Federal officials re-evaluating airport security

War on Terrorism


WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security officials moved yesterday to re-evaluate airport security checkpoint procedures and hunt for new scanning technology that could be deployed quickly in the wake of the decision to ban liquids, gels and creams from carry-on luggage.

Top officials met late in the day to check the implementation of the new procedures, monitor how information about banned items was being disseminated and examine new information from British officials to see what changes might need to be made in passenger screening.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that he would unveil a new set of streamlined screening procedures in the near future.

One knowledgeable security official said it was unlikely that the ban on liquids would be lifted, though small amounts might be allowed.

Security officials and analysts, however, said that the federal government's efforts to improve technology and procedures at checkpoints would likely meet with only limited success unless more is done to conduct background checks on passengers and airport workers and to plug other holes in air-travel security.

In an interview, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Jackson agreed with those assessments.

He said the government is working to create a "system of systems" that would extend screening measures from the airport entrance to the interior of the airplane.

Some lawmakers and aviation security specialists said the department's approach has fallen far short of what needs to be done to secure air travel.

"We're always fighting the last war," said Republican Rep. John Linder of Georgia, a member of the House Homeland Security committee. He disparaged the emergency measures imposed this week after the announcement that British officials had foiled a terrorist plot to blow up U.S.-bound aircraft.

The lesson for U.S. officials in what happened this week, Linder said, is that "screening didn't help you. What helped you was intelligence." He said implementing new procedures that treat "every gray-haired lady wearing perfume" as a potential threat is "absolute insanity."

Homeland Security Department officials are continuing to evaluate the new measures, Jackson said, including whether passengers are being given conflicting information about what materials may be taken on board.

"We'll modify this as it seems appropriate," he said, noting that throughout the day, wait times dropped significantly at most major airports.

Quick adjustment

At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, he said, it took passengers 48 minutes to get through security at 6 a.m. By later in the day, the wait time was 18 minutes. He credited the traveling public with having quickly adjusted to the new procedures.

U.S. officials will continue to review and modify security measures, especially as they learn more from intelligence officials in Britain about the exact nature of the alleged plot, he said.

Jackson said the government would also continue research and development on new detection equipment, which he called "a very high priority." Homeland Security has been testing equipment designed to detect explosives without forcing passengers to remove their shoes, he said, as well as devices that can detect liquid explosives.

The Transportation Security Administration has studied, with FBI help, different scenarios in which terrorists might attack planes, said C. Stewart Verdery, a former head of policy for border and transportation security at Homeland Security.

But "that doesn't mean there is an easy solution," he said, adding that federal officials have a plan to install more explosives-detection equipment that will take several years to complete.

Different threat

Meantime, he said, TSA screeners should be shifting their efforts away from items that would cause minimal damage, especially now that cockpit doors are locked, such as screwdrivers and scissors, and should focus instead on threats that could destroy an entire plane.

TSA also has plans for an automated "checkpoint of the future" that would more efficiently screen people and their belongings for a broad range of potential threats. But that "is, unfortunately, still some years away," said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board,

Some aviation security experts said the department has been slow to spend the money needed to deploy available technology that could detect weapons other than guns and knives.

Devices the government is planning to install nationwide, designed to detect traces of explosives such as nitroglycerine, have been available for at least four years, said Goelz, who has advised companies that make the devices. They've been installed in a few checkpoints at selected airports, including BWI and Washington-Dulles.

The effectiveness of trace-detection machines is a matter of intense debate among aviation security experts, however.

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