Michael Brandy, Deseret News
A TSA manager goes through a whole-body scanner at Salt Lake City International Airport.

A security officer at Salt Lake City International Airport essentially saw tall, skinny, 76-year-old Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, naked this week.

Bennett not only doesn't care, he called Tuesday for expanding the use of machines that generate such bare computer images to help make flying safer.

That puts him at direct odds with Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who has been leading a drive to ban using "whole-body imaging" machines as the primary airport screening method, and famously told the House last year, "You don't need to see my wife and 8-year-old daughter naked to secure an airplane."

Bennett called for expanding use of the imaging machines during a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the "underwear bomber" who allegedly attempted to down a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas. Bennett also obtained support for the machines during the hearing from leaders of the former 9/11 Commission.

"I think we should get TSA (the Transportation Security Administration) to deploy technology with the capacity to detect plastic explosives and liquid explosives, nonmetallic threats, and so on," namely the whole-body imaging machines, Bennett told the hearing.

Later, he told the Deseret News, "The Christmas bomber was a wake-up call, because this sort of imaging presumably would have discovered that he had that sort-of (explosive) material on his body."

Bennett said he will introduce legislation as early as this week to move the use of the imaging machines from the current experimental phase to a permanent phase, and help further develop ways to blur faces and body parts to ensure privacy.

He added in the Senate hearing, "I very much support what TSA has done with respect to privacy in these technologies," including having officials view images in remote rooms and not storing images.

Bennett said that when he was leaving Salt Lake City this week to travel to Washington, he decided to go through an imaging machine himself to see the process firsthand.

"Most of the other lines were shut down, and that was the quickest way to move through. I thought, 'OK, let's move through and see what happens,' " he said. "I did not find it to be unduly intrusive."

In contrast, when TSA officials last year tried to force Chaffetz to go through such a machine, he resisted in a tussle that included some cussing, and Chaffetz opted for a pat-down search instead. (Bennett's legislation would still allow passengers to opt for pat-down searches instead of whole-body imaging if they choose, his office said.)

Bennett said he doesn't see himself as an adversary to Chaffetz on the issue. He said his staff communicated his plans with Chaffetz's staff and it "did not indicate any major policy differences on the issue" as they both seek for good security.

Chaffetz described it differently. He said his office asked if Bennett would help in his drive against whole-body imaging, "and they sent us back some paragraph essentially saying no," and now Bennett is even leading the opposition. Chaffetz has passed legislation through the House, but not the Senate, that would ban whole-body imaging as a primary security method.

Chaffetz said Tuesday, "Ultimately, I want security to be more effective AND less invasive. That's what I'm fighting for — and we shouldn't settle for anything less."

He said he supports whole-body imaging as a secondary screening device available instead of pat-down searches, and he would like to see them widely deployed for that.

"But they won't solve all of our problems," he said. "Deployment of bomb-sniffing dogs will do a lot more for our security than whole-body imaging will. … That's what they use at the White House. They don't use whole-body imaging machines at the White House. They use the bomb-sniffing dogs."

Chaffetz also said that more important than such machines is putting more effort into intelligence and other methods to identify potential terrorists and prevent them from even coming close to boarding planes.

During questioning by Bennett at the Senate hearing, former 9/11 Commission leaders supported expanded use of whole-body imaging. However, they said it might not have caught the "underwear bomber," and intelligence to identify potential terrorists is more important.

"I personally don't have any problem with the body images. I think they ought to be used," said Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman who was vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

But, he added, "People have said to me that even with body imaging, he (the underwear bomber) might have gotten through. In any case, they're clearly better than metal detectors. Our adversaries here have figured out a long time ago they've got to do something other than metal in order to cause problems."

Thomas Kean, the former New Jersey governor who was chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said, "I'm for upgrading any technology we can, and recognizing that people who are our enemies … are going to try and upgrade their methods of trying to get through the technology at the same time."

So, Kean said, such machines are only of secondary importance compared to use of "no fly" lists of potential terrorists and technology that can flag such people and keep them off of airplanes.

"The best defense we have is still: Do not let the bad people get on the plane to begin with; do not let them get visas; don't let them get to the airport; don't let them even approach getting on the plane to the United States," Kean said.

Hamilton added that airport weapon detection systems still leave much to be desired, and cannot — for example — adequately detect nuclear materials.

"There has to be a crash effort, if you will, in the research and development in the scientific community to develop better technology," he said. "Whenever we make a change, they (terrorists) begin to adapt to it. So technology has to stay out in front."

This story was reported from Salt Lake City.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com