Outside editorial: Holes in the screens

Posted: Tuesday, November 20, 2007

This editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

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Six years after 9/11, airport screeners are getting pretty good at spotting terrorists -- as long as they're inept amateurs. Tests by federal agencies show, though, that there's an excellent chance that anybody who has been trained to get past airport security - like, say, a member of al-Qaida - will succeed.

The latest blow to public confidence in air safety came last week with the release of a report by the Government Accountability Office, which revealed that investigators smuggled components for liquid-based bombs past screeners at 19 U.S. airports. They were able to do this not because they had inside information on Transportation Security Administration screening techniques, but because they scanned publicly available TSA materials and then designed ways to get past security. What's more, they succeeded even though TSA personnel had apparently been tipped off. An internal agency memo, which was the subject of a congressional hearing Wednesday, included physical descriptions of some testers and gave details on their methods.

The report follows recent news that screeners at Los Angeles International Airport missed 75 percent of the fake bombs that investigators tried to smuggle onto planes during tests two years ago. The excuse from TSA officials: The tests were difficult and designed to trip up screeners. Whereas al-Qaida will doubtless hide its bombs in brightly marked packages.

In congressional testimony Thursday, TSA Administrator Kip Hawley emphasized that the screeners who missed bomb parts during the GAO investigation represent just one layer of airport security, which also includes bomb-sniffing dogs and airline crews trained in self-defense. That might provide an iota of comfort, though some of those extra layers are questionable. The TSA, for example, has recently been experimenting with controversial techniques such as behavioral screening. Nearly 2,000 employees have been trained to look for signs of stress or other unusual behavior; suspicious passengers are subject to questioning or searches. According to USA Today, 43,000 travelers have been flagged by behavior-detecting screeners since January 2006, resulting in 278 arrests, none on terrorism-related charges. Skeptics have suggested that any random sweep of 43,000 passengers might have turned up as many criminals.

Whether such techniques work or not, it's clear that what really needs attention is the basic observational skills of airport screeners. Coming technology will undoubtedly help, but until it arrives, federal agencies should step up their tests -- and dismiss screeners who consistently fail them.

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