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Aviation Security Whac-A-Mole

Ever play Whac-A-Mole as a kid?  As soon as you whack one mole coming out of one hole, another one pushes up somewhere else.  It seems that something similar is happening with aviation security.  USA Today has a front page story today on one implication of the new ban on liquids in carry-on baggage when flying: the rapid increase in the amount of checked baggage and the resulting strain on checked baggage screening.  Coincidentally, I just read a highly relevant July Government Accountability Office report (pdf) yesterday, which the USA Today story quotes from as well.  When airports face an influx of checked baggage, they sometimes deal with the situation by using alternative screening procedures that are less effective, and presumably speedier, than the standard ones in detecting explosives.   

Unfortunately, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has not covertly tested these alternative procedures in use in the real world, and therefore does not know how much less effective these procedures are. Though TSA has done an analysis of alternative screening's security trade-offs, this analysis is considered Sensitive Security Information (SSI). (Click here for more on SSI, TSA's dubious secrecy marking.)

At the time of the GAO report's release in July, TSA was reporting that its use of alternative screening procedures was in decline because it was employing more Explosive Detection Systems which could handle more checked baggage (in many, often smaller airports, Explosive Trace Detectors are used instead of EDS; CBS Denver reporter Rick Sallinger found that ETDs were horrible at detecting explosive chemicals).  However, the report came out before the British arrested about 20 people to disrupt their alleged plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic using liquid explosives and the resultant increase in passengers checking in their luggage.  Still, the GAO did cite the possibility that use of these alternative procedures may increase because of the anticipated increase in the number of air travelers in coming years, and thus in the amount of checked baggage, and because TSA cannot employ more than 45,000 screeners due to a current Congressionally-imposed limit.  With the new ban on liquids in carry ons, there has been a 20% surge in checked baggage. 

Though the article does not explicitly state that use of alternative procedures such bomb-sniffing dogs and physical hand searches of bags have definitely increased, it is likely that they have with the surge in checked bags.  TSA chief Kip Hawley told USA Today's Thomas Frank that the sudden increase �puts on a strain that could result in some vulnerabilities.�   And the system that screens all checked luggage for bombs �is being stressed.� 

Moreover, TSA may not know how much alternative screening has increased.  The GAO reported that the "Performance Management Information System (PMIS) database, which contains information on checked baggage screening operations...did not always contain accurate data on the duration of each occurrence of alternative baggage screening procedures," among other reporting problems.  The TSA "estimate of the use of alternative screening procedures is sensitive security information."

Bonus Fun: The International Spy Museum's flash Whac-A-Mole (as in Spy) game.

By: Nick Schwellenbach
Director of Investigations, POGO

Nick Schwellenbach At the time of publication, Nick Schwellenbach was Director of Investigations for the Project On Government Oversight.

Authors: Nick Schwellenbach

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