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Airport screeners perform poorly, reports say

Sunday, April 17, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Security at U.S. airports is no better under federal control than it was before the Sept. 11 attacks, a key House member says two government reports will conclude.

The Government Accountability Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- and the Homeland Security Department's inspector general are expected to soon release their findings on the performance of Transportation Security Administration screeners.

"A lot of people will be shocked at the billions of dollars we've spent and the results they're going to see, which confirm previous examinations of the Soviet-style screening system we've put in place," Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said on Friday.

Mica chairs the House aviation subcommittee and was briefed on the reports.

The TSA won't comment on the specifics of the reports until they are released, spokesman Mark Hatfield Jr. said.

But, he said: "When the political posturing is over, rational people will see that American screeners today are the best we have ever had and that they are limited only by current technology and security procedures that are significantly influenced by privacy demands."

Improving the ability of screeners to find dangerous items has been the goal since the government took over the task at about 450 airports in early 2002 and hired more than 45,000 workers. Earlier investigations also showed problems persisting.

A year ago, Clark Kent Ervin, then-inspector general of Homeland Security, told lawmakers the TSA screeners and privately contracted airport workers "performed about the same, which is to say, equally poorly."

When Congress created the TSA it stipulated that privately employed screeners be used at five airports to serve as a measuring stick for the federal screeners.

Screeners are tested by the inspector general's undercover agents, who try to smuggle fake weapons and bombs past security checkpoints. Their performance also is measured by the Threat Image Projection system, which puts images of threat objects on X-ray screens while the screeners are working and identifies whether they identify the threats.

Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, the ranking Democrat on Mica's subcommittee, also was briefed on the two upcoming reports. He said they draw different conclusions about the relative performance of government screeners and those who work for private companies.

"The common finding is that no set of screeners, private nor public, is performing anywhere near the level I think we need," DeFazio said.

Screener performance won't be acceptable "until these people have state-of-the-art technology," he said.

DeFazio is especially critical of the X-ray machines used to screen passengers' baggage in most airports. Much better equipment is already available and in use on Capitol Hill and in the White House, he said.

The TSA has said the tests used to measure screener performance are much more rigorous than they were before the Sept. 11 hijackings.

Before the attacks, the Threat Image Projection system only used images of about 200 items. Now the TSA uses more than 5,000 images, Hatfield said.

Screeners have been much more aggressive about seizing prohibited items than their predecessors, the private screeners who worked for companies employed by airlines. Each month, screeners take from passengers about a half-million things, including 160,000 knives, 2,000 box cutters and 70 guns.


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