- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2020

The dogs that Transportation Security Administration agents use at some airports to screen passengers are cute — and that’s sometimes all they are, an audit of the canine program found.

In a withering report, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general said Thursday that the dogs’ training is so outdated that they may not be able to sniff out the latest types of explosives, leaving travelers at risk of a “catastrophic event.”

Beyond that, the TSA doesn’t even know how many dog teams it needs, nor does it deploy them based on risk. Some TSA employees reported that use of the dogs seems more about speeding passengers through lines than about searching for explosives.

Overall, the passenger screening canine program is not worth the $77 million annual cost, the inspector general said.

“TSA could have redirected nearly $77 million spent on PSC teams in fiscal year 2018 to other security programs and activities to better protect the aviation system,” the inspector general concluded.

The dogs’ inability to detect some explosives was a glaring hole.

TSA acknowledged that it hasn’t updated its training for the dogs “in many years” and may be missing new types of threats. The program is still using perceived threats and intelligence data “which is no longer relevant,” the audit said.

An attempt to update its “odor list” began in 2017 but has not been completed three years later.

Even then, an update might be futile.

Though some key details are redacted from the public release of the report, the inspector general said training canines to detect some explosives is tricky because it inherently means exposing them to hazardous materials.

“As a result, our nation’s aviation system and the traveling public could be at risk of a catastrophic event caused by an undetected explosive device,” the inspector general said.

The audit recommended that the TSA develop an effective plan using the dogs, justify whether the dogs provide teeth for security screening and figure out whether security directors are using the dogs properly.

The inspector general also urged the TSA to update its odor threat list.

TSA officials, in a response to the audit, said they are working on a plan for the dogs and expect to have it completed in September. They said odor list will be updated next year.

But the agency said it “strongly disagrees” with the conclusion that the dog program can’t prove its worth right now.

“The office of the inspector general audit team has not completed any analysis with the level of methodological rigor necessary to support these conclusions,” TSA Administrator David P. Pekoske said in a written response.

He said the TSA does conduct covert testing on its dog teams and has made changes to improve performance. He insisted the canine program is a key part of TSA’s “layered approach” and technology isn’t a viable substitute.

“They have been trained to detect explosive odor emitted from persons or their accessible property,” he said. “This capability allows PSC teams to screen a large number of people and large spaces for explosive threats in a short period of time.”

He said the dogs screened more than 30 million passengers in 2019. He did not say how many explosives were detected.

Dog detection is just one of the TSA’s methods to face scrutiny as a waste of money. Previous audits found that the behavior detection officer program, which deployed agents to try to spot potential threats by observing passengers’ behavior, to be without value.

The inspector general said the TSA has “shortfalls within many of the security layers.”

“TSA has yet to show significant progress in preventing security risks exposed through our covert testing,” said the inspector general, pointing to the canine program as one area that needs more work.

In 2018, which was the year studied, 287 dog teams were deployed at 47 airports. Congress added money for another 50 dogs in 2019.

But the decisions about numbers and deployment are haphazard, the audit said.

The allocation model TSA uses doesn’t match the risk assessment for Category 1 airports.

In some places, dogs are used in combination with metal detectors, meaning passengers don’t have to go through the more thorough imaging devices. Some TSA employees said it seemed airports were using the dogs more to speed passengers through lines than to detect explosives.

One “senior” agency official told investigators that managers don’t insist the dogs are used “to detect explosive odors as trained.”

During an eight-hour workday in 2018, a dog worked a checkpoint for only an hour. It spent another 40 minutes in training, 50 minutes in other activities and 5½ hours “off-leash.” Congress increased the on-leash time last year, but it was still just half the workday.

That means dog teams at airports screened just 9% of passengers.

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