TSA plays down GAO success at evading airport security

Transportation Security Administrator Kip Hawley Thursday played down a new report that undercover GAO investigators had smuggled bomb components past TSA screeners at 19 airports this year, calling the checkpoints one part of a multi-tiered risk management system.

On the eve of the busy holiday season, "the American public can be confident traveling," Hawley said at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.

Using cheap components and public information on security weaknesses, GAO agents passed a detonator and materials for two types of liquid-based bombs past TSA checkpoints without being challenged, even though TSA screeners generally followed correct procedures. While details of methods used by both GAO and TSA were not released, the results show that recent TSA restrictions on carrying liquid and gels regularly fail. The restrictions were imposed after an apparent British-based plot to bomb trans-Atlantic flights.

The GAO report drew denunciations from committee Democrats and Republicans, with many members chiding TSA for failing to make improvements after similar GAO tests succeeded at 21 airports last year. TSA "has had six years and spent billions of taxpayer dollars, yet our airlines remain vulnerable," said Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who added, "That's an embarrassing and dangerous record."

But Hawley suggested the committee has unrealistic expectations. TSA seeks to reduce, not eliminate, the chances of a catastrophic attack, he said. "You can never get to zero," Hawley told CongressDaily. He said in testimony, "What we're engaged in is risk management, [which] looks at the capacity of getting an airplane down."

Hawley emphasized that TSA has a 19-layer system designed to stop terrorists before and after they pass through security. He noted that GAO did not smuggle assembled bombs onto the planes and said the devices were less powerful than those TSA focuses resources on detecting. "We know what terrorists work on," Hawley said. "We know their capabilities.... We look at what can do actual serious damage, not just damage a plane. I mean, my pen could do serious damage." He later added: "Yes, there are vulnerabilities. But we can't ... say, 'Oh, my goodness, they brought some firecrackers through.' "

GAO officials testified that while the smuggled devices, once assembled, would damage a plane, it was unclear if they would down it. Citing security concerns, Hawley and GAO officials declined to discuss details of the security process, including what rate of success in detecting liquid bomb components TSA considers acceptable. John Cooney, GAO assistant director for forensic audits and special investigations, acknowledged that the system cannot be fail-proof.

"If you have a terrorist ... with no regard for the life of anybody else, he could do damage," Cooney said.

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