GAO says publicly available parts and knowledge could be used to assemble a bomb during an aircraft flight and do significant damage.
A representative from Congress' investigative arm told lawmakers today that a team of its investigators smuggled components for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and an improvised incendiary device (IID) past airport screeners at multiple locations this spring and summer.
"By using concealment methods for the components," said Gregory D. Kutz , managing director of forensic audits and special investigations for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), "two investigators demonstrated that it is possible to bring the components for several IEDs and one IID through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints and onto airline flights without being challenged by transportation security officers."
Kutz said the GAO tested its explosive device in July 2007 at a national laboratory and had previously tested smaller, but similar, explosive devices in February 2006 that "clearly demonstrated that a terrorist, using these devices could cause severe damage to an airplane and threaten the safety of passengers."
Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform , called the findings deeply troubling. TSA, responsible for airport screening, was thought to have made progress by regulating the amount of liquids brought on board aircraft after the transatlantic terrorist plot of August 2006, where terrorists sought to use liquid explosives to bring down planes over the Atlantic Ocean.
Kutz testified that his investigators learned how to assembly the IED and IID through research on the Internet and by reviewing publicly available information. For less than $150, the GAO was then able to buy the parts necessary for the bombs from local stores and online. Two investigators then set out to test security at 19 airport checkpoints across the country. By concealing the components for the bombs in their luggage or on their person, Kutz said, the two investigators were able to smuggle the components past airport screeners. They did this by identifying weaknesses in TSA methods by reviewing publicly available documents.
In one instance, an investigator was able to get the liquid component of an IID, prohibited by the TSA, past an airport screener. Ironically, the investigator also brought an unlabeled bottle of liquid shampoo, which the airport screener confiscated, saying "it could contain acid." The IID component passed undetected.
Investigators found overall that airport screeners were following TSA procedures and were using technology appropriately. The GAO also found that there was no performance difference between private screeners and transportation security officers.
Due to the sensitive nature of such information, Kutz and the GAO did not reveal the concealment methods or the commercially available bomb components used by investigators.
The GAO has made recommendations to TSA, which the agency did not disagree with and would take under advisement. According to Kutz, TSA said it was "moving forward to develop a 'checkpoint of the future' that would incorporate new and emerging technology to address terror threats."