Bomb Parts Clear Air Security in Tests

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007

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 use 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 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 the TSA from members of Congress just days before the start of an expected record Thanksgiving holiday travel week. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which requested the investigation, plans a hearing on the subject this morning.

"These findings are mind-boggling," said the committee chairman, Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.). "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 deserves better."

Two years ago, TSA officials said they needed more time, more resources and better technology to provide adequate security, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), the panel's ranking 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 during which the GAO conducted 38 tests, the agency conducted 200,000 tests of its operations as screeners cleared 2 million passengers a day. She said the 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 the GAO's report, citing security concerns, does not disclose exactly how many times investigators evaded detection at 19 airports tested, nor does it say precisely how they did so. But it describes three series of tests in March, May and June in which agents distracted screeners by committing relatively minor violations of rules that allowed them to smuggle dangerous items without detection.

The GAO suggests that the 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 stepped up the study after security was tightened in response to the detection of a Britain-based plot in August 2006 to blow up transatlantic flights with improvised explosive or incendiary devices using liquids smuggled aboard 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, one-quart plastic bag.

In one set of tests, however, investigators were stopped for having items in a bag larger than quart-size 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 recognize 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.

The report follows the disclosure by USA Today in October that an internal TSA review found that screeners in 2006 missed 75 percent of simulated explosives and bomb parts hidden under testers' clothes or carry-on bags at Los Angeles International Airport, 60 percent at Chicago O'Hare International Airport and 20 percent at San Francisco International Airport. The study prompted the TSA to step up security testing nationwide in September 2006 and to expand procedures that were tested in San Francisco and improved results there, Howe said.

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