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TSA screeners fail most bomb tests

Transportation Security Administration screeners at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport missed more than 60% of bomb components which undercover agents attempted to smuggle through airport checkpoints, according to a classified report.

The January 2007 report, obtained by USA TODAY, also said that screeners at Los Angeles International Airport failed to detect the bomb parts and fake explosives about 75 percent of the time.

But screeners at San Francisco, who work for a private contractor under a pilot program, missed only 20% during a recent round of red team testing by the Department of Homeland Security.

“That’s a huge cause for concern,” said Clark Kent Ervin, the Homeland Security Department’s former inspector general. Screeners’ inability to find bombs could encourage terrorists to try to bring them on airplanes, Ervin said, and points to the need for more screener training and more powerful checkpoint scanning machines.

In the past year, the TSA has adopted a more aggressive approach in its attempt to keep screeners attentive — the agency runs covert tests every day at every U.S. airport, TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said. Screeners who miss detonators, timers, batteries and blocks that resemble plastic explosives get remedial training.

The failure rates at Los Angeles and Chicago are “somewhat misleading” because they don’t reflect screeners’ improved ability to find bombs, Howe said.

TSA chief Kip Hawley, responding to previous reports about screeners missing hidden weapons, told a House hearing Tuesday that high failure rates stem from increasingly difficult covert tests that require screeners to find bomb parts the size of a pen cap. “We moved from testing of completely assembled bombs … to the small component parts,” he said. — USA TODAY

TSA has been failing these tests since its inception. In Denver, it missed 90% of tests. Last year at Newark Liberty, guess what the TSA didn’t find. A Government Accountability Office investigation last year found much the same story at airports all over the country.

Before 9/11, airport security was run by private companies, but with heavy government regulation and oversight. And they still had high failure rates, primarily because the results were covered up. Then as now, the government doesn’t like to be embarrassed or shown for how incompetent it really is.

The official line from the TSA is that they’re still failing because the bar has been raised on the tests and they’re actually harder now.

TSA spokeswoman Lara Uselding, who said tests are conducted at every airport in the nation, said the leaked figures actually reflect 2006 test results and things have improved in the past year.

“We are seeing better test scores at airports than are reflected in the report. We are doing a wider variety of tests and more tests,” she said. “Under TSA pay for performance officers must show improvement or be pulled off the line.”

Uselding said the TSA designs testing with an expectation of failure, so “the results of these tests are not appropriate for public dissemination.”

Tests are conducted with “an in-depth knowledge of standard operating procedures and the capabilities of our technology. If our security officers got it right every time, then we are not pushing the envelope and challenging them to improve. Every failed test is a lesson and helps us to build a stronger workforce.”

And the tests get more and more difficult as security improves, Uselding said. “As scores start to improve on tests, our security experts change their tactics and devise even more difficult tests. Once security officers improve to that level of testing the bar is raised again. By constantly challenging our workforce we create an ever strengthening layer of security at the checkpoint.” — Chicago Sun-Times

The problem with that, of course, is that TSA screeners will get fairly good at whatever is being tested for, and lose their skills at whatever isn’t being tested. So perhaps they’ll find pen caps with someone’s ear wax in them, but miss the disassembled zip gun.

And, of course, how well (or poorly) the government is doing at providing security is “not appropriate for public dissemination.”

In the meantime, you can be sure that what you see at the airport checkpoint is nothing more than security theater, a lame and expensive attempt to make people feel good about flying, when it remains as dangerous and vulnerable to terrorists as it ever was, if not more so.

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