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Screening Tools Slow to Arrive in U.S. Airports

ERIC LIPTON / NY Times | September 3 2006

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 residue from explosives, had already 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.

Members of Congress and former domestic security officials blame poor management for stumbles in research, turf fights, staff turnover and underfinancing. Some initiatives have also faced opposition from the airlines or been slowed by bureaucratic snarls. Among the troubled or delayed efforts are the following:

¶The agency conducted tests last year that members of Congress and a former Homeland Security Department official called “disastrous” and “stupid” because the agency had not tested the smaller, cheaper baggage-screening device in the way 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 realizes it may 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 T.S.A. and Homeland Security in the last five years is no longer acceptable,” said Representative John L. Mica, Republican of Florida 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 last 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. “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.”

Conflict Between Agencies

Spread out on a table at the Transportation Security Laboratory outside Atlantic City last week, like a dim sum meal, was a collection of small dishes with samples of the explosives people here are working to defeat. They included Semtex, TNT, C4, British RDX and dynamite — several of which are popular among suicide bombers and have been used in successful airline plots — along with liquid explosives in bottles marked only “A,” “A1” and “B.”

Scientists and technicians carefully stuff these raw materials into computers, small electronic devices, shoes and cigar boxes, building every imaginable bomb and then testing them on detection equipment.

“We do our best to try to figure out all the options before someone else does,” said a laboratory technician who would identify himself only as Mr. T in accordance with a laboratory policy of not identifying staff members.

Criticism of the Homeland Security Department and the Transportation Security Administration is not so much directed at the 190 federal employees and contractors at the laboratory here, or at Susan Hallowell, the chemist who runs the place.

Instead, several former senior department officials say, the problem is the conflict between the T.S.A., which handles airport security, and the Science and Technology division of the Homeland Security Department, which oversees research.

The security administration, seeking to prevent another attack on airliners, is looking for devices that can be moved quickly from the laboratory to the airport, the former officials said. That approach tends to result in finding equipment aimed at detecting the last plot — those relying on knives, guns or plastic explosives — not the new schemes a terrorist may come up with, security experts said.

The Science and Technology division, meanwhile, focuses on finding ways to revolutionize how the nation protects its airports, cities, industrial plants and other targets, though so far the effort has produced few tangible results. In the five years since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the agencies have not figured out how to balance their often conflicting goals.

“You have to have a long-term strategy and a short- to medium-term strategy,” said Stephen J. McHale, former deputy administrator of the T.S.A. “What we have been doing is shifting resources back and forth between those two goals. The result of that is we are not making the best progress in either one.”

The New Jersey laboratory has also suffered from enormous ups and downs in its budget and from constant oversight changes; it has been supervised by the Department of Transportation, the T.S.A. and now Science and Technology.

Making matters worse, former officials said, sometimes months have passed after Congressional approval of the Homeland Security Department budget before money has reached the laboratory, delaying work. The demands involved with setting up the T.S.A. — buying equipment and hiring tens of thousands of checkpoint screeners — led officials at one point to raid more than half the agency's annual research budget, more than $61 million.

Members of Congress, domestic security officials and even senior T.S.A. officials acknowledge the disappointing results. The Senate, in this year's appropriations committee report on the Homeland Security budget, described the Science and Technology division as a “rudderless ship without a clear way to get back on course.”

Ms. Hallowell said she was reasonably satisfied with the progress her laboratory had made. “As Americans, we tend to be focused on the 100 percent measures, the complete solutions,” she said. “But to me, if you deploy a device that is not 100 percent successful but that will find most of the bombs, that is great. Then you continue work.”

A Troubled Device

The story of the puffer machines, though, demonstrates how troubled even those partial solutions can be.

The machines, developed by Sandia National Laboratories in 1997 and manufactured by General Electric and Smiths Detection at a cost of about $160,000 each, collect particles loosened by puffs of air and then analyze them to identify any bomb-making ingredients. The puffers are the only devices that automatically examine passengers for explosives, taking only about 15 seconds to check a person from head to toe.

Since 2001, the T.S.A. laboratory had worked to improve the devices, testing the prototypes to ensure they could detect explosives and withstand constant use in airports. An earlier model was much slower and required far more power, said Mark Laustra, a vice president of Smiths Detection, which is based in London.

But with budget problems and other distractions, getting the device into airports took too long, said Mr. McHale, the former deputy T.S.A. director, and others.

“Why are the puffers not out there being tested?” the former science adviser to the transportation agency, Anthony Fainberg, said he asked repeatedly.

When two Chechen suicide bombers used explosives to blow up Russian jets in 2004, the puffers were still not ready for widespread use in the United States. So the transportation agency started asking passengers at checkpoints to take off their coats and other bulky clothing in hopes of improving the chances of seeing a bulge that might be a bomb.

Once in use — about 95 machines have been installed in 34 airports, far short of the 350 intended to be in place at 81 airports by the end of this year — the machines' limitations became more obvious.

The portals do not include sensors for liquid explosives, even though terrorists have long shown an interest in them. And despite the laboratory's work to ensure reliability, the puffers too often broke down or had other performance problems perhaps because of dust and dirt at airports, Mr. Null, the T.S.A. technology official, said.

Other airport security efforts have also drawn criticism. The transportation agency gave Reveal Imaging Technologies of Bedford, Mass., a $2.4 million grant in 2003 to develop a smaller, cheaper explosives-detection machine that could screen checked bags at the ticket counter. The agency spent $3.3 million to buy eight of them.

But testing the devices at Newark Liberty International Airport turned into what Representative Mica called “an absolute fiasco, a farce,” because the machines had not been installed as part of a network that, if successful, could save billions of dollars as an alternative way to handle screening at large airports.

Agency officials acknowledged the problem but said the tests had still been useful. Mr. Mica, however, was not satisfied. “This is just an unbelievable waste of time and money,” he said at a House hearing in June. “It's an incredible setback for us nationally.”

Similarly, after providing a $5.3 million grant to two companies for software to speed up and increase the accuracy of 650 machines to inspect checked baggage, the T.S.A. has yet to make the changes to the machines. Agency officials said they needed to work out contractual details but agreed the delay was unacceptable.

Call for Change

Agency officials promised in 2004 that a device that scanned documents to look for traces of explosives would be in airports by this year. Though the agency invested several years on the project, this deployment is also on hold.

“What we are finding is that an actual finger scan may be a more effective way,” Mr. Null said, although there have been no visible steps toward carrying out such tests.

Mr. Null and Ms. Hallowell, the laboratory director, said many of the delays had been unavoidable as they tried to find the balance between developing new technology and making sure it could perform reliably.

Mr. Jackson, the Homeland Security deputy secretary, said the difficulties proved to him that the department must radically change the way it goes about buying aviation security equipment and other high-technology devices.

The agency should hire contractors to help test new equipment, he said, which could reduce the time it takes to certify that a device works. And, he said, the department should consider buying security equipment from manufacturers as a service, like leasing a car instead of buying it, which would allow the government to upgrade technology more quickly as newer products come out.

“We need to make the mad scientist in the garage, the multibillion-dollar corporation, the federal labs and the university researchers all see there is a way to bring the idea to the market in a rapid fashion,” Mr. Jackson said.

Mr. Jackson's ideas may provoke protest, particularly the notion of letting independent contractors verify that bomb-detection equipment works.

Regardless, Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire and chairman of the panel that oversees the Homeland Security budget, said he hoped the department was serious about revamping its research and development efforts.

“It has been slow, ineffective and in many ways just plain incompetent,” Mr. Gregg said. “Unfortunately, aircraft, especially passenger aircraft, remain a target of opportunity these terrorists clearly still pursue.”

 

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