Febrary theme: Aviation securityBillions spent on airport security, but major security gaps remain

Published 8 February 2008

In the post 9/11 rush to bolster airport security, billions were spent and different technologies and systems were tried, but experts — and government watchdog organizations — say major security gaps remain; Congress, TSA, and the industry are increasingly anxious; the latest hope: Millimeter wave machines, which can see through clothes by analyzing the reflection of radio frequency energy bounced off passengers

Aviation security is one area of homeland security in which so many billions of dollars have been invested, that more than a few experts and legislators have begun to complain that other modes of transportation — land, maritime — have suffered relative neglect as a result. The Washington Post’s Del Quentin Wilber writes that there is another reason to worry: Advances in aviation security have been made, but promised technologies are slow to come to market, deployments are uneven, and serious gaps in airport security remain. Governmenr officials and industry leaders “envisioned machines that would quickly detect explosives hidden in luggage, spot plastic explosives or other weapons through people’s clothing, identify a flicker in the eye of a suspicious character. But six years later, little has changed at airport checkpoints,” Wilber writes. Screeners still use X-ray machines to scan carry-on bags, and passengers still pass through magnetometers that cannot detect plastic or liquid explosives. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has yet to deploy a machine that can efficiently detect liquid bombs, forcing millions of air passengers to check bags or pare down their toiletries to three-ounce containers in carry-on baggies. The result is not in dispute: The slow pace of technological innovation and deployment has left holes in checkpoint security that could easily be exploited by terrorists, according to government officials and outside experts. Congressional investigators reported last year that they were able to smuggle bomb components through checkpoints despite new security measures. Other investigative reports questioned the government’s efforts to get emerging technology into the field.

The TSA in coming months is expected to begin the government’s first substantial investment in new checkpoint security technology since the 1970s, according to officials at the TSA, which plans to spend about $250 million on new devices, up from about $89 million last fiscal year. The machines include upgraded X-ray equipment which will provide multiple views of bags and hand-held scanners that can detect liquid explosives in bottles after they are identified by screeners. Still, TSA officials say it will take years for much of the new technology — some of which is not, in fact, new — to reach checkpoints across the United States. These officials are also not sure whether the upgrades will allow them to lift irritating restrictions on gels and liquids in carry-on luggage. Wliber writes that lawmakers, government officials, and independent analysts point to myriad reasons for the