Homeland Security officials moved yesterday to re-evaluate airport security checkpoint procedures and hunt for new scanning technology that could be deployed quickly in the wake of the decision to ban liquids, gels and creams from carry-on luggage.
Top officials met late in the day to check the implementation of the new procedures, monitor how information about banned items was being disseminated and examine new information from British officials to see what changes might need to be made in passenger screening.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that he would unveil a new set of streamlined screening procedures in the near future.
One knowledgeable security official said it was unlikely that the ban on liquids would be lifted, though small amounts might be allowed.
Security officials and analysts, however, said that the federal government's efforts to improve technology and procedures at checkpoints would likely meet with only limited success unless more is done to conduct background checks on passengers and airport workers and to plug other holes in air-travel security.
In an interview, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Jackson agreed with those assessments.
He said the government is working to create a "system of systems" that would extend screening measures from the airport entrance to the interior of the airplane.
Some lawmakers and aviation security specialists said the department's approach has fallen far short of what needs to be done to secure air travel.
"We're always fighting the last war," said Republican Rep. John Linder of Georgia, a member of the House Homeland Security committee. He disparaged the emergency measures imposed this week after the announcement that British officials had foiled a terrorist plot to blow up U.S.-bound aircraft.
The lesson for U.S. officials in what happened this week, Linder said, is that "screening didn't help you. What helped you was intelligence." He said implementing new procedures that treat "every gray-haired lady wearing perfume" as a potential threat is "absolute insanity."
Homeland Security Department officials are continuing to evaluate the new measures, Jackson said, including whether passengers are being given conflicting information about what materials may be taken on board.
"We'll modify this as it seems appropriate," he said, noting that throughout the day, wait times dropped significantly at most major airports.
At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, he said, it took passengers 48 minutes to get through security at 6 a.m. By later in the day, the wait time was 18 minutes. He credited the traveling public with having quickly adjusted to the new procedures.
U.S. officials will continue to review and modify security measures, especially as they learn more from intelligence officials in Britain about the exact nature of the alleged plot, he said.
Jackson said the government would also continue research and development on new detection equipment, which he called "a very high priority." Homeland Security has been testing equipment designed to detect explosives without forcing passengers to remove their shoes, he said, as well as devices that can detect liquid explosives.
The Transportation Security Administration has studied, with FBI help, different scenarios in which terrorists might attack planes, said C. Stewart Verdery, a former head of policy for border and transportation security at Homeland Security.
But "that doesn't mean there is an easy solution," he said, adding that federal officials have a plan to install more explosives-detection equipment that will take several years to complete.
Meantime, he said, TSA screeners should be shifting their efforts away from items that would cause minimal damage, especially now that cockpit doors are locked, such as screwdrivers and scissors, and should focus instead on threats that could destroy an entire plane.
TSA also has plans for an automated "checkpoint of the future" that would more efficiently screen people and their belongings for a broad range of potential threats. But that "is, unfortunately, still some years away," said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board,
Some aviation security experts said the department has been slow to spend the money needed to deploy available technology that could detect weapons other than guns and knives.
Devices the government is planning to install nationwide, designed to detect traces of explosives such as nitroglycerine, have been available for at least four years, said Goelz, who has advised companies that make the devices. They've been installed in a few checkpoints at selected airports, including BWI and Washington-Dulles.
The effectiveness of trace-detection machines is a matter of intense debate among aviation security experts, however.
"It might work. It might not work," said Michael Boyd, an aviation security consultant. "If a terrorist does things right, that puffer machine won't find anything. He won't have any residue on him."
He said technology is available "that can, through a foot of wet sand, determine whether that bottle contains gasoline or merlot." Detection equipment using that technology has not been developed, he said, because the government has not agreed to buy it.
Speaking to reporters at Reagan National Airport in Washington, Chertoff said the problem was more complicated than that. The explosives to have been used in the alleged British plot were a cocktail of common liquids that became a bomb only when mixed together, he noted.
"What was particularly challenging with respect to this plot was the great effort to which these plotters appear to have gone in order to disguise the components and to disguise the liquids so they would appear to be innocuous in packaging," he said.
Critics say that relying largely on enhanced screening is a mistake.
`Look at people'
"We need to stop looking at things and start looking at people," said Linder, the Republican congressman.
The U.S. government is implementing a new policy to check the passport information of airline passengers against terrorist watch lists before international flights depart for the United States, Verdery said. Right now, that information isn't checked until the plane is in the air.
TSA is also considering using "profiling teams" at airports to identify passengers who are behaving suspiciously.
That technique is used in Israel and has been tested at Boston's Logan Airport, producing "very good results," said Jackson, adding that more funding would be needed to implement the program.
TSA's attempts to apply more rigorous background checks to passengers, dubbed "Secure Flight," have encountered a variety of difficulties. The program is designed to check passenger names against a database of suspected terrorists and, using mathematical formulas, assess the odds that a passenger poses a security risk.
But the program has stalled over such issues as privacy protection and giving passengers the means to prove their innocence.
Another major security gap, according to Boyd, the security consultant, is the lack of adequate background checks for airport workers.
"You've got construction workers. You've got fuelers. You've got the people flipping the burgers at McDonalds," he said. "Over time, [terrorists] could build up a cadre of people at [BWI] Thurgood Marshall and do something."
Another vulnerability, the analyst said, is inadequate screening of checked baggage. A recent Government Accountability Office report found that installing machines to detect explosives in checked bags had "been hampered by a lack of planning and funding strategies."
Exactly how much checked baggage actually gets screened for explosives is classified information. Verdery said that some, but not all, airports have been able to use machines to screen 100 percent of checked bags for explosives. In addition, the machines might work only for certain kinds of explosives.
Homeland Security's Jackson said the government is aware that a terrorist might try to stow a bomb in a checked bag and attempt to detonate it from a remote device, such as a cell phone, while the plane is in flight.
"We have a number of tools in place currently that look for that scenario," he said, adding that billions of dollars have gone into prevention efforts.
Others were less convinced. Asked what the chances are that a terrorist could pull off such a plan, Boyd said, "Very high."
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