Report: Airport Security Shows Serious Lapses

O'Hare International Airport in Chicago i i

hide captionO'Hare International Airport in Chicago was on heightened alert in June. With threats reported from around the world, extra Chicago Police and TSA were on hand and travelers waited in longer lines at security checkpoints.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
O'Hare International Airport in Chicago

O'Hare International Airport in Chicago was on heightened alert in June. With threats reported from around the world, extra Chicago Police and TSA were on hand and travelers waited in longer lines at security checkpoints.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

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Serious lapses in airport security are discovered just a week away from the start of the holiday travel season, according to a new government report.

Undercover federal officials were able smuggle liquid explosives and other bomb components past airport inspectors at some of the nation's airports, the Government Accountability Office reported Wednesday.

Many of the test details are classified, but GAO investigators said they were able to sneak components for several improvised explosive and incendiary devices through airport security checkpoints. Even in cases where investigators were stopped and subjected to additional screening, investigators were still able to smuggle prohibited items on board.

The tests took place at 19 airports and were a follow-up to a GAO study last year that revealed similar security gaps.

For the latest tests, the GAO said it purchased readily available and inexpensive materials at stores and over the Internet — materials that, if combined, could make dangerous devices. Investigators then concealed the items in their carryon luggage or on their bodies.

At two airports, screeners did advise the investigators that their carryon liquids should be placed in smaller bags, but did not require the investigators to do so. Another screener stopped an investigator from bringing a bottle of medicated shampoo through a checkpoint. But she did not detect another liquid, which the GAO said was a component for one of the dangerous devices.

Are Screeners Warned in Advance?

The test results were released shortly after the head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) testified before the House Homeland Security Committee to defend his agency's handling of covert testing.

Lawmakers are concerned that screeners have been alerted to such testing in advance. But TSA Administrator Kip Hawley denied that's the case, saying that the agency values such tests and conducts thousands of its own every day.

"The covert testing is so much a part of the professionalization of our workforce," he said. "It's not something we would go try to mess with."

Hawley said, like the GAO, his agency's investigators bring bomb components through checkpoints to test the system. It then uses the results to revise screening procedures.

He said the agency is also testing many new security measures, such as observing behavioral patterns to identify suspicious individuals.

"It is highly successful" Hawley said. "We now are doing it throughout the country. And it is the best way to get at somebody who is not bringing on a prohibited item, [but] who is doing surveillance or a dry run."

Lawmakers said they're upset that despite all these measures, investigators still seem to have so little trouble breaching security, again and again.

"I don't know about other people, but failure rates like this don't give me a whole lot of confidence," said Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC). "I hope that terrorists don't look at this and say that they like their chances."

Lawmakers said TSA also needs to improve screener training and install equipment at checkpoints that can better detect explosives.

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