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Airport Officials Work to Implement New Bomb Detection Systems

September 14, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

JEFFREY KAYE, Reporter, KCET: The alleged plot to smuggle liquid bomb components onto planes not only led to the banning of most liquids and gels from carry-on luggage, it also laid bare the limitations of explosives detections systems at airports.

Even though U.S. airport security has been transformed over the past five years, late last year, the 9/11 Commission gave explosives detection at passenger checkpoints a grade of “C.”

That score was too generous, according to Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. Gregg chairs the subcommittee that oversees the Department of Homeland Security’s spending.

What grade would you give?

SEN. JUDD GREGG (R), New Hampshire: Well, “D-plus” at best. I mean, the fact is the situation occurring with those aircrafts coming out of England reflected how many different opportunities to use explosive devices there are and how little we really screen for them.

JEFFREY KAYE: Among the reasons for the bad grade, serious problems with walk-through machines that analyze chemicals. Government officials promised there’d be 350 so-called “puffers” in operation by the end of this year. But only 94 have been deployed, and further installations have been stopped because of maintenance and reliability issues. That’s according to Randy Null, technology chief at the Transportation Security Administration, who would not talk on camera.

Green, red lights of bureacracy

Sen. Judd Gregg
Initially, it was because there was no -- the technology was still new, and it was still evolving, and nobody was really comfortable with whether it was working well. And now it's really evolved into more of a bureaucracy.

JEFFREY KAYE: Most of the machines bought by the government are made by General Electric. The detectors are based on the principle that people who have had contact with bombs or their components will have at least a trace amount of chemicals on them, according to G.E. spokesman Steve Hill. Hill would not discuss deployment problems.

So, as a passenger, I'm standing here. I'm seeing this little green walking man that tells me I should go in.

STEVE HILL, General Electrics Spokesman: Absolutely.


JEFFREY KAYE: "Enter," I hear, "Enter." I walk through, set my feet here.

PUFFER MACHINE: Air puffers on.

JEFFREY KAYE: I'm puffed from all sides. What's going on?

STEVE HILL: These jets of air are being used to dislodge particles of explosives that might be present. They're being drawn up using the convection plume around your warm body into the overhead sensor, where trace detection is analyzing them for the possible presence of explosives.

JEFFREY KAYE: Charged molecules pushed through an electric field arrive at various speeds, allowing the detector to differentiate among chemicals it's programmed to pick out.

STEVE HILL: And in about 15 seconds, you've passed, and you're free to go on your way to your flight.


JEFFREY KAYE: I get the green light.

STEVE HILL: That's right.

JEFFREY KAYE: But the red light given these devices, according to government officials and scientists, is symptomatic of organizational problems that have plagued TSA and the Department of Homeland Security.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: There's no question that we should have been much further down the road on using technology on screening passengers and on screening baggage.

JEFFREY KAYE: And the fact that we're not, is it attributable to management organizational issues, or just the complexity, the challenge of getting these things to work?

SEN. JUDD GREGG: I think both. Initially, it was because there was no -- the technology was still new, and it was still evolving, and nobody was really comfortable with whether it was working well. And now it's really evolved into more of a bureaucracy.

Shortchanged on research funds

Syagen puffer machine

JEFFREY KAYE: Gregg's frustration is shared by Thomas Chamberlain, a scientist who ran explosives detection programs for a succession of U.S. government agencies between 1997 and 2005. Now a consultant to industry and government, one of Chamberlain's first priorities as a trace explosives lab manager with the Federal Aviation Administration in 1997 was to develop and fund the so-called "puffers."

THOMAS CHAMBERLAIN, Scientist: I don't think there's any doubt they could have had them out there at least two to three years earlier.

JEFFREY KAYE: We're two to three years behind the deployment of puffers where we could be?


JEFFREY KAYE: The problem, says Chamberlain, was that, in recent years, research and development dollars were used instead to hire screeners and shifted into management. As a result, engineering work on the puffers wasn't completed.

THOMAS CHAMBERLAIN: They're still being tested. There are still being changes made. And I think if we were allowed to put more funding into this and more resources -- we had limited staff, but we still needed people to guide the further development of them.

JEFFREY KAYE: Among other projects Chamberlain contends were shortchanged is a next-generation puffer. The new devices, produced by a California company, Syagen, can detect more chemicals than those currently in use. The liquid chemicals the alleged London plotters were planning to use, according to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, posed a sophisticated and new threat.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, Homeland Security Secretary: ... what was particularly challenging with respect to this plot was the great effort to which these plotters appear to have gone in order to disguise the components and to disguise the liquids so that they would appear to be innocuous in packaging.

JEFFREY KAYE: But Chamberlain says, to researchers, that alleged scheme was nothing new.

THOMAS CHAMBERLAIN: We knew how to disguise things. I mean, we've known for a couple years how to disguise some of the peroxides.

JEFFREY KAYE: And so you...

THOMAS CHAMBERLAIN: ... and to stabilize them.

JEFFREY KAYE: ... so you had been actually working...


JEFFREY KAYE: ... on countermeasures...


JEFFREY KAYE: ... to look behind the disguise?


JEFFREY KAYE: And so the fact that these bombers would try to carry components did not surprise you?


Tracking a "dysfunctional" program

Airport security lines

JEFFREY KAYE: Chamberlain last worked for the Department of Homeland Security's research arm, the Science and Technology Directorate, now housed in this anonymous office building in downtown Washington, D.C. The billion-dollar division has come under sharp bipartisan criticism from members of both the House and Senate, who say the directorate cannot account for all the money it's spent.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: "Dysfunctional" would be the term I would apply. Science and Technology had no plan. When you walked into an airport, as far as Science and Technology was concerned, you were on -- you know, it was, "Good luck." You know, I mean, they didn't have a game plan as to how that machinery should be developed or what was the priority.

They basically haven't pulled together all the different research components and made them coherent. Instead, they've just had them all in various operating rooms within their directorate. And they are not functioning as a team; they're all rowing off in different directions, if they're rowing at all.

JEFFREY KAYE: Fred Roder saw the problems from the inside. Roder is currently chief technology officer at a company, Astrophysics, Inc., that makes x-ray screening equipment. In the '90s, Roder helped develop the system now widely used to scan luggage at U.S. airports.

For 28 months, until the beginning of this year, Roder headed the explosives countermeasures division of the Science and Technology Directorate. Roder says, even as a high-ranking manager, he wasn't able to set priorities or to track spending.

FRED RODER, Scientist: I could say, for example, that identifying suicide bombers is a major priority for us. And I could come up with requirements for identifying suicide bombers. I would then provide those requirements to a different organization within the Science and Technology Directorate.


FRED RODER: And at that point, I no longer had any oversight over how the work was conducted, and what was actually funded, and what was actually done. For me, as an R&D manager, it was my personal feeling that the work could often be misdirected or going in wrong directions. And I had no ability to correct it.

Assessing the risks

Penrose Albright
Former Homeland Security Official
Risk management is: You identify your risks; you in some sense quantify them; and then you decide on what the mitigation strategies are and that are cost effective.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Department of Homeland Security would not grant an interview to the NewsHour for this report. But the department's former assistant secretary for technology, Penrose Albright, says that, while there were management problems, the perception of a division in disarray is, to some extent, a reflection of the challenge of setting priorities.

PENROSE ALBRIGHT, Former Homeland Security Official: How do I assess the relative risk of a biological threat, which can kill 20 million people? And how do I compare that to, say, an aviation threat, right, which, you know, we know from experience people keep trying? Or how would I compare that to the rail security threat?

Risk management is: You identify your risks; you in some sense quantify them; and then you decide on what the mitigation strategies are and that are cost effective. That's what risk management means.

JEFFREY KAYE: Former Navy Admiral Jay Cohen, the directorate's new boss, is its third in as many years. Senator Gregg considers Cohen a good choice, but says the directorate needs more discipline. He and other congressional leaders want to cut its requested budget by nearly $200 million.

SEN. JUDD GREGG: I want to use the purse strings to say, "Hey, do a better job, we'll give you more money."

JEFFREY KAYE: As for passenger screening at airports, federal officials are not saying when, if ever, the prohibition against carrying liquids and gels might be lifted.

JIM LEHRER: Admiral Cohen told Congress yesterday that he's reorganizing his department and will make liquid bomb research a top priority.