Most fake bombs missed by screeners
75% not detected at LAX; 60% at O'Hare
By Thomas Frank
WASHINGTON — Security screeners at two of the nation's busiest airports failed to find fake bombs hidden on undercover agents posing as passengers in more than 60% of tests last year, according to a classified report obtained by USA TODAY.
Screeners at Los Angeles International Airport missed about 75% of simulated explosives and bomb parts that Transportation Security Administration testers hid under their clothes or in carry-on bags at checkpoints, the TSA report shows.
At Chicago O'Hare International Airport, screeners missed about 60% of hidden bomb materials that were packed in everyday carry-ons — including toiletry kits, briefcases and CD players. San Francisco International Airport screeners, who work for a private company instead of the TSA, missed about 20% of the bombs, the report shows. The TSA ran about 70 tests at Los Angeles, 75 at Chicago and 145 at San Francisco.
The report looks only at those three airports, using them as case studies to understand how well the rest of the U.S. screening system is working to stop terrorists from carrying bombs through checkpoints.
The failure rates at Los Angeles and Chicago stunned security experts.
"That's a huge cause for concern," said Clark Kent Ervin, the Homeland Security Department's former inspector general. Screeners' inability to find bombs could encourage terrorists to try to bring them on airplanes, Ervin said, and points to the need for more screener training and more powerful checkpoint scanning machines.
In the past year, the TSA has adopted a more aggressive approach in its attempt to keep screeners attentive — the agency runs covert tests every day at every U.S. airport, TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said. Screeners who miss detonators, timers, batteries and blocks that resemble plastic explosives get remedial training.
The failure rates at Los Angeles and Chicago are "somewhat misleading" because they don't reflect screeners' improved ability to find bombs, Howe said.
TSA chief Kip Hawley, responding to previous reports about screeners missing hidden weapons, told a House hearing Tuesday that high failure rates stem from increasingly difficult covert tests that require screeners to find bomb parts the size of a pen cap. "We moved from testing of completely assembled bombs … to the small component parts," he said.
Terrorists bringing a homemade bomb on an airplane, or bringing on bomb parts and assembling them in the cabin, is the top threat against aviation. "Their focus is on using items easily available off grocery and hardware store shelves," Hawley said.
A report on covert tests in 2002 found screeners failed to find fake bombs, dynamite and guns 24% of the time. The TSA ran those tests shortly after it took over checkpoint screening from security companies.
Tests earlier in 2002 showed screeners missing 60% of fake bombs. In the late 1990s, tests showed that screeners missed about 40% of fake bombs, according to a separate report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The recent TSA report says San Francisco screeners face constant covert tests and are "more suspicious."