Bomb-detection setup suspended

TSA cites reliability flaws with device that screens air passengers for explosives

September 03, 2006|By New York Times News Service

EGG HARBOR, N.J. -- Citing unexpected reliability problems, the Transportation Security Administration is suspending installation of the only airport checkpoint device that automatically screens passengers for hidden explosives.

The rollout of the devices, trace-detection portals, nicknamed "puffers" because they blow air while searching for explosives residue, had been far behind schedule.

Now the transportation agency is assessing whether to modify the puffers, upgrade them or wait until better devices are available.

"We are seeing some issues that we did not anticipate," Randy Null, the agency's chief technology officer, said last week.

The portal problems are part of a pattern in which the federal government has been unable to move bomb-detection technologies from the laboratory to the airport successfully.

While workers at the Homeland Security Department laboratory here busily build bombs to test the cutting-edge equipment, the agency still relies largely on decidedly low-tech measures to confront the threat posed by explosives at airports, particularly at checkpoints.

Among the troubled or delayed efforts:

The agency conducted tests last year that members of Congress and a former Homeland Security Department official called "disastrous" and "stupid" because they did not test the smaller, cheaper baggage-screening device in the way that it was intended to be used.

After spending years assessing a document scanner that would look for traces of explosives on paper held by a passenger, the agency now says it might be preferable to check a passenger's hands. But no plan is in place to do so.

The agency gave grant money to an equipment maker to find a way to speed up explosives-detection machines that screen baggage and to reduce the frequency of false positives. Though the work was completed successfully a year ago, the agency has not made the necessary software upgrades on the hundreds of machines already in the nation's airports.

"Continuing to follow the slow, jumbled and disconnected path taken by TSA and Homeland Security in the last five years is no longer acceptable," said Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of a House panel that oversees aviation security.

"The whole program has been haphazard. And the result is that still today we have a series of outdated technology that does little but search for metal or guns."

Though the transportation agency is credited with meeting a congressional mandate to screen all checked baggage for explosives by December 2003, even security officials agree that the transportation research effort, which has cost $450 million in the past four years, must be fundamentally changed.

"This department can't afford to not be at the cutting edge of innovative technology," Michael P. Jackson, deputy secretary of homeland security, said in an interview this week.

"The bad guys themselves are constantly assessing how good we are at preventing their efforts; we have to be one step ahead of them at all times."

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