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Boxcutter detection still alarms TSA

WASHINGTON — It’s still possible for someone to sneak a blade onto a commercial plane, the head of the Transportation Security Administration acknowledged Friday.

But the problem isn’t related to airport screeners. It’s the technology that’s lacking, said James Loy, who nonetheless has trimmed the agency’s research budget.

“I don’t dispute the fact that you can get a blade of a boxcutter set on edge through the system,” Loy said during a briefing with reporters. “That is a technology issue more than it’s a screener performance issue.”

Government officials believe the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers used boxcutters to commandeer the four jets that crashed that day.

Loy said the agency is focused on researching and developing better technology. But the TSA cut most of its $75 million research budget for 2003 to try to address a deficit.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., and chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said Loy should have spent his budget on more efficient technology that could replace thousands of TSA screeners as well as detect more kinds of dangerous materials. Most of the metal detectors and X-ray machines currently in use at airports can’t pick up plastic knives or explosives, Mica said.

“If he would spend the money on developing the technology, then you don’t need the money for salaries to hire an army of personnel,” Mica said.

Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, ranking Democrat on the House aviation subcommittee, said the Republican administration and members of Congress have been unwilling to give the TSA enough money for people or research.

Simpler and smaller computerized systems are being developed that would do a better job of catching weapons such as knife blades because they create a picture of a cross-section of an object, according to Richard Lanza, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who specializes in security technology.

If you looked at a knife blade on edge with a CT system, “you would see something,” Lanza said.

A General Accounting Office report released this week said the TSA isn’t keeping close enough track of its airport security screeners’ performance. The GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, sent undercover investigators to certain airports to test security by trying to sneak weapons past screeners.

Loy said the agency is more focused on evaluating the system as a whole, but is working on training and testing programs. He also said the TSA has developed a layered system of security — including air marshals, reinforced cockpit doors and background checks on screeners — because no one layer is foolproof.

Loy took issue with a section of the report that said the TSA conducts fewer covert tests of screeners than the Federal Aviation Administration did when it was responsible for airport screening.

Capt. Steve Luckey, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association’s national security committee, said many items can be sneaked past an x-ray machine, and an airplane cabin contains many items that could be used as improvised weapons by professional killers.

“It’s why we have guns in the cockpit,” Luckey said.

The government is also refining its plans for putting more armed law enforcement officers in the skies. Michael J. Garcia, director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, told reporters that more training will be given to federal law enforcement agents so they can serve as air marshals on individual flights they happen to be taking.


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