislation is done and what’s important in Congress.”

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