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TSA responds to airlines failing bomb tests

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration responds to an NBC News story on 21 airports failing to detect bomb materials used in a test by the Government Accountability Office.  NBC's Pete Williams reports.
/ Source: NBC News

A government report on sneaking explosives past airport screeners was "valuable" but failed to consider the full array of air travel security measures, the head of the Transportation Security Administration said Friday.

Kip Hawley, an Assistana Secretary of Homeland Security, responded to the findings of a government investigation, first reported by NBC News, which found that commonly available materials that could be combined to make an improvised bomb were not detected by airport screeners in repeated tests last fall and winter.

Stopping improvised bombs is "priority number one for TSA," Hawley said.  For that reason, he said, TSA last December stopped looking for and confiscating small scissors and tools and shifted its concentration to finding potential bomb components.

Last August, TSA began a new round of training for thousands of airport screeners on how to spot explosives.  Since then, more than 20,000 have received the new training, about half the screener workforce.  While TSA continues to research ways to design devices to detect these materials, "you don't get to say we're buying a lot of technology that's going to solve the problem somewhere down the line," Hawley said.  "We have to figure out what we can do with existing people and technology."

Airline security also depends on using other means, he said, such as analyzing behavior, using watch lists, deploying dog teams, and introducing more randomness into screening so that a potential terrorist cannot predict how the screening system will work and exploit weak points.

Asked how a screener can spot all of the potentially dangerous materials, some commonly available, Hawley said TSA regularly blows up planes. "We know exactly what it takes to bring an airplane plane down," and that information is used to guide screeners. 

TSA wants to stop materials that could actually cause enough damage to bring down a plane, and is less concerned about "any science project" that uses materials to "set off an interesting fireworks display in an aircraft but can't bring the plane down."  

While the goal is to stop all flammable or corrosive materials, "it's the terrorist with a real IED that could bring a plane down, that's the guy we're looking for," he said.

Hawley commended the GAO for bringing more attention to the need to spot explosives before they can reach an airplane and said the TSA regularly conducts its own spot checks to test screeners.   Internal checks, he said, have shown an improvement in the ability to detect explosive materials.

Hawley also said it's important for Congress to approve a user fee for airline passengers, amounting to about five dollars per ticket, to help pay for continual upgrades in airport security.

Pete Williams is NBC's Justice Correspondent