Federal investigators testifying before Congress on Thursday said that more physical searches of passengers would be needed to reduce the chances that a terrorist can sneak a bomb onto an airplane. But air safety officials resisted the suggestion, saying American passengers dislike intrusive pat-downs.
The investigators smuggled the components of potentially devastating liquid bombs past checkpoints at 19 airports nationwide earlier this year, they testified. In the covert tests, they carried the elements of an improvised explosive device and a firebomb in carry-on luggage or on their bodies.
The investigators suggested in testimony that officials also consider limits on carry-on luggage. But they emphasized that they thought security could be improved with more thorough physical searches.
"With the pat-down procedures now in place, we wouldn't have been caught," said John Cooney, one of the Government Accountability Office investigators who carried the bomb components past screeners. "That has to change."
Kip Hawley, head of the Transportation Security Administration, said that Americans do not like aggressive physical searches and indicated that his agency would pursue technological solutions. He added that the TSA was constantly working on security measures and that Americans could fly with confidence as the busiest travel season of the year approached.
"We know what the vulnerabilities are," Hawley said, noting that the TSA processes 2 million travelers a day. "It's not something about which the public should panic."
Republicans and Democrats expressed concern about air safety standards, and frustration that the TSA seemed to have made little progress since 2006, when GAO investigators slipped bomb parts past checkpoints in all 21 airports they tested.
"The problem is that the news is the same -- it's not getting better -- and that's unacceptable," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), chairman of the Government Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which held the hearing.
Waxman called the TSA's record on screening "embarrassing and dangerous" and warned Hawley that the committee would ask the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, to conduct a similar test next year. He went on to chastise Hawley for seeming to "pooh-pooh" the results of the GAO investigations.
"You're on notice," Waxman said. "I want you to take this one seriously. I didn't feel you took the first one seriously."
The hearing, the second in two days to highlight weaknesses in TSA screening procedures, focused on GAO investigations that took place in March, May and June at Waxman's request. The assignment came after federal authorities instituted new rules for liquids, gels and aerosol items following British authorities' discovery in August 2006 of an alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound planes with liquid explosives.
Investigators used public information to make a liquid bomb consisting of a detonator and a liquid explosive. They made a firebomb using two common products.
To absolute silence in the hearing room, the investigators screened video footage showing tests of their homemade bombs. One clip showed the device exploding inside a car -- metal flying, glass shattering, car doors buckling open and a voice, off camera, saying, "Oh!"
The investigators then designed ways to sneak the components past screeners.
The airports tested were kept classified.
The GAO recommended improvements in personnel, processes and technology; more aggressive pat-downs; and possible restrictions on carry-on luggage.
"Current policies allowing substantial carry-on luggage and related items through TSA checkpoints" increase the risk of a terrorist bringing an improvised explosive device or improvised incendiary device onto a plane, the report said.
Hawley downplayed the tests, arguing first that the components did not get on the plane. "It did get on the plane," countered Gregory Kutz of the GAO.
Hawley then contended that the components the GAO smuggled were not the ones used in the video footage. The GAO's Cooney corrected him.
Hawley also noted that GAO investigators did not smuggle a complete bomb past the checkpoint. Cooney, seated beside him, said: "We could simply have gone into the lavatory and constructed it there."
Hawley urged the congressional panel to see the screeners as just one part of a multilayered security system that includes agents trained to spot suspicious behavior, officers taught to check travel documents for forgeries, and computer pre- screening of passengers. Hawley pointed out the trade-offs the TSA faces: If the agency bans all liquids or limits carry-ons, "it puts more pressure on checked baggage," he said.
Hawley indicated that his agency was acquiring new checkpoint technology that could provide an effective alternative to aggressive physical searches. He cited machines that provide a full-body image. He also mentioned a planned purchase of a screening machine that can distinguish between banned and acceptable liquids. "It would very significantly add to our risk management," he said.
David Stone, a former TSA director and former head of security at Los Angeles International Airport, said the GAO probe should be seen as a starting point.
"When you have covert testing scores that show over a long period of time that you can defeat the checkpoint screening system using certain techniques, the question is: What equipment are you going to buy and how are you going to change your training in order to close the documented vulnerability?" Stone said. "Most people would say that you either have a screening technology shortfall or a screener training issue."