TSA Chief: Screeners Being Unfairly Blamed for Failures

GRAPEVINE, Texas (AP) -- Screeners are being unfairly blamed for failures to detect weapons and explosives at airport security checkpoints, the head of the Transportation Security Administration said.

So-called human failures often were the result of government watchdogs intentionally loading the bags a certain way into the machines to exploit the equipment's limitations, TSA Administrator David Stone said Saturday during a visit to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

''It really is unfortunate that people take the results and blame the screeners,'' Stone said. Stone said the findings illustrate the need for a new type of machine that can look at the insides of a bag from multiple angles.

Improving the ability of screeners to find dangerous items has been the goal since the government took over the task at about 450 airports in early 2002 and hired more than 45,000 workers.

The Homeland Security Department's acting inspector general, Richard Skinner, issued a report last month that said the screeners' performance hadn't improved since the previous audit - which indicated that screeners hadn't improved since before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

And the Government Accountability Office found airport screeners employed by private companies under a pilot program at five airports do a better job detecting dangerous objects than government screeners, according to Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. and chairman of the House aviation subcommittee. Mica, an outspoken critic of the TSA, has seen the classified report.

Skinner appears to agree with Stone about the need for improved technology. In his report, he said, ''the lack of improvement since our last audit indicates that significant improvement in performance may not be possible without greater use of new technology.''

Skinner's report calls for further testing of Explosive Trace Detection portals, document scanners and backscatter X-rays, which can scan through clothes. DFW will have one or two Explosive Trace Detection portals in Terminal D when it opens July 6.

Passengers step into the portal, which is about the size of a phone booth, and are hit with puffs of air that dislodge any minute particles adhering to clothes or skin. The machine detects the presence of chemicals found in explosives such as nitrates or glycerin. The process takes about 20 or 30 seconds.

Passengers will continue to go through metal detectors first and would use the portals only if they raise suspicion, set off the metal detector or are selected by a computer system that examines passenger travel patterns and backgrounds.