- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Transportation Security Administration spent $8 billion since the Sept. 11 attacks installing machines at airports to screen checked bags for explosives, but many of the systems are obsolete and need to be upgraded, according to congressional investigators.

In a report set for release Wednesday at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that explosives-screening equipment at many of the 462 U.S. airports use detection criteria more than a decade old, and machines being installed now will require upgrading before they can meet the latest standards.

The problems mean the machines, called Explosive Detection Systems (EDS) are less able to detect the latest terrorist bomb threats, according to committee Chairman John L. Mica, Florida Republican.

TSA’s delays and poor planning continue to waste our limited resources, threaten transportation security, and weaken our ability to address the latest terrorist threats,” Mr. Mica said in a statement.

The GAO found that many of the EDS machines deployed throughout the country are still operating under 1998 standards. Those standards were revised by TSA in 2005 and then again in January 2010 after the unsuccessful attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner using explosives hidden in a passenger’s underwear.

The exact standards are classified - based on intelligence reporting about the latest terror threats - but they include the chemical makeup and minimum amounts of each of the various explosives types the machines are designed to detect.

The GAO report said machines deployed this year were still using the 2005 standards, and might need multiple software and hardware upgrades to meet 2010 requirements.

“Not only has TSA failed to complete implementation of the 2005 standards, now the 2010 standards will be delayed, leaving the whole process in disarray,” Mr. Mica said.

GAO investigators also said TSA had no effective plan for carrying out the upgrades or for installing the latest generation of machines.

“Unbelievably, TSA has not fully implemented explosive detection screening technology requirements after six years and is trying to play catch-up while delaying implementation of the most up-to-date detection standards intended to address current terrorist threats,” said Mr. Mica, a longtime critic of the agency who has repeatedly pointed out flaws in the nation’s aviation security.

In its response to the GAO report, the TSA said the agency had to move ahead with deployment of the EDS machines in many airports where the major work required to install them was already under way - funded in 2009 by the stimulus bill.

“A critical need exists to meet airport schedules for installation of EDS into baggage handling systems that are currently being built,” wrote TSA’s Jim Crumpacker.

The agency stated that “detection requirements are dynamic in nature due to continuous intelligence-driven threat assessment” and that they were working closely with the machines’ manufacturers to ensure that the latest generation technology could be tested and deployed as quickly as possible.

The agency said it concurred with and was implementing the six GAO recommendations, including developing a plan to make sure the machines they purchased during the rest of this year met the latest standards.