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Bomb components get past airport screeners

Thu., Nov. 15, 2007

WASHINGTON – Undercover investigators carried all the bomb components needed to cause “severe damage” to airliners and passengers through U.S. airport screening checkpoints several times this year, despite security measures adopted in August 2006 to stop such explosive devices, according to a new government report.

Agents were able to smuggle aboard a detonator, liquid explosives and liquid incendiary components costing less than $150 even though screening officers in most cases appeared to follow proper procedures and used appropriate screening technology, according to an unclassified version of a report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s audit arm.

The report concludes that the U.S. Transportation Security Administration needs to adopt even more stringent security measures, despite “a significant challenge in balancing security concerns with efficient passenger movement.”

The report provoked sharp criticism of TSA from congressional lawmakers just days before the start of an expected record Thanksgiving holiday travel week. The House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, which requested the investigation, plans a hearing on the subject today.

“These findings are mind-boggling,” committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said. “In spite of billions of dollars and the six years TSA has had to deploy new technology and procedures, our airlines remain vulnerable. This is unacceptable. The American public deserve better.”

Two years ago, TSA officials said they needed more time, more resources and better technology to provide adequate security, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the panel’s senior Republican and former chairman, said in a written statement. “Unfortunately … TSA still cannot consistently detect or prevent prohibited items from being carried onto aircraft.”

TSA Assistant Administrator Ellen Howe played down the GAO’s conclusions, saying that in the same three months the GAO conducted 38 tests, the agency conducted 200,000 tests of its operations even as screeners cleared 2 million passengers a day. She said TSA deploys and continually refines 19 layers of security, including bomb experts, behavior observation teams, personnel trained to review identity documents and new generations of detection equipment.

“There is nothing in the report that is news to us … that we were not working on, or don’t already know,” Howe said. “It’s like a combination lock. If you get through one layer of security, it doesn’t mean you get through all layers of security.” She added, “We don’t change security procedures in knee-jerk fashion.”

The unclassified version of GAO’s statement, citing security concerns, did not disclose exactly how many times investigators evaded detection at 19 airports tested, nor precisely how they did so. But it described three series of tests in March, May and June of this year in which agents distracted screeners by committing relatively minor violations of rules that allowed them to smuggle dangerous items without detection.

The GAO suggested that TSA establish special lines to screen passengers with different risk factors and special needs; introduce “more aggressive, visible and unpredictable deterrent measures” such as pat-down searches; and develop and deploy new technology.

Investigators initiated the study after security was tightened in response to the detection of a United Kingdom-based plot in August 2006 to blow up trans-Atlantic flights with improvised explosive or incendiary devices, using liquids smuggled aboard in modified sport drink containers, cameras and batteries.

Under the new rules, liquids, gels or aerosol items are prohibited from passengers’ carry-on luggage except in containers smaller than 3.4 fluid ounces held in a clear, 1-quart plastic bag.

However, in one set of tests, investigators were stopped for putting items in a bag larger than 1-quart, but were allowed to proceed through a checkpoint without being forced to transfer the items to a smaller bag. At another airport, a screener stopped a tester carrying a small, unlabeled bottle of medicated shampoo saying “it could contain acid,” but did not identify an actual liquid explosive carried separately by the tester.

In other examples, an investigator carried coins in his pockets to trigger a hand-wand and pat-down search, but brought bomb components through without notice.


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