DHS Inspector General Finds Airport Screening Vulnerabilities

By Matthew Harwood

Investigators found screening checkpoint vulnerabilities at eight out of eight airports they visited (.pdf), according to the unclassified summary of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (IG) report released today.

"We identified vulnerabilities in the screening process at the passenger screening checkpoint at the eight domestic airports we conducted testing," the IG report states.

The eight airports account for half of the16 unspecified airports where the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) introduced three new screening techniques—advanced imaging technology (AITs), advanced technology X-ray equipment, and liquid container screening— to check passengers and their carry-on baggage for hidden threats. 

The audit comes after TSA's rush to deploy new airport screening technologies to counter new threats exposed on Christmas. During a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, 23-year-old jihadist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab unsuccessfully tried to detonate powdered explosives stashed in his underwear. In response to the failed attack,  DHS, the parent organization of TSA, announced it would deploy 500 AITs, or fully body scanners, at U.S. airports this year as well as another 500 next year. Proponents of the technology, like Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, argue it can detect nonmetallic threats—like the powdered explosives Abdulmutallab hid underneath his clothing—that metal detectors cannot.

Critics dispute that.

Last week, a coalition of 30 privacy and civil liberties groups issued a letter to Napolitano and DHS's Chief Privacy Officer Mary Ellen Callahan to suspend all further deployments of full body scanners (.pdf). Besides calling the machines unconstitutional and religiously offensive, the group letter argued that full body scanners are a flawed technology.

"The FBS devices employed by the TSA are not designed to detect powdered pentaerythritol tetranitrate (“PETN”)—the explosive used in the attempted December 25, 2009 bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253," the letter states.

(For more on full body scanners and the search for machines that ease privacy concerns, see "Companies Seek Full-Body Scans That Ease Health, Privacy Concerns.")

The group argues that DHS is wasting taxpayer money when "[t]here are less intrusive and less costly techniques available to address the risk of concealed explosives on aircrafts."

According to the Obama administration's fiscal year 2011 budget request for DHS, the president wants to spend $214.7 million on deploying 500 additional full body scanners next year (.pdf).

The IG report says it made 8 recommendations to TSA and the agency agreed with seven and partially agreed with another.

"We trust this report will result in more effective, efficient, and economical operations," wrote Inspector General Richard L. Skinner in the preface of the 7-page, unclassified summary.

♦ Photo of Portland International Airport security check by Aboutmovies/WikiMediaCommons


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