By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 28, 2009; A04
The explosive allegedly used in the failed bombing plot aboard a transatlantic jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day could have been detected by existing screening equipment, and the failure to do so reflects significant weaknesses in aviation security and intelligence, former U.S. government officials and international security experts said.
The compound that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly brought aboard Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam was PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, the same plastic explosive used almost exactly eight years ago by would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, the FBI said. The attack sped the launch of the Transportation Security Administration, which took over and expanded airport security screening.
But technology and methods that might have detected the explosive have been deployed in airports on a limited basis in the face of concerns about privacy, cost and the potential to slow airport security lines.
The TSA and its counterpart in the Netherlands, where Amsterdam Schipohl Airport is regarded as one of the most secure in the world, have fielded two types of screening equipment able to detect PETN, a commonly used military and commercial explosive, even if hidden beneath clothing, experts said.
However, the first type, detectors that test swabs wiped on passengers and baggage for traces of explosives, weren't used because they are generally reserved for travelers who trigger added scrutiny. Abdulmutallab's name was not placed on TSA watch lists despite warnings by his father to the State Department, officials said.
Abdulmutallab also did not pass through the second type of machine, whole-body imaging scanners that use X-rays or radio waves to detect objects under clothing, equipment that is also used at Schipohl. Not all passengers are required to walk through the scanners, whose availability has been limited because of cost, opposition from privacy groups and industry concerns about bottlenecks.
"Security failed," said Doron Bergerbest-Eilon, Israel's senior-ranking counterterrorism officer from 1997 to 2000 and a former national regulator for aviation security. It is of little comfort that Abdulmutallab was stopped only after he allegedly failed to properly detonate the bomb, instead igniting a fire that alerted fellow passengers, Bergerbest-Eilon said.
"The system repeatedly fails to prevent attacks and protect passengers when challenged," he said, adding that, in the minds of security experts, "for all intents and purposes, Northwest Flight 253 exploded in midair."
On Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Abdulmutallab's case was isolated and noted that he was apprehended before damage was done. Although the suspect's name came up "somewhere, somehow" in the government's master terrorism database, information that would have stopped him was never entered on law enforcement watch lists, she said.
"Once this incident occurred, the system worked," Napolitano told ABC's "This Week," adding that the public is safe. U.S. and Dutch authorities are investigating, she said, but "have no suggestion" that screening was not properly done at Schipol. "You can't rely on just one part of your security system," she said. "You have to look at the system as a whole."
But Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism analyst at Georgetown University, called the suspect's ability to smuggle the device on board profoundly disturbing, given that the TSA has spent more than $30 billion on aviation security since 2004, the world's airlines collectively spend an additional $5.9 billion a year, and PETN is well-known as a favored material for terrorist suicide bombers.
"This incident was a compound failure of both intelligence and physical security, leaving prevention to the last line of defense -- the passengers themselves," Hoffman wrote in an e-mail. Several current and former U.S. security officials faulted delays in fielding new imaging scanners.
Michael Chertoff, homeland security secretary from 2005 to last January, said terrorists are exploiting a long-known vulnerability that has been extended by politicians' reluctance to spend the money and political capital needed to make imaging technology more widespread, and travelers' resistance to undergo thorough pat-down searches.
"While the technology does exist to detect such threats, it is not fully deployed," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence.
According to the TSA's Web site, the agency is using 40 radio wave imaging units at 19 airports nationwide, and in most cases, the units are used for passengers requiring added scrutiny. At six of those airports, the machines are used for primary, or first-level, screening in one security line. TSA has announced plans to field 878 units by 2014.
Privacy groups say whole-body imaging scanners conduct a "virtual strip search," and have mounted a campaign to stop what they predict will be the abuse of electronic images of naked individuals. In a nonbinding vote in June, the House overwhelmingly approved a measure to prevent scanners from being used for primary screening.
The International Air Transport Association, a trade group of 230 airlines, is urging U.S. and European regulators to re-engineer the aviation security system, noting that the volume of data that governments collect on travelers has mushroomed.
"We've spent eight years looking for little scissors and toenail clippers," said Ken Dunlap, IATA's director of security in North America. "Perhaps the emphasis should be looking for bad people."
Jacques Duchesneau, head of Canada's Air Transport Security Authority from 2002 to 2008, and Bergerbest-Eilon said that instead of trying to push virtually all travelers through similar screening processes, authorities should improve and expand the use of intelligence and behavioral assessments to cull out those deemed to pose the greatest risk, and target improved technology to find them.
While such methods have been "wrongly perceived as racial profiling," Bergerbest-Eilon said, "past events have taught us that we cannot rely on intelligence alone to thwart major terror attacks."