THE HAGUE, Netherlands - The Netherlands announced yesterday that it would immediately begin using full-body scanners for some flights heading to the United States, saying that could have stopped the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing.
The United States had not wanted the 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 U.S.," 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 the 23-year-old Nigerian tried but failed to blow up the plane carrying 290 people.
President Obama has demanded a preliminary report by today from U.S. security authorities on what went wrong in the case.
The New York Times reported on its Web site last night that the National Security Agency intercepted conversations four months ago among leaders of al-Qaeda in Yemen discussing a terrorist attack using a Nigerian man, but the intercepts were not synthesized with other information.
"It is not exaggerating to say the world has escaped a disaster," Ter Horst said, calling the incident 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 had 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.
Later yesterday, Nigeria echoed the Dutch decision, 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.
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.
Ian Dowty, a lawyer with Action on Rights of the Child, said that allowing minors to pass through the scanners would violate 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.
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 clothing.
At least two scanners in Amsterdam have been experimentally using the less-invasive software since late November, and the Dutch said those would be put into use immediately. All other scanners will be upgraded within three weeks.
But the 15 scanners will not cover all of the 25 to 30 flights a day that leave Amsterdam for U.S. 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.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was briefed Tuesday by the Dutch justice minister on the subject, agency spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said in Washington.
In the preliminary report issued yesterday, the Dutch government called the plan to blow up the Detroit-bound jet "professional" but said its execution was "amateurish."
In the United States, 40 full-body scanners are being operated in at least 19 airports.
Six U.S. airports are using them for primary screenings: 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 choose a pat-down search from a security officer instead.
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.