The Transportation Security Administration is considering checking airline passengers' hands for explosives residue and expanding checkpoints after a new report found that gaps in the nation's airport security system could easily be improved.
The report, which was not released publicly but was described by Homeland Security Department officials familiar with its findings, found that the federal government moved too quickly to install a security system after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and left some areas of aviation vulnerable to terrorists.
The report of more than 250 pages deals with ways to improve security and efficiency, especially in moving large numbers of passengers through security checkpoints. It also suggests broader changes, such as physical inspection of all air cargo and more law enforcement officers at checkpoints.
TSA officials said they were not certain whether all the suggestions would be adopted. The report was issued by the TSA's affiliate agency at the Homeland Security Department, the Science and Technology Directorate, and was produced at the request of Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security. A copy of the report was obtained by the New York Times, which published an article about it yesterday.
"Much of [the report's recommendations] have already been addressed or are being addressed," TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield said. "Some of it is simply impractical."
The report suggests better use of existing technology to detect explosives and weapons that might be hidden inside passengers' clothing, out of concern for the current system's vulnerabilities to a suicide bomber. Existing trace-detection technology, now used to identify explosives in luggage, could be used more widely on passengers' hands and clothing, the report said.
The TSA said it already plans to install at least one walk-through device in every airport over the next two years that would test passengers for traces of explosives residue on clothing by exposing them to puffs of air that are then analyzed. Officials are less certain about the report's recommendation to check passengers' hands for explosives using a cotton swab that is then tested for residue by a machine. Devices that test the cotton swabs are prone more cleaning and maintenance if they pick up skin oils, TSA officials said.
TSA officials said they are already considering or testing other recommendations outlined in the report.
Among the more simple changes suggested, the agency plans to test new conveyor belt systems that would return empty bins at security checkpoints to the front of the line. Although it is unclear whether such a system would fit inside the small confines of today's checkpoints, it could eliminate the labor-intensive process of requiring screeners to stack empty bins and carry them from X-ray machine stations.
Installing longer tables at checkpoints would also speed the process because passengers would have more room to display and organize personal items, allowing people to move more quickly to X-ray stations.
Officials are also plan to test ways to reduce the number of incidents that require an entire terminal to be emptied and passengers screened again because of a security breach. The new report suggests that the TSA install gates or locked doors on the exits of the areas beyond the security checkpoint to prevent unscreened passengers from entering. It was unclear if this would be feasible at most airports.
"The reality is, in most airports you don't have the luxury of that much space," Hatfield said.
Hatfield contested one of the report's finding that suggested security screeners are not trained to respond if they find a real gun or other weapon. The report suggested more law enforcement officers in checkpoints to rectify the weakness. "Our screeners have very specific standard operating procedures," Hatfield said. "They are trained for how to react when they discover a weapon, explosive device or hazardous material."