By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006
U.S. security officials had long anticipated the kind of terror threat that threw global air traffic into an uproar last week -- they'd even stepped up training to head off terrorists trying to sneak improvised explosive devices onto airplanes.
But when British authorities announced they had foiled such a plot, the Transportation Security Administration had only one option in its playbook: a sharp crackdown at security gates, with new stringent rules restricting carry-on baggage. The move caused a recurrence of the long, slow security lines and massive inconvenience for passengers that have blackened the agency's reputation since its inception after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The response highlights the tough predicament that the TSA repeatedly faces as it attempts to become a more sophisticated security operation. The agency has the difficult task of ensuring airline security with a minimum of hassle for millions of travelers pouring through airports.
After analyzing intelligence reports and assessments of the alleged plot, TSA Administrator Edmund S. "Kip" Hawley said it did not take long for authorities to figure out what to do. "There wasn't any balancing on this one," Hawley said.
The TSA, which has a budget of $6.2 billion and has seen its number of screeners drop to 43,000 from 55,000 in 2002, is one of the last lines of defense in the country's efforts to battle terrorism, particularly attacks directed at airplanes.
Travelers and their advocates have long complained that lines are too long at many airports, that some security measures seem inconsistent and that security officers seem to be in short supply. Others say that TSA officers seem to be doing little but hanging out at checkpoints, even when the lines grow. A joke among pilots is that TSA stands for a "Thousand guys Standing Around."
Watchdogs have hammered the TSA from the other side -- contending that the agency has been slow to tackle the most serious security concerns. Critics and outside security experts say the TSA has been sluggish to grapple with not only carry-on security issues but also with a range of other threats that include cargo shipments and checked baggage on passenger jets.
The TSA should have banned liquids long ago or pushed more aggressively to develop technology to detect them because the threat from such explosives has been well-established for at least a decade, critics argue. They also wonder why the Department of Homeland Security, of which the TSA is a part, has seen its research and development budgets slashed from $110 billion in 2003 to $44 billion this year.
"This points out a much larger issue," said Clark Kent Ervin, a former inspector general at the department. "The terrorists are always one step ahead of us. They are adaptive and learning and proactive. We are always focused on the last war. We need to make sure we don't lose the next war."
TSA officials defend their approach, saying the agency was formed in direct response to the 2001 terror attacks and faced congressional mandates and other pressures to hire as many screeners as quickly as possible.
It was a tough task, they say, and consumed their focus for years. They also were receiving pressure from struggling airlines and airports hoping to ease passenger security burdens to boost travel. As they were monitoring intelligence for new terror threats, current and former TSA officials said they felt it would not have been prudent earlier to ban all liquids and gels from flights. Hawley says he is confident that his screeners, who receive training on how to detect liquid explosives, would have stopped bombers from boarding U.S. airlines at airports.
In their constant effort to balance risk and security, TSA officials announced yesterday that they were tweaking some of their restrictions. Revisiting a previous policy enacted after other terror threats, TSA officials said they are requiring all passengers to remove their shoes to be screened by X-ray machines. They are also banning all aerosol products but allowing small doses of nonprescription medications, solid lipstick and baby food. "This refinement affords the same level of security that has been in place since last Thursday, but is intended to minimize the impact on travelers," officials said in a news release.
Hawley, the agency's fourth administrator, took over the TSA last July. He immediately went through training classes to get a better sense of what his employees were learning, officials said.
Aware that terrorists were finding new ways to make bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was troubled by the type of explosives training screeners received. The screeners were almost always seeing fully assembled devices, which are relatively easy to detect during training sessions.
He and other top officials worried that terrorists could get on a plane and then assemble an explosive device.
In response, TSA officials began to rework education requirements. While mandating that a third of the screeners' training sessions focus on improvised explosive devices, including liquid bombs, they began to throw more images of explosives and their components at officers in classrooms and on-the-job training sessions.
To get screeners to think more creatively about threats, TSA officials plan in coming months to introduce an interactive video game that centers on security to allow employees to role-play as terrorists.
"There is a lab right now in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the bad guys are learning new and better ways to build and disguise bombs," said Michael J. Restovich, assistant administrator for security operations. "For us, it's a constant, continuous education to learn how to detect and interdict all of these components of bombs. That is our target. That is what we're looking for."
Critics and outside security experts say the new training requirements are a good place to start. But they question whether the initiatives are working.
They point to a classified report from the Government Accountability Office that found that investigators were able to penetrate checkpoints at more than 20 airports with bomb components between October and January, according to news accounts at the time.
Top officials say they want to expand teams of security officers who are trained to identify passengers for suspicious activity in terminals and checkpoint lines. Using Israeli counterterrorism techniques, the teams already operate at more than 10 airports, including Dulles International Airport. The TSA won't discuss the methods the teams employ.
That expansion is part of an effort to create more diverse career paths for screeners to try to keep them on the payroll longer. The TSA has battled high attrition rates since its inception, although those numbers have dropped recently.
Hawley even changed the job title for screeners last year to Transportation Security Officers in the hopes of boosting morale and finding a description that better describes the nature of the work, he said.
While they were revamping training, TSA officials were working to loosen some restrictions on what passengers can carry onto planes.
Late last year, the TSA removed the ban on small scissors and sharp tools. The chance of hijackers using such weapons is remote, officials say, because cockpit doors have been strengthened and pilots will not hesitate to put planes in rolls and spins to disrupt a plot. Passengers are also likely to stage a revolt.
Hawley has been lobbying Congress to change a federal law banning cigarette lighters in passenger cabins, a restriction enacted after a failed terror plot in late 2001. Thousands of lighters are confiscated every year by screeners, work that officials say distracts workers from more important tasks, such as finding bombs.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a sharp critic of the TSA and Bush administration security policy, said that lifting the ban on scissors and sharp tools was a bad decision. He said terrorists might use scissors and other small tools in a broader suicide bombing plot, perhaps to fight off passengers while someone assembles a bomb on board. He also says the TSA does not do enough to screen cargo shipments on passenger planes.
TSA officials counter that screening 100 percent of cargo would be impossible and said that they check such shipments after doing risk assessments.
"There is a Dickensian quality to their arguments," Markey said. "This is the best of security and the worst of security. The areas they are covering have been improved, but they have still left vast areas that are relatively unprotected. And it's just those areas that al-Qaeda has historically exploited."
Staff researcher Richard Drezen and staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Sara Kehaulani Goo contributed to this report.