Airport Security Technology Stuck In the Pipeline

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 8, 2008

In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, government officials and industry leaders talked excitedly about how they expected technology to plug many of the gaps in airport security.

They envisioned machines that would quickly detect explosives hidden in luggage, spot plastic explosives or other weapons through people's clothing, identify a flicker in the eye of a suspicious character.

But six years later, little has changed at airport checkpoints. Screeners still use X-ray machines to scan carry-on bags, and passengers still pass through magnetometers that cannot detect plastic or liquid explosives. The Transportation Security Administration has yet to deploy a machine that can efficiently detect liquid bombs, forcing millions of air passengers to check bags or pare down their toiletries to three-ounce containers in carry-on baggies.

The sluggish pace of technological innovation and deployment has left holes in checkpoint security that could easily be exploited by terrorists, according to government officials and outside experts. Congressional investigators reported last year that they were able to smuggle bomb components through checkpoints despite new security measures. Other investigative reports questioned the government's efforts to get emerging technology into the field.

"The snail's pace of deploying new technology is unacceptable," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "We remain vulnerable because we have not kept up with technological innovation."

The TSA in coming months is expected to begin the government's first substantial investment in new checkpoint security technology since the 1970s, according to officials at the TSA, which plans to spend about $250 million on new devices, up from about $89 million last fiscal year. The machines include upgraded X-ray equipment that will provide multiple views of bags and hand-held scanners that can detect liquid explosives in bottles after they are identified by screeners.

Still, TSA officials say it will take years for much of the new technology -- some of which isn't really so new -- to reach checkpoints across the nation. And they are not sure whether the upgrades will allow them to lift nettlesome restrictions on gels and liquids in carry-on luggage.

Lawmakers, government officials and independent analysts point to myriad reasons for the slow deployment of technology at checkpoints.

Top TSA officials blame limited private investment in security development. The security industry blames a lack of federal funding and criticizes the difficulty of navigating a bureaucratic approval process that one executive described as "a maze." They also say frequent turnover in the top ranks of the TSA has sent mixed messages. Congressional investigators have raised concerns about the TSA's strategic vision. And top government security officials remain skittish about quickly deploying technology before they believe it has been fully vetted.

The problems actually started before the 2001 terrorist attacks, when there were few security or technology companies investing much money in such equipment, government officials said.

Even after the attacks, there was no surge in investment, and the TSA was given two mandates by Congress that had little to do with upgrading technology at checkpoints: hire tens of thousands of screeners to take over security from private firms, and buy hundreds of machines to inspect checked bags for explosives.

Security experts had long worried about how easy it would be for a terrorist to smuggle a bomb onto a plane in checked luggage. The government spent more than $5 billion over the years to buy, maintain and install explosive-detection systems, which basically scan bags using medical imaging technology, according to government records.

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