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Auditors question TSA's use of and spending on technology

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 12:55 AM

Before there were full-body scanners, there were puffers.

The Transportation Security Administration spent about $30 million on devices that puffed air on travelers to "sniff" them out for explosives residue. Those machines ended up in warehouses, removed from airports, abandoned as impractical.

The massive push to fix airport security in the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to a gold rush in technology contracts for an industry that mushroomed almost overnight. Since it was founded in 2001, the TSA has spent roughly $14 billion in more than 20,900 transactions with dozens of contractors.

In addition to beefing up the fleets of X-ray machines and traditional security systems at airports nationwide, about $8 billion also paid for ambitious new technologies. The agency has spent about $800 million on devices to screen bags and passenger items, including shoes, bottled liquids, casts and prostheses. For next year, it wants more than $1.3 billion for airport screening technologies.

But lawmakers, auditors and national security experts question whether the government is too quick to embrace technology as a solution for basic security problems and whether the TSA has been too eager to write checks for unproven products.

"We always want the best, the latest and greatest technology against terrorists, but that's not necessarily the smartest way to spend your money and your efforts," said Kip Hawley, who served as the head of the TSA from 2005 until last year. "We see a technology that looks promising, and the temptation is to run to deploy it before we fully understand how it integrates with the multiple layers we already have in place like using a watch list, training officers at every checkpoint to look for suspicious behavior and using some pat-downs."

Some say the fact that the United States hasn't had another 9/11-level terrorist attack shows that the investment was money well spent.

But government auditors have faulted the TSA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, for failing to properly test and evaluate technology before spending money on it.

The puffer machines, for example, were an early TSA attempt at improving electronic screening in airport security lines. Designed to dislodge explosive particles by shooting air blasts at passengers, the detectors turned out to be unreliable and expensive to operate. But they were deployed in many airports before the TSA had fully tested them, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The puffers were "deployed even though TSA officials were aware that tests conducted during 2004 and 2005 on earlier [puffer] models suggested they did not demonstrate reliable performance in an airport environment," according to a GAO report from October 2009.

TSA officials told the GAO that they had deployed the puffers to "respond quickly to the threat posed by a suicide bomber" after incidents on Russian airliners in 2004.

The agency stopped buying and deploying the puffer machines to airports in June 2006. The GAO said in its October 2009 report that 116 puffers were in storage. A TSA spokesman said the agency had "since disposed of" the machines or transferred them to other agencies.

Analyzing risk

The government auditors expressed similar concerns that the TSA hasn't done good assessments of the risk, cost benefits or performances of other new technologies for screening at checkpoints.

The GAO has said that the TSA has "not conducted a risk assessment or cost-benefit analysis, or established quantifiable performance measures" on its new technologies. "As a result, TSA does not have assurance that its efforts are focused on the highest priority security needs."

In other cases, equipment to trace explosives and other devices for screening passengers have had technical problems and projected cost overruns, according to a recent GAO report.

The full-body scanners that have made headlines in recent weeks for their revealing images of passengers were tested more thoroughly than the puffer machines before being deployed, the GAO has found. But the auditors faulted the agency for not fully justifying their cost, saying that the agency's plan to double the number of body scanners in coming years will require more personnel to run and maintain them - an expense of as much as $2.4 billion.

"They're adding layers of security and technology, but they need to do a cost-benefit analysis to make sure this is worthwhile," said Steve Lord of the GAO's Homeland Security and Justice team, who has reviewed the TSA's purchases. "They need to look at whether there is other technology to deploy at checkpoints. Are we getting the best technology for the given pot of money? Is there a cheaper way to provide the same level of security through other technology?"

John Huey, an airport security expert, said the TSA's contracts with vendors to buy more equipment and devices often aren't done in a "systematic way."

"TSA has an obsession of finding a single box that will solve all its problems," Huey said. "They've spent and wasted money looking for that one box, and there is no such solution. . . . They respond to congressional mandates and the latest headlines of attempted terrorist attacks without any thought to risk management or separating out the threats in a logical way."

TSA officials disagree. They say there are responsible processes in place to research, develop and fund new technologies for airport security. And they point out that some gee-whiz equipment that vendors have pitched has taken too long to develop or has been too expensive to produce.

"We have to be predictive and acquire the best technology today to address the known threats by being informed of the latest intelligence and be proactive in working on what could be the next threats," said TSA Administrator John Pistole. "It is a tall order."

He said that technology isn't the only security effort underway. The TSA uses a combination of tactics, including terrorist watch lists, intelligence gathering and training security officers, to look for suspicious behavior.

Trial and error

The billions of dollars the TSA has spent on technology has been "a good investment," Pistole said, but he said that developing devices is full of risk. "It is a lot of art with the science. We're always competing for the best technology at the best price. It is just a constantly changing dynamic environment."

After 9/11, there was talk of cargo containers that could withstand explosions, for example, but airport security experts said they never came to fruition, in part because they were too heavy and airlines didn't want to pay for the extra fuel to carry them.

Another much talked-about device, a shoe scanner that would allow passengers to keep their shoes on while going through a checkpoint, has not been fully deployed to airports. Twelve companies are vying to provide shoe scanners to U.S. airports, but the TSA has not chosen one.

Contractors said they were responding to the requests the agency puts out for new ways to prevent terrorists in a world that has an ever-changing threat. Executives at airport security companies say they find that the TSA often buys its screening equipment and technologies to face the most recent threat rather than anticipating what might come next.

"We don't always see a well-defined roadmap of what they want," said Tom Ripp, president of the Security and Detection Systems division of L-3 Communications, a major security contractor.

Part of the problem is that experts disagree about what constitutes an effective airport security system, and policy makers are reluctant to embrace some techniques - such as profiling - that American society finds objectionable.

"Since the introduction of metal detectors in the 1970s, technologies have been bought and cobbled together in a somewhat piecemeal approach," said Tom LaTourrette, a security expert at RAND Corp., a nonprofit research institute.

"No one has been able to provide a satisfactory answer to the question of how to best structure aviation security," he said.

Quick solutions

The rush to improve security and quickly protect the public has also led to some shortcuts in contracting procedures, according to government reports.

A March audit from the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general looked at 29 support service contracts that the TSA had issued to buy new technologies for baggage and passenger screening equipment, worth a total of $662 million. It found that the agency "did not provide adequate management and oversight" on the contracts.

It concluded that the TSA "did not have reasonable assurance that contractors were performing as required, that it contracted for the services it needed, that it received the services it paid for, or that taxpayers were receiving the best value." The TSA said it has made improvements in its contracting process and oversight efforts.

Although big companies have been quick to respond to the new government market for air security, smaller firms - which often are incubators for cutting-edge technologies - say they have faced frustrations. Clint Seward of Acton, Mass., started trying in the late 1980s to sell the government a device about the size of a laptop called a BCT (bottle content tester) that would detect hazardous liquids in bottles and allow people to carry water bottles or sodas on planes.

"We were trying to convince them this made sense, but you couldn't get a consensus to get them to roll it out," Seward said. Then 9/11 happened.

"The day after they said, 'Can you give us a quote for 1,500 of these?' " Seward said. "I'm thinking, 'Sure.' " He did the quote, but he said that the TSA didn't have the money to fund it at first, and then he faced competition on the idea.

"By the time TSA got the money for it, the big guys took over," Seward said. "They realized it was big money to be made with TSA. They pushed their way in."

Last year, the TSA bought 500 bottled-liquid scanners in a $22 million contract with Smiths Detection. It has deployed more than 600 of the scanners to airports nationwide and expects to deploy more next year.

hedgpethd@washpost.com Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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