The nation's airport security screeners unveiled new uniforms Thursday on the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and as a congressional report blistered the federal government for failing "to provide the American people the security they expect and deserve."
The report, titled "Wasted Lessons of 9/11," cited poor progress toward identifying potentially dangerous airline passengers before they show up at the airport. It also questioned whether the Department of Homeland Security will meet a 2010 deadline to screen all cargo transported on passenger planes in the US.
At O'Hare International Airport, the stepped-up security in the terminals on the anniversary and the spiffy appearance of the Transportation Security Administration screeners went unnoticed by most passengers.
Many travelers acknowledged they were more focused on the mundane — removing their shoes and laptop computers from their cases at security checkpoints and reaching their destinations — than reflecting on the loss of life on Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's just another day to travel," said Vernon Baldwin, 23, who was returning home to Charlotte, N.C., after interviewing in Chicago for a job to teach English in Japan.
The new TSA uniforms — blue shirts and a golden metal badge that replaced a cloth patch on white shirts — are intended to boost the image of professionalism and skill and improve their morale, officials said.
At O'Hare, Annie Gregg, 23, a transportation security officer from Midlothian who has been working for TSA for a year, agreed that the uniforms would improve spirits, saying they look "a lot sharper" than the old ones.
"Every transportation security officer will feel better about themselves and the TSA," Gregg said.
Not every screener agreed, however.
"The new uniform makes us look more like we should be pushing wheelchairs through the airport or valet-parking cars," said one TSA security officer who did not want to be identified.
Security agency officials said the new look is only one component of an evolving effort to introduce more advanced explosives-detection skills at airports to protect the flying public yet taking a more customer-friendly approach to screening.
Government and independent security authorities still consider commercial aviation a prime target for terrorism, due largely to the psychological and economic shock waves an attack using aircraft creates.
But the congressional report blasted the Bush administration for failing to implement key homeland security improvements, including new protections needed to safeguard airports. The report was prepared by the majority staffs of the House Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees.
It said a program called Secure Flight, intended to screen the risk levels of passengers based on background checks and their travel history, is years behind schedule.
Secure Flight, which was supposed to replace an earlier passenger screening system that critics said amounted to racial and ethnic profiling, was originally to begin last year for all flights into and out of the US.
The TSA, meanwhile, faces a deadline early next February to screen at least half of all cargo loaded onto passenger planes. Currently, a small percentage of cargo is X-rayed. The TSA is scampering to deploy to major airports huge X-ray machines capable of scanning the contents of trucks and cargo containers.
All air cargo on passenger planes must be screened by August 2010.
"Recent testimony ... makes it clear that there has been little progress on this critical homeland security mandate," said the report, noting that Congress has given more than $500 million to the Department of Homeland Security in the last five years to tighten air cargo security.
Meanwhile, homeland security agents wearing bulletproof vests labeled "DHS Police" patrolled O'Hare's terminals Thursday. Deployment of Chicago police officers also appeared stepped up at O'Hare.
The Homeland Security agents are members of the VIPER squad that is being sent on a random basis to airports nationwide, said Kathleen Petrowsky, the TSA's federal security director at O'Hare. (VIPER stands for Visible Intermodal Protection and Response.)
Each VIPER team consists of the Homeland Security agents, air marshals, a TSA bomb-sniffing-canine team, TSA inspectors and local law enforcement, officials said.