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Dutch add scans for flights to US

Say suspect could have been stopped

A full-body scanner is demonstrated Monday at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. New scanner software projects a stylized image. A full-body scanner is demonstrated Monday at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. New scanner software projects a stylized image. (Cynthia Boll/ Associated Press)
By Mike Corder
Associated Press / December 31, 2009

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THE HAGUE - The Netherlands said yesterday it will immediately begin using full-body scanners for flights heading to the United States, saying that could have stopped the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing.

The United States had not wanted these scanners to be used previously because of privacy concerns, but now the Obama administration has agreed that “all possible measures will be used on flights to the US,’’ the Dutch interior minister, Guusje Ter Horst, told a news conference.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on Friday carrying undetected explosives, law enforcement authorities said, adding that 23-year-old Nigerian tried but failed to blow up the plane carrying 289 people.

“It is not exaggerating to say the world has escaped a disaster,’’ Ter Horst said, calling the situation a “professional’’ Al Qaeda terror attack.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol has 15 body scanners, each costing more than $200,000. But until now, neither the European Union nor the United States has approved the routine use of the scanners at European airports.

A key European legislator urged the European Union to begin rapidly installing the new equipment across the 27-nation bloc, but no other European nations immediately followed the Dutch move.

Body scanners that view underneath clothing have been available for years, but privacy advocates say they are a “virtual strip search’’ because they display an image of the body onto a computer screen.

New software, however, eliminates that problem by projecting a stylized image rather than an actual picture onto a computer screen, highlighting the area of the body where objects are concealed in pockets or under the clothing.

Ter Horst said the scanners probably would have alerted security guards to the materials concealed in Abdulmutallab’s underwear and prevented him from boarding the Northwest flight.

At least two scanners in Amsterdam have been experimentally using the less-invasive software since late November, and the Dutch said those will be put into use immediately. All other scanners will be upgraded within three weeks.

But the 15 scanners will not cover the 25 to 30 flights a day that leave Amsterdam for US destinations, and passengers at gates without one will be patted down. Schiphol is waiting for a government directive on whether to buy more machines, airport spokeswoman Kathelijn Vermeulen said.

In the preliminary report issued yesterday, the Dutch government called the plan to blow up the Detroit-bound aircraft “professional’’ but said its execution was “amateurish.’’

Ter Horst said Abdulmutallab apparently assembled the explosive device, including 80 grams of Pentrite, or PETN, in the aircraft bathroom, then planned to detonate it with a syringe of chemicals. She said the explosives appeared to have been professionally prepared and had been given to Abdulmutallab, but did not elaborate.

Abdulmutallab arrived in Amsterdam on Friday from Lagos, Nigeria on a KLM flight. After a layover of less than three hours in the international departure hall, he passed through a security check at the gate in Amsterdam, including a hand baggage scan and a metal detector, and boarded the Northwest flight. He did not pass through a full-body scanner.

Erik Ackerboom, head of the Dutch counterterrorism bureau, dismissed suggestions that Abdulmutallab should have aroused suspicion when he paid for a round-trip ticket from Lagos to Detroit in cash and had no check-in luggage.

Paying cash in Africa is not unusual, he said, and the lack of a checked suitcase “wasn’t a reason for alarm.’’

Also yesterday, Nigeria echoed the Dutch move, with Civil Aviation Authority chief Harold Demuren in Lagos saying his agency would buy full body scanners and hope to begin installing them next year.