Audit: Airport screening needs more risk study

/ Source: The Associated Press

The government has installed high-tech passenger screening equipment at airports without fully measuring whether the technologies address the most serious risks to aviation, congressional auditors found.

Most of the decisions to introduce new passenger screening devices at airports have been based on threats described in intelligence reports. While this is important, the Government Accountability Office said these threats also need to be measured against how vulnerable air systems are to them and against the full consequences if the threat were successfully carried out.

The auditors said the Transportation Security Administration has not completed this full assessment of threat, vulnerability and consequences together. As a result, TSA cannot get a complete picture of the potential risk from any particular threat and it cannot be sure that its investments in screening devices address the greatest risks to aviation, the auditors said.

Nor can TSA measure whether an appropriate amount of money has been spent on the machines, the auditors said.

Their report noted that since TSA was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, 10 passenger screening technologies have been either put into research and development, testing or put in use at some airports. Among these are:

  • A scanner designed to detect explosives hidden in shoes, like those used by convicted would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, who tried to ignite his device on a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001.
  • A walkthrough portal designed to detect traces of explosive residue on clothing.
  • A whole body imager which gives screeners an image of a passenger's body surface unobscured by the passenger's clothing. In a pilot program to evaluate the technology, TSA screeners are currently using 46 units, with two different types of technology, at 23 U.S. airports, according to TSA's Web site.

TSA said in its response to the GAO report that the agency has considered threat, vulnerability and consequence when it makes decisions about technology.

The report, released Thursday, is a public version of a restricted report provided to lawmakers earlier this year.

"A comprehensive and sensible strategic plan is critical to ensure that the government minimizes waste while securing the flying public," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

TSA spokeswoman Kristin Lee said the GAO audit began three years ago, and since then the agency has "taken steps to strengthen testing procedures and improve the strategic deployment of emerging strategies."