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Many airport security improvements would require more intrusion, oversight

As holiday travel ramps up, so does controversy over body scanners and pat-downs at the nation's airports.

After the 2001 attacks, federal officials also pledged to create machines to automatically detect explosives, sense whether passengers are lying and scan materials for threats. The Department of Homeland Security and intelligence agencies have spent billions to develop information-sharing networks and other security systems, including spending more than $795 million for development of high-tech checkpoint screening equipment.

But according to government reports, the mismanagement of research, concerns about privacy and cost, and opposition from industry and Congress have hindered the widespread deployment of the systems at airports in the United States and abroad.

Also, a plan to help focus the development of better screening technology and procedures -- including a risk-based assessment of aviation threats -- is almost two years overdue, according to a report this fall by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

"TSA cannot ensure that it is targeting the highest priority security needs at checkpoints; measure the extent to which deployed technologies reduce the risk of terrorist attacks; or make needed adjustments to its [Passenger Screening Program] strategy," the GAO report said.

Checkpoint machines

At least 10 checkpoint-screening technology projects have been in development by Homeland Security's science and technology office, none of which has been widely deployed. Those projects include an "explosives trace portal" that uses puffs of air to dislodge bits of explosive materials to be analyzed by sensors.

The Bush administration rushed the machines into airports in 2006, even though "TSA officials were aware that tests conducted during 2004 and 2005 on earlier ETP models suggested they did not demonstrate reliable performance in an airport environment," the GAO found. The TSA halted the deployment later that year "due to performance problems and high installation costs." Much of the equipment was later sent to warehouses.

Another machine, called a "whole body imager," was designed to peer underneath passengers' clothing to find threatening objects or materials. But critics complained about the intrusiveness of the machines, which have not been deployed as widely as planned.

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