Searching for more than suspicious packages

By Anne E. Kornblut and Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 10:41 PM

When agents lead canine units through an airport, they are not looking only for suspicious bags to sniff.

Plainclothes officers often trail a few feet behind, watching bystanders' reactions to the bomb-detection dogs. If passengers become nervous or run for the exits, it can be a sign that they were planning to do harm, senior U.S. security officials said.

"Most people are not put off by a dog, unless it's a snarling German shepherd or something," said John S. Pistole, the head of the Transportation Security Administration. Referring to the Nigerian passenger who allegedly tried to ignite a bomb mid-flight last Christmas Day, he said: "But if it's an Abdulmutallab type, I can almost guarantee, when they see a dog, he or she is going to think that's a bomb-sniffing dog and take evasive action. That's what we're looking for."

The work of behavior detection officers is one of the TSA's more subtle approaches, a tacit admission that machines alone cannot stop the next attack.

But according to experts and lawmakers, persistent holes in aviation security must be addressed. Among their concerns:

l Air cargo. Pistole describes air cargo as a top worry, illustrated by the October attempt by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The screening process - especially for packages sent from overseas - remains riddled with holes. In the "Yemen cargo plot," authorities tracked down packages with printer cartridges repurposed as bombs after receiving a tip from Saudi authorities. Even then, finding them took several attempts.

The incident spurred the TSA to ban large cartridges and all cargo originating in Yemen. It also renewed interest in strengthening cargo standards. Currently, all cargo carried on domestic passenger flights is screened, but compliance cannot be enforced abroad. The Government Accountability Office estimates that 55 percent to 65 percent of all foreign-launched cargo on passenger flights is thoroughly screened before heading to the United States.

At issue now is whether the United States should seek 100 percent cargo screening on U.S.-bound cargo planes, a goal that Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) is pursuing legislation to mandate but that others say is absurd.

"I don't believe that the 100 percent cargo screening, whether it's in the aviation or maritime environment, will ever equal 100 percent security," Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in June. "It provides the appearance of increased security without any new increase in security."

Aviation officials say that all high-risk cargo coming from abroad is checked. But, said a congressional aide who works on aviation security, "the big fight is over the definition of the word 'screen.' "

"You'll hear, 'We do 100 percent screening of high-risk packages,' but it's that they run an algorithm and see if it comes up a high-risk package or not." Referring to the October plot, the aide said: "Those two packages were sent from Yemen, where we knew there is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to a synagogue. If that's not a high-risk package, I don't know exactly what is."

l Security lines at the checkpoint. Officials said there is little to stop a terrorist from detonating a bomb while waiting in line outside a secure area. Agents patrol the entire airport, but Pistole compared the situation to any big, open area where people congregate, "whether it's Tysons Corner or the Mall of America."

The work of the behavior detection officers is critical in that regard. They have caught at least one suspicious passenger outside a checkpoint carrying explosive material, officials said. But experts who have watched developments abroad note that a favored technique of terrorists is to approach a checkpoint and detonate a bomb, something that remains a concern here.

l Airport employees. Although airport job applicants undergo background checks before they are hired, they are not scanned every day. According to the TSA, the airport operator determines which secure areas the employees can access, but the workers face random inspections and are continuously vetted against terrorist watch lists.

l Matching bags to passengers. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, checked luggage wasn't allowed on a plane if the passenger did not board the plane, too. That policy was abandoned, but Arnold I. Barnett, an aviation security expert who teaches statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues that it should be reinstituted.

"They stopped because they began putting bags through the explosives detectors, but the explosives detectors are not perfect," he said.

l Better security on overflights. The TSA requires enhanced security for foreign flights headed to the United States.

Vahid Motevalli, head of the department of mechanical engineering technology at Purdue University, said the same strict standards should be applied to international flights that pass over the United States without landing. Many are flying from Europe to Mexico, passing high above "prime targets on the U.S. East Coast."

"An overflight could be taken over [by terrorists] in a 9/11-type attack," Motevalli said.

U.S. officials have access to information about who is traveling aboard many of the more than 300,000 overflights each year. They have turned away flights based on passenger manifests, but they are seeking more data and security.

l Lack of passenger interviews. It would be impossible to replicate the Israeli model - in which many air passengers are questioned before boarding - but experts think some interviews would give the TSA more leeway to ferret out suspicious passengers. Currently, the TSA must call in law enforcement to talk to passengers.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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