Out of Chaos

From the mess after August's plane-bombing plot come new orders for TSA and its staff.

The lines at the security checkpoint for the C terminal at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport looked normal. Standing nearby, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the revelation on Aug. 10 of an alleged plot to bomb airliners bound for the United States from Great Britain had been the Transportation Security Administration's "first big test." The breakup of the plot triggered a series of security changes at U.S. airports.

"What I said to the folks at TSA was, 'This has really been a defining test for the organization,' " Chertoff said on Aug. 11. What the secretary did not tell TSA officials or anyone else is precisely how this event would change the beleaguered agency.

Before the revelation that a slew of British citizens allegedly planned to destroy as many as 10 planes by assembling bombs in flight using liquid explosives and other components smuggled on board, some on Capitol Hill were considering routing more security dollars to nonaviation sectors, such as subways. House Homeland Security Committee Democrats introduced the $3 billion Rail and Public Transportation Security Act in July arguing that air security has trumped subway protection. A report released shortly before they introduced the bill found that for every $9 spent securing air travel, just one penny is spent on train security.

The August scare could return momentum to aviation security.

TSA already was under pressure to improve its explosive detection machines, which have cost more than $4 billion. An oft-cited July Government Accountability Office report (GAO-06-795) charged that TSA doesn't know how often its machines fail to function, or whether its contractor, Boeing, has met the terms of its deal. House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation Chairman Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., has bashed airport explosive detection systems for high maintenance costs and failure rates. Mica called the failure rate "disastrous" even before the transatlantic plot focused attention on liquid explosives, which luggage scanners cannot detect.

Chertoff says DHS has spent about $750 million researching emerging technologies and explosives and requested $86.5 million in fiscal 2007 to study explosive countermeasures, a 50 percent increase over this year. But a Capitol Hill source familiar with TSA research and development says in the past, funds earmarked for technology improvement were shifted to other programs. Under Director Kip Hawley, the source says, the agency is paying more attention to explosives detection.

Still, some on Capitol Hill and elsewhere already have begun calling for DHS to pursue new screening technology more aggressively. Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, House Democratic Caucus chairman, released a statement saying, "It's time for a new direction in homeland security which includes next-generation technologies at our airport screening checkpoints that detect liquid explosives and plastic explosives." TSA officials counter that such technology is not ready, although the agency is testing devices from 10 vendors designed to identify liquid explosives elements inside bottles.

The agency's employees already have seen their job descriptions change. Chertoff told The New York Times in mid-August that TSA officers, trained in terrorist profiling, would replace contract employees performing pre-checkpoint identity verification. At press time, details had not been released, and the agency has not said how long the ban on liquids and gels aboard planes will last.

That restriction might create unintended consequences for TSA. After the agency added lighters to the list of items prohibited on commercial airline flights in April 2005, material abandoned at security checkpoints nearly quadrupled, and TSA had to advertise for a new contractor to dispose of it. Agency officials say airports are helping with disposal of the new class of prohibited items. Chertoff has downplayed the likely financial impact new measures and changes could have on TSA. "We are built to be able to do this," he said at Reagan National. "We are built to be able to surge. And as we keep adjusting the measures in place and refining them, obviously that will give us a little bit of relief."

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