THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The Netherlands announced Wednesday it will begin using more full body scanners for flights heading to the United States, issuing a report that called the failed Christmas Day airline bombing a "professional" al-Qaida terror attack.
A top Dutch official said a scanner of that type might have stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport on Friday carrying undetected explosives. Law enforcement officials say the 23-year-old Nigerian tried but failed to detonate the explosives on a plane carrying over 300 people.
"It is not exaggerating to say the world has escaped a disaster," Interior Minister Guusje Ter Horst told a news conference, referring to it as "another al-Qaida attack."
The Dutch minister said U.S. had not wanted these scanners to be used previously because of privacy concerns but said there was now agreement with Washington authorities that "all possible measures will be used on flights to the U.S."
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 peer 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.
Child pornography concerns
Ian Dowty, a lawyer with Action on Rights of the Child, said allowing minors to pass through the scanners violates child pornography laws. "It shows genitalia," he said. "As far as English law is concerned ... it's unlawful if it's indecent."
For that reason, British authorities have exempted under-18s from body scan trials at places including Paddington Station in London as well as Heathrow and Manchester airports.
Video: Did U.S. miss signs of imminent threat? 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, the Dutch minister, the scanners likely would have alerted security guards to the materials concealed in Abdulmutallab's underwear and prevented him from boarding the Northwest flight.
"Our view now is that the use of millimeter wave scanners would certainly have helped detect that he had something on his body, but you can never give 100 percent guarantees," Ter Horst said.
40 full scanners used in U.S.
Amsterdam's Schiphol has 15 body scanners, each costing more than $200,000. But until now neither the European Union nor the U.S. have approved the routine use of the scanners at European airports.
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.
Video: ACLU opposes full body scans 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.
In the U.S., 40 of the machines are being operated in at least 19 U.S. airports.
Six machines are being used for primary screenings at six U.S. airports: Albuquerque, N.M.; Las Vegas; Miami; San Francisco; Salt Lake City; and Tulsa, Okla. Passengers go through the scans instead of a metal detector, although they can elect to receive a pat-down search from a security officer instead.
The remainder of the machines are being used at 13 U.S. airports for secondary screening of passengers who set off a metal detector. But those travelers can also opt for a pat-down instead.
Nigeria on Wednesday said it would be adding full body scanners at its international airports in 2010 but it did not elaborate on how many.
Last year the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted against using the scanners and called for further study, allowing Schiphol to conduct a pilot test of the scanners on European flights.
But opposition faded Wednesday when a key assembly member said the newest types "pose no privacy risk." Peter van Dalen, vice-chairman of the assembly's transport committee said, a recent demonstration at Schiphol lifted any doubts that the equipment violates the privacy of air passengers.
A Dutch digital rights group, Bits of Freedom, said the decision to introduce the scanners on short notice was a fear-driven overreaction.
"The chance of someone being a victim of a terrorist attack in the air is a lot smaller than the chance of being struck by lightning," the group wrote in an open letter to the Dutch Justice Ministry.
'Amateurish' execution of plot
In a preliminary report issued Wednesday, the Dutch government said the plan to blow up the Detroit-bound aircraft was professional but called its execution "amateurish."
Ter Horst said Abdulmutallab apparently assembled the explosive device, including 80 grams of PETN, in the aircraft toilet, 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.
"If you want to detonate it, you have to do that another way than he did. That is why we talk about amateurism," she said.
Abdulmutallab arrived in Amsterdam on Friday from Lagos, Nigeria. After a layover of less than three hours, he passed through a security check at the gate in Amsterdam, including a hand baggage scan and a metal detector.
Abdulmutallab was carrying a valid Nigerian passport and had a valid U.S. visa, the Dutch said.
"No suspicious matters which would give reason to classify the person involved as a high-risk passenger were identified during the security check," Ter Horst said.
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 suitcases "wasn't a reason for alarm."
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama demanded a preliminary report by Thursday from U.S. security authorities on what went wrong. Obama said the intelligence community should have been able to piece together information that would have raised "red flags" and possibly prevented Abdulmutallab from boarding the airliner.
Video: ‘Unacceptable’ "There was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security," Obama told reporters in Hawaii, calling the intelligence shortcomings "totally unacceptable."
"There were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have — and should have — been pieced together," he said.
"Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence, and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged," Obama said. "The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."
Abdulmutallab had been placed in one expansive database, but he never made it onto more restrictive lists that would have caught the attention of U.S. counterterrorist screeners, despite his father's warnings to U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria last month. Those warnings also did not result in Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa being revoked.
Law enforcement officials believe the suspect tried to ignite a two-part concoction of the high explosive PETN and possibly a glycol-based liquid explosive. It set off popping, smoke and some fire but no deadly detonation.
Abdulmutallab, charged with trying to destroy an aircraft, is being held at the federal prison in Milan, Mich.
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