Imagine an explosion strong enough to blow a car's trunk apart, caused by a bomb inside a passenger plane. Government sources tell NBC News that federal investigators recently were able to carry materials needed to make asimilar homemade bomb through security screening at 21 airports.
In all 21 airports tested, no machine, no swab, no screener anywhere stopped the bomb materials from getting through. Even when investigators deliberately triggered extra screening of bags, no one discovered the materials.
NBC News briefed former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, chairman of the 9/11 commission, on the results.
"I'm appalled," he said. "I'm dismayed and, yes, to a degree, it does surprise me. Because I thought the Department of Homeland Security was making some progress on this, and evidently they're not."
Investigators for the Government Accountability Office conducted the tests between October and January, at the request of Congress. The goal was to determine how vulnerable U.S. airlines are to a suicide bomber using cheap, readily available materials.
Investigators found recipes for homemade bombs from easily available public sources and bought the necessary chemicals and other materials over the counter. For security reasons, NBC News will not reveal any of the ingredients or the airports tested. The report itself is classified. But Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, says the fact that so many airports failed this test is a hugely important story that the American traveler is entitled to know.
NBC News asked a bomb technician to gather the same materials and assemble an explosive device to determine its power. The materials for the bomb that exploded a car's trunk fit in the palm of one hand. NBC News showed the results to Leo West, a former FBI bomb expert.
"Potentially, an explosion of that type could lead to the destruction of the aircraft," said West.
The Transportation Security Administration would not comment on the tests Thursday (NOTE: The TSA did comment Friday. To read that story, click here), but issued a statement to NBC News, saying "detecting explosive materials and IEDs at the checkpoint is TSA's top priority." The agency also said screeners are now receiving added training to help identify these materials.
That’s not soon enough for Tom Kean.
"They need to do it yesterday," Kean said, "because we haven’t got time."
Given hardened cockpit doors and other improvements, experts say explosives now are the gravest threat posed by terrorists in the sky.
Lisa Myers is NBC's senior investigative correspondent.