WASHINGTON — Federal investigators smuggled the components of liquid-based bombs past screeners in 19 airports nationwide in secret tests earlier this year, showing that a terrorist could thwart the latest U.S. security regulations.
"Our tests clearly demonstrate that a terrorist group, using publicly available information and few resources, could cause severe damage to an airplane and threaten the safety of the passengers," concludes a Government Accountability Office report that was released Wednesday night by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Using cheap, easily available components, GAO investigators made an explosive device and a firebomb that, when tested, exploded with sufficient force to cause significant damage. Investigators then used public information on the Transportation Security Administration's screening procedures to devise ways to carry the bomb components through airport checkpoints without being challenged.
The oversight committee, headed by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), will hold a hearing today on the weaknesses identified in the 6-year-old agency's operations. It will be the second hearing in two days called to highlight TSA's shortcomings.
"The situation is unacceptable," Waxman said. "There are too many vulnerabilities and we've got to fix them. It's disappointing that after all the years we've had TSA in place and all the money, billions of dollars, that we have put into the problem, it's still not fixed."
In testimony today, TSA Administrator Kip Hawley is expected to tell the committee that his agency will adopt some of the GAO's recommended changes and take a more aggressive, visible and unpredictable approach to security. But he also is expected to stress that TSA's defenses are multilayered -- including measures such as canine teams in airports, hardened cockpit doors, special self-defense training for airline crews and thousands of armed pilots.
"Relying solely on security at the checkpoint or focusing all of our resources to defeat one threat is counterproductive and detracts from our overall mission," Hawley is scheduled to say in written testimony obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
James Jay Carafano, a domestic security expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said TSA critics might have unrealistic expectations. "The system is never going to be perfect, it's never going to stop everything," he said. "The point is that screening was always meant to be largely a deterrent to definitely take amateurs off the field and deter the pros."
Release of the GAO report follows a hearing Wednesday in which Hawley vehemently denied that screeners had been tipped off about covert security tests, even as lawmakers brandished an e-mail from TSA headquarters that not only warned employees of testing, but described the methods and appearance of those conducting the probes.
"There was no intent to tip off, there was no cheating," Hawley insisted. He said that the e-mail was sent not to tip off screeners, but because a TSA official thought the tests might really be an Al Qaeda operation.
Democratic lawmakers were openly incredulous. "If you want me to believe that, I find that's a stretch," said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.).
The hearing was unusually combative. Witnesses tried to talk over one another. TSA staff wrote anxious notes to Hawley as he testified, urging him to "change subject!" and "push back harder." And Democrats ridiculed Hawley's defense of his agency.
"How can you say there was no cheating?" queried Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), his voice rising. "This e-mail references a test that was going to take place."
When Hawley replied that there was no breach in his agency's integrity, Green shot back: "This is not about integrity, Mr. Hawley, this is about the truth."
The e-mail, dated April 28, 2006, was sent to more than 650 employees and titled "Notice of Possible Security Test." It began: "This information is provided for your situational awareness. Several airport authorities and airport police departments have recently received informal notice of possible DOT/FAA [Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration] security testing at airports around the nation."
The message also describes a couple who try to penetrate security, place improvised explosive devises on planes and test gate staff.
"The woman has an ID with an oriental woman's picture, even though she is Caucasian. We are getting the word out," the e-mail reads.
Hawley would not name the official who sent the e-mail, but said the employee had suspected the testing might be Al Qaeda at work, because neither the Transportation Department nor the FAA tests screeners.
The e-mail does not mention Al Qaeda or any terrorist threat.
The hearing was the latest by the House Homeland Security Committee to focus on screeners, who have shown little improvement in spotting explosives since the terrorist attacks of 2001.