TSA Minimizes Failure to Detect Threats

TSA Administrator Kip Hawley testifies yesterday in front of the House panel.
TSA Administrator Kip Hawley testifies yesterday in front of the House panel. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2007

Allowing carry-on luggage aboard U.S. airliners poses an ongoing risk of terrorist attacks, government investigators told Congress yesterday, but federal security officials said a disclosure that bomb components were smuggled aboard aircraft in tests should not shake the public's confidence in flying America's skies.

Gregory D. Kutz, an official of the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that his group's circumvention of U.S. airport screening procedures "clearly shows the increased security risk of the current policies of allowing substantial carry-on luggage aboard aircraft."

GAO testers carried low-yield detonators, explosives and incendiary devices aboard the airplanes despite stringent measures imposed in August 2006 to prohibit liquids, gels or aerosol items from passengers' carry-on luggage, except in small containers within a clear, one-quart plastic bag.

GAO officials declined to say how many airport checkpoints were breached or how, but said they are confident that they could have penetrated others. "Under the pat-downs that TSA implements now, they would not have been caught," John W. Cooney, Kutz's assistant, said of the investigators who carried prohibited items. "That needs to be changed."

TSA Administrator Kip Hawley minimized the threat posed by the GAO's homemade bombs, which were developed with a national laboratory and a Washington area law enforcement agency and videotaped blowing open a car trunk and door in a test. He said the TSA is oriented toward defeating attacks powerful enough to down airliners.

Hawley also identified 19 layers of protection the U.S. government has developed -- keeping terrorists out of the country and off airplanes, and spotting suspicious behavior at airports, adding law enforcement agents to airports and planes, for example -- to lessen the threat.

"We can't be squeamish and say, 'Oh, my goodness, they brought some firecrackers through and put it in the trunk of a car.' We need to stop all things, but we have to focus on what truly does us harm," Hawley said. "I mean, my pen can do 'severe damage,' " he added.

Hawley's statement did not placate committee lawmakers, who cited reports of similar security lapses over two years. The TSA spends about $5 billion a year on aviation security, and projected last year that it would cost $50 billion to deploy its preferred screening solution at 250 airports -- before slashing its estimate to $8 billion.

Members also complained that the TSA spent about $50 million of $107 million provided by Congress last fiscal year for checkpoint explosives detection and emerging technologies. Hawley said the TSA expects to deploy 750 new X-ray scanners this year and next, enough to cover about one-quarter of the 2,800 lanes at 500 airport checkpoints.

Another 200 liquid-scanning machines will be deployed in 2008, along with small numbers of automated explosive detection systems for checked bags and scanners for people wearing casts, braces and prosthetic devices, he said. The TSA is still testing "whole body" imaging devices that could eliminate the need for pat-down searches, although new technologies often have not lived up to their promise.

David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airline trade association, said that companies want to ensure high levels of security but that it is unrealistic to expect passengers to travel without a carry-on bag, and even more unrealistic to expect each one to be searched, given record traffic and limited airport space. "We're trying to reduce delays, not increase them," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company