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In the wake of Flight 253, the TSA must get more anti-terrorist tools

Tuesday, December 29, 2009; A14

THANK GOODNESS Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano backed off her assertions that "the system worked" in the attempted downing of Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. Her claim neither passed the laugh test nor was remotely true. Ms. Napolitano's acknowledgement Monday that the system "failed miserably" is the first step on the long road to plugging the troubling security gaps that have been exposed.

Alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should never have been allowed to fly. We'll come back to the failure of communication that let him get past the first tier of airport security another time. Right now our concern is over how Mr. Abdulmutallab, with a lethal explosive sewn into his underwear, was able to get on board the aircraft.

The Transportation Security Administration is not keen on discussing the security procedures it employs at foreign airports. But attention has focused on the use of scanning technology that could have identified the pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) that Mr. Abdulmutallab was hiding. The New York Times reported that a Dutch airport official said that the millimeter wave-imaging machines that allow security officials to see through a passenger's clothing were prohibited for use on travelers to the United States. The TSA says that is not the case. Either way, it's clear that passengers on U.S.-bound flights are not being scanned. Whenever possible, they should be.

At U.S. airports -- as at those abroad -- the use of scanners raises questions of resources. There are 40 millimeter wave-imaging scanners in use, but only six are for primary screening. Thirty-four are used for secondary screening, when a passenger is identified for a more thorough search. Going through the screeners is optional. Those who opt out get an additional screening that could include a full-body pat down. The TSA has ordered 150 backscatter scanners, which produce a chalk-like image. It plans to order 300 other scanners over the next year. Congress and the White House have to find the money to fund as many of these machines as are needed to safeguard aircraft and air passengers.

There are other steps Congress can quickly take; let's start with two. One would be for Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to release his hold on the nomination of Erroll Southers to lead the TSA. Not having a leader at the agency now hurts the nation as well as the administration. Another step would be for Congress to reject legislation to limit the use of advanced scanning. We understand the privacy concerns at issue; for some, a full-body scan is akin to a strip search. But the failure of Mr. Abdulmutallab's alleged attack is one close call too many. Concerns about privacy must be balanced with law enforcement's ability to meet the terrorist threat with tools that work.

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