TSA Official Says Machines, Not Screeners, at Fault

For failures in detecting weapons and explosives, fault lies with detections systems says TSA administrator


Failures to detect weapons and explosives at airport security checkpoints are being incorrectly attributed to shoddy work by screeners, the head of the Transportation Security Administration said Saturday.

So-called human failures were often the result of government watchdogs intentionally loading the bags a certain way into the machines to exploit the limitations of the screening equipment.

"When we do our test, we'll put an item at an angle," TSA Administrator David Stone said of ongoing watchdog tests at airport checkpoints.

Doing so, Stone said, illustrates the need for a new type of machine that can look at the insides of a bag from multiple angles.

"It really is unfortunate that people take the results and blame the screeners," Stone said during a Saturday visit to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport -- one of the test beds for the technology that Stone hopes will one day be standard for airports nationwide.

Recent reports by the Government Accountability Office and the Homeland Security Department's inspector general have prompted a new round of TSA bashing. In particular, the inspector general's report cited a "lack of improvement" in 2004 covert tests to assess passenger and baggage screening effectiveness, compared with similar tests a year earlier.

Outspoken critics of the TSA, such as U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, used the reports to piggyback arguments about re-privatizing screener jobs, which became government jobs in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

It's also budget time on Capitol Hill, and allegations against the TSA include poor management, lax security and overspending -- and sometimes all three.

"Its greatest legacy is an extraordinary waste of public money, a totally confused management and a demoralized work force," said David Forbes, president of Colorado-based aviation security analysts BoydForbes.

But Stone, who has informed Homeland Security that he will leave the TSA in June, says he wants to set the record straight before he retires.

In fact, the TSA and the Homeland Security inspector general agree on what needs to be fixed. The IG audit states: "the lack of improvement since our last audit indicates that significant improvement in performance may not be possible without greater use of new technology."

Specifically, the audit suggests further testing of Explosive Trace Detection portals, document scanners and the backscatter X-ray, which can scan through clothes.

D/FW, which has recently been a political ally of the TSA, will have one or two Explosive Trace Detection portals -- so-called puffer machines -- in Terminal D when it opens July 6. The machine blows a puff of air at a passenger, then performs a chemical test for explosive residue.

"We don't know where it'll be yet," D/FW Chief Executive Jeff Fegan said. But it will be here, he said. "An airport of this size makes for a good test bed because if it works here, it can work anywhere."