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Stubborn Airport Safety Gaps

September 24, 2004

If only Congress were as focused on improving security in the real world as it is in rearranging the bureaucratic architecture of the nation's intelligence community. Shockingly, three years after 9/11, airport screeners are still unable to prevent passengers from sneaking explosives and weapons onto airplanes, according to a recent government report on aviation security. Fortunately, they are at least able to protect the nation from British pop stars.

Actually, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens was able to board a plane bound for the United States, which is disconcerting if he indeed poses the threat Washington believes. After all, the singer now known as Yusuf Islam was on the government's "no-fly" list for allegedly contributing to the terrorist group Hamas, but he still managed to sail through United Airlines security in London on Tuesday and onto a plane bound for Washington. Homeland Security officials later discovered the mistake, and his plane was forced to land in Maine. His name may simply have been spelled differently on the watch list.

Whether the composer of "Peace Train" and "Moonshadow" deserves to be on a watch list is an open question, but there's no doubt that people legitimately on a watch list should not be able to walk onto an airplane without being closely scrutinized, preferably by law enforcement officials, not airline ticket agents. Equally scary are the results of a test by a watchdog for the Department of Homeland Security. Testers were able to sneak weapons and explosives past screeners at 15 airports nationwide during the second half of 2003.

Homeland Security has yet to come up with a reliable way to keep carry-on explosives off planes. The report blamed poor training and management of airport screeners and inadequate equipment. Those are at least problems that can be solved with better leadership and quicker installation of devices that can detect explosives at security checkpoints.

Unfortunately, there's no "sniffer" machine that can develop a better watch list to identify travelers deserving closer scrutiny. It is alarming how ineffective Washington has been at applying its intelligence capabilities to homeland security. Though creation of an effective passenger-screening program has long been considered a top priority by the Bush administration, and $100 million has been spent on the system so far, the latest iteration, now called Secure Flight, is months -- maybe years -- from being ready.

So far, there is little evidence that Secure Flight is better than the so-called CAPPS II program, which was scrapped partly because of legitimate privacy concerns. The new program is more focused -- the old version targeted suspected criminals as well as terrorists -- but the Transportation Security Administration still seems to be relying on commercial databases of questionable accuracy to identify passengers. Although the agency promises to appoint an advocate to hear appeals from people mistakenly put on a watch list, it has been vague about how the process would work and to date has proved itself inept at resolving complaints.

These are the hard questions that aren't being solved as the Senate ponders adding another layer to U.S. security, in the form of a national intelligence director and a new antiterrorism bureaucracy. Meanwhile, aging but possibly dangerous pop singers could be carrying explosives aboard airplanes, if the lapses of the last few days are any indication of the reality outside the halls of Congress.

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