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"Airplane Security Debated Anew After Latest Bombing Plot"
Friday, May 11, 2012
Airplane Security Debated Anew After Latest Bombing Plot
Let's get to the truth by declassifying recent 'Red Team' inspection reports
By MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT and RON NIXON
The New York (NY) Times
WASHINGTON - The latest attempt by Al Qaeda to make an underwear bomb
designed to be detonated on a plane headed to the United States has set off
a fierce debate among security officials in Washington and their critics in
Congress about whether the current measures to protect airliners would have
detected the bomb.
The debate has centered largely on the belief among officials of the
Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security
Administration that their so-called multilayered approach to security would
have stopped such an attack.
The current approach includes increased sharing of intelligence and boarding
pass information, the widespread use of body scanners, officers monitoring
human behavior in airports and closer relationships with airport officials
around the world.
Many of the measures evolved after a Qaeda operative tried to detonate an
underwear bomb on a flight bound for Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, and have been
the most significant changes to airport security since the terrorist attacks
of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Quite frankly, I think the likelihood is high that he or she or whatever
the device was would have been picked up through the screening abroad at the
last point of departure, based on what we have in place in those locations
and the partnerships we have," said a high-ranking official at the
Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the T.S.A.
The official, speaking anonymously because he did not want to be identified
discussing security matters, said, "What I can tell you is that if the
systems that are in place today were in place on Christmas Day 2009, he
never would have been allowed to board a plane to the United States."
Members of Congress and other critics, however, remain deeply skeptical of
the Homeland Security Department and the T.S.A. to keep airplanes safe. They
contend that Al Qaeda's latest attempt highlights shortcomings and
weaknesses of the government's multilayered approach.
They argue that too few scanners are being deployed in the United States and
abroad, and that even those in place are not always used. Another troubling
shortcoming, they say, is that the United States government has little
authority over passenger screenings at foreign airports, where analysts
believe a suicide bomber would be most likely to board an airplane headed to
the United States. In fact, full-body scanners are rarely used in foreign
At a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Representative Darrell Issa, the
California Republican who is the chairman of the House Oversight and
Government Reform Committee, asked an investigator for the Government
Accountability Office if the body screening machines used by the T.S.A.
could detect a nonmetallic underwear bomb, like the one that Al Qaeda has
tried to use.
"Just yesterday," Mr. Issa began, "Janet Napolitano - Secretary Napolitano -
said there is a high likelihood that Advanced Imaging Technology would have
detected the new sophisticated underwear bomb used in the recent or
attempted to be used in the recent plot in Yemen. Do you agree that there is
a high likelihood that advanced imaging would have caught the new bomb?" he
asked an auditor who had worked on an examination of the T.S.A.
"That's a very interesting question," said Stephen Lord, the director of
homeland security and justice issues for the Government Accountability
Office. "I would have great difficulty answering that in open sessions, Sir.
We've done a classified report."
Mr. Issa said: "We'll take that and I'm going to predict that it's going to
be no, they couldn't. But the actual answer will remain classified."
Kip Hawley, the head of the T.S.A. from 2005 to 2009, said that he believed
the current system would have detected the device.
"The screening is vastly improved since 2009," Mr. Hawley said. "The
question is whether the person would have gotten the bomb on, and would the
bomb have worked. On both of those I would say, 'No.' "
In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, President Obama said that he was
not surprised by Al Qaeda's latest attempt. "We are going to have to
maintain constant vigilance and create a whole series of layers of
protection and barriers," he said. "And, you know, fortunately, what we've
seen is constant improvement on the part of our law enforcement, our
military, our intelligence officers that allows us to be able to prevent the
kind of attack that we just saw."
Representative John L. Mica, a Florida Republican who is chairman of the
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and an ardent critic of
the T.S.A., said in an interview on Thursday that the multilayered approach
to screening is flawed at every level.
Metal detectors, he said, used a 1950s technology to find guns and knives
but not explosives, which are the greatest threat to airline security.
Mr. Mica also pointed to earlier G.A.O. reports that found that the T.S.A.
had never scientifically validated its behavioral science techniques for
identifying people exhibiting signs in airports that might indicate a
potential threat. He also said there had never been a cost-benefit analysis
of the widespread use of the techniques.
The program's ultimate failure, he said, is that it has not identified a
single known terrorist.
"A high school kid could put together a better project for finding people
who pose a risk," Mr. Mica said.
Even as the T.S.A. has expanded the use of body scanners in the United
States, it has searched for new ways of using a more risk-based approach to
targeting specific groups of people who are more likely to pose a threat and
focusing efforts on their movements.
As part of those efforts, the T.S.A. now allows apparently low-risk
travelers who volunteer background information ahead of time to go through
special screening lanes without removing shoes, belts and coats. The
program, called PreCheck, was begun last October, operates in 14 airports
and is open to preapproved passengers of three airlines: American, Delta and
The T.S.A. has also started to allow passengers 75 years and older at four
airports to keep their shoes and light jackets on as they make their way
through security, and they are not patted down.
A similar program was put in place last year for passengers 12 and younger.
TSA tinkers around the edges of security (2007)
Airport security directors criticize TSA, offer Congress recommendations
Regulatory Compliance and Airport Competition (2004)
Truth As A Tactic (2007)
Red Team Secrets You Don't Want To Know (2010)
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