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Many airport security improvements would require more intrusion, oversight

By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; A03

Aviation security could be improved with the use of databases containing passengers' personal information, technology such as body scans and better information-sharing. But the changes would require greater tolerance of intrusions and far more effective government oversight, security specialists say.

Passengers probably would have to become accustomed to the feeling that authorities know a lot more about them, their families and their associates, and that they are being looked at by machines in intimate ways that once were unthinkable.

While the aviation security system can never be rendered inviolable, experts say, the lapses that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board his flight for Detroit on Christmas Day, allegedly packing enough plastic explosives to blow a hole in the plane, confirm repeated warnings about the chronic, costly shortcomings of government efforts to create better systems to screen travelers for bombs, weapons and other threats.

And since the failed attack, the debate about how to plug security gaps has provided new evidence of the tension between the desire to improve security and concerns about personal privacy.

Some security advocates say that, given the close call Friday, now is the time to redouble efforts to combine data systems, intelligence and high-tech scanning technology to improve screening. Terrorists won't be stopped by machines alone, the specialists say.

"They're not stupid. They know what we're looking for," said Stewart Baker, a former general counsel at the National Security Agency and a former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security. "We need to begin looking more carefully and in a more nuanced way for terrorists, not just weapons. . . . That means we're going to have to end up getting used to the idea that the people who do the screening will know more about you."

Stalled efforts

Specialists say much is already known about how to improve security, pointing to the profile-intensive approach used in Israel, as well as information projects undertaken soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Those projects included an effort to build vast networks of supercomputers to instantly probe every passenger's background for clues about violent intentions.

But those efforts repeatedly foundered because of management missteps at the Department of Homeland Security and a backlash from privacy advocates and citizens who were wary of placing so much surveillance power in the hands of the government, according to government reports. The once-secret program known as CAPPS II, for example, was designed to use passengers' travel reservations, housing information, family ties, credit reports and other personal data to identify potential threats. But the program was sharply limited after protests against a Bush administration proposal that it be used to catch criminals as well as terrorists.

Privacy advocates said that if the government decides to embrace such a system more widely, it can be done only under exceedingly tight oversight and strict rules that mandate severe punishment for misuse.

"There has to be some evidence it will work," said James X. Dempsey, vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington. "And then there has to be accountability when it's abused."

Explaining the delays

Homeland security officials acknowledge the setbacks but say they are committed to overcoming them. They say mandates to minimize the impact of security on the aviation industry, the infrastructure challenges of installing equipment in airports and persistent concerns about privacy have contributed to delays. At the same time, officials point out, improvements have been put in place over the past eight years, including a cohesive workforce of screeners, better detection equipment for baggage and a relatively quick screening process.

"Since 9/11, DHS and TSA have made significant improvements to aviation security technology. We are driven by the ever-evolving threat environment to have adaptable, flexible technology that can address multiple threats," said Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa. "We are committed to working through the inherent challenges we face in deploying new technology that meets all of these needs, to ensure the safety and security of the traveling public."

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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