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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Bag-Screening Deadline May Pass Unmet

Airlines: The federal government may not be ready to check all luggage by mid-January, a top official warns. Democrats assail his message.

November 28, 2001|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Transportation Department is likely to miss an early deadline of the new aviation security bill requiring that all checked baggage be screened for explosives, the agency's head said Tuesday, prompting an immediate rebuke from top Democratic congressional leaders.

The acknowledgment by Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta signals the magnitude of the government's task in remaking the nation's aviation security system while grappling with its current limitations.

At issue is a requirement that all checked bags be screened for explosives by X-ray, trained dogs or some other suitable means by mid-January. The order is only provisional, since X-ray machines are not foolproof for bomb detection. Congress has also mandated screening all checked bags with specialized, explosive-sensing scanners by December 2002.

But Mineta on Tuesday said it is unlikely that the January requirement will be met, and he stressed that there will be difficulties in meeting the more significant December 2002 deadline. He said the equipment and personnel--even the dogs--are simply not available to do a proper job within the allotted time.

"The question about bomb detection equipment is probably the most vexing and serious one we're facing," Mineta told an aviation security conference. "There aren't enough people--there aren't enough bomb-sniffing dogs--to be able to do the job. . . . Our primary goal right now [is] trying to ramp up the capability of detecting explosives going into aircraft."

The Transportation Department often fails to meet congressional deadlines, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) quickly fired back at Mineta, the lone Democrat in President Bush's Cabinet.

"One of the most important aspects of the airport security bill is to increase the confidence level among travelers," Daschle said. "It doesn't serve our confidence level to know that simply a week or so after we pass the bill, we're told that the administration can't comply."

"The American people can't wait another few months before we begin screening all checked baggage for bombs," Gephardt said in a statement. "Air travelers demand and deserve protection now. . . . America has the tools to get the job done, and now we must have the will to put these measures in place and strengthen airline security for every American."

Administration Hopes for Near Compliance

Bush signed the aviation security bill on Nov. 19, starting the clock on the 60-day deadline set by Congress for the initial level of full baggage screening. Chet Lunner, a spokesman for Mineta, said the administration will try to get as close as possible to the 100% screening goal within the deadline.

Currently only a small proportion of checked bags on domestic flights are screened for explosives. About 140 specialized bomb detection machines are in service at some 50 major airports. The scanners, which use CT technology, are effective in detecting explosives but are also prone to false alarms.

Mineta said the two companies that build the machines cannot produce them fast enough to supply every U.S. airport by the end of next year.

The controversy overshadowed what Mineta had intended to be a progress report on his department's top priority: building a new federal Transportation Security Administration to take over the watchdog role from airlines and airports. He even held out hope for travelers now frustrated with long lines at security checkpoints.

"Our goal in passenger screening is: no weapons, no waiting," Mineta said. "We will strive to develop a screening process that prohibits weapons or other banned materials . . . without requiring a waiting period of longer than 10 minutes at any security checkpoint."

However, Mineta acknowledged in a question-and-answer session what many security experts have been saying: The government faces enormous technical and staffing challenges, and some deadlines established by Congress are not likely to be met.

The new agency will employ an estimated 28,000 checkpoint screeners, several thousand air marshals and thousands of support personnel. It will be larger than the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Border Patrol combined. Within Transportation, it will rival the Federal Aviation Administration, which employs nearly 50,000 people. Congress has given the Bush administration a year to do the job.

Mineta said his department has formed a special management team to oversee the effort. That team has identified several critical policy areas, including airport security strategy, baggage screening, passenger screening, deployment of bomb-detection equipment, speedy background checks for employees, training new employees and managing the transition from the current airline-run security system.

Among the challenges: hiring the 28,000 screeners, who must be U.S. citizens, pass a background check and undergo training.

Mineta said he will "very shortly" recommend to Bush an appointee to run the new agency. The individual must be confirmed by the Senate.

Also speaking to the aviation conference, Homeland Security Director Thomas J. Ridge said the timetable established by Congress is "very aggressive" but added that he thought it could be met "with a few exceptions."

Even after a system is set up, Mineta said passengers should expect a continuation of tough policies against security breaches, including emptying terminals and delaying flights. "We have established a zero-tolerance policy for security breaches, a policy that we will continue to enforce during the transition to the federal screening process and beyond."

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