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Tech Insider: TSA gets moving with baggage screening

After weeks of delays and infighting, the government has taken a major step toward screening all the luggage of airline passengers by the end of the year.

Sources close to the Transportation Security Administration, the agency charged with ensuring airport security, and officials in private industry told Government Executive Tuesday that a request for proposals has been sent to the companies TSA hopes will compete for the contract to oversee deployment of about 2,000 explosives detection systems by Dec. 31. President Bush imposed the deadline when he signed the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act into law last November.

TSA's efforts to get a proposal request out to private companies were stymied for weeks by internal disagreements about who should oversee the procurement.

TSA officials and the Transportation Department's inspector general have estimated that the government will spend between $2 billion and $5.5 billion to install explosive detection machines at airports and physically integrate them into buildings so they don't obstruct passengers as they move through terminals. The size of the TSA's purchasing authority is so large that officials there have debated whether the agency should recruit a seasoned official to take control of the contracting strategy, sources said.

The debate was apparently settled last week when TSA appointed David Littman, the senior procurement executive at the Transportation Department, as the TSA's temporary chief acquisition officer. Sources said the agency would quickly look for a permanent official to fill the post.

Members of Congress and Transportation Department officials have said publicly that TSA cannot meet its Dec. 31 deadline to install the scanners for explosives. Only two companies are federally certified to deploy the cumbersome machines the government wants. Working at full capacity, those two firms can together manufacture 90 machines a month, company officials have said. But about 2,000 of the scanners still need to be built.

TSA has negotiated with the companies, L-3 Communications of New York and InVision Technologies of Newark, Calif., to relax the intellectual property restrictions on their designs so that third parties can step in and manufacture the machines with great speed, officials have said.

TSA is now searching for a general contractor to oversee that production and also to find ways to improve the performance of the machines by making them more accurate, smaller and lighter, according to the request for proposals. Some of the machines now sit in airport lobbies. Having dozens of machines scattered about a terminal, particularly in smaller airports, could create a literal obstacle course for airline passengers, Transportation officals have noted.

The winning contractor will also be expected to make the machines screen bags more quickly. At best, the explosive detection systems on the market today can examine about 500 pieces of luggage an hour. More than 1 billion bags move through U. S. airports each year. The contractor must also train the federal baggage screeners who will staff the machines and must provide continuous support and maintenance of the systems.

Given the stakes involved--0awarding billions of dollars in work and protecting the nation's security-challenged airlines from a potential terrorist attack--interested bidders and some close to TSA have been pulling their hair out for weeks waiting for the government to get the show on the road. The resounding industry response to the arrival of the request for proposals Tuesday was one of exasperated elation.

TSA still expects to be fully compliant with the law by the end of the year, officals have said. But the meaning of the word compliance remains murky, at best.

Explosive-detection machines would have to be turned out on a daily basis from now until the end of the year to fill the quota. Deputy Transportation Secretary Michael Jackson said the agency would make "very good progress" now that there's a possibility that manufacturing levels can be increased. But no one has said the agency is absolutely certain the requirement can be met.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., voiced his concerns in an interview last week that TSA will have difficulty meeting its "extraordinarily ambitious schedule." DeFazio, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, noted that British aviation authorities took more than three years to implement an explosive-detection network, and that the U. S. government would have to consider interim measures to screen for threats while a fully automated system is put in place.

And that's where the problem lies. There are other ways to screen baggage for explosives, but many experts question their effectiveness. While using those methods in concert with explosive-detections systems could provide 100 percent screening, it's doubtful that it would guarantee great protection. As a result, no one knows just what the screening system will look like come Jan. 1, 2003.

The alternate method discussed most today is trace detection, in which a baggage screener swabs the exterior of a piece of luggage and then places the swab in a machine that scans for explosive residue. Jackson has said that TSA will consider the use of manual trace detection systems as the explosive detection machines are deployed.

But Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead said trace detection is ineffective if used only on the outside of a bag. In February, he told the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee that the arduous process of hand screening every piece of luggage "could have exponential consequences in terms of time and the staff it required."

Yet despite the obvious shortcomings, Meade conceded that a combination of trace and detection machines is "the only way" the TSA can meet its deadline.

DeFazio said trace detection could be part of a temporary solution, but that it's no substitute for an automated screening regime. "[Trace] is not necessarily 100 percent effective for the threats that we wish to deal with," he said.

With some of TSA's internal squabbles settled for now, corporations are scrambling to get their proposals in by the April 9 due date. It's unclear exactly how many companies will submit their proposals, but Jackson said he hopes that about 10 firms in particular will step up to the plate. Already, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have expressed great interest in pursuing the work. Jackson and other sources have said that TSA hopes to make a final award one month from now.

Jason Peckenpaugh contributed to this story.