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U.S. airports vulnerable

If potential terrorists had tried to pull off the bombing plot that the British described yesterday, they just might have gotten through at a U.S. airport.

For all of the resources and new procedures that authorities have poured into air security since Sept. 11, 2001, significant holes remain, some security experts say. Fixing the problems is not just a matter of money and better technology, they say, it's also a matter of will.

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"What we've been doing is basically assuming the next attack will be similar to the one we saw on Sept. 11," said Stephen Gale, co-chairman of the Center on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security at Foreign Policy Research Institute and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "We haven't stretched our imagination."

"It becomes a quality of life issue for us," he added. "At a certain point, we'll have to make a decision about what we're willing to endure to fly safely."

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Before Sept. 11, 2001, security wasn't much of an inconvenience or very high-tech, even though government reports and security experts warned in the mid-1990s about threats from liquid and plastic bombs - and terrorists have used, or tried to use, both.

Metal detectors focused on thwarting efforts to carry on guns used in hijackings. Dogs were used mainly to sniff out drugs smuggled into the country, rather than bombs. Terrorists were able to stay a step ahead.

Since 2001, the Transportation Security Administration, created in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, has implemented stricter procedures and funded new technology. Using existing and new equipment, it now screens all checked luggage for metal and explosives that give off vapors or smells.

Still in development is a technology to detect liquid explosives, which are enclosed in containers that give off no vapors or smells and often are made up of substances that by themselves are harmless.

But other actions, such as sniffing bomb-making elements on passengers, are only done selectively at some airports because the equipment is new and expensive - $125,000 a unit. About 30 portals have been placed at 14 airports, including Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. They puff air onto the passengers, and sniff the residue that comes off for explosives.

Only two companies make the machines, and they will manufacture about 300 more this year.

To get more noses on the job immediately, TSA has recently introduced more bomb-sniffing dogs.

As of yesterday, extra security is being added in international terminals at the nation's airports. And in a news conference yesterday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said liquids of all kinds, except baby formula and medicine, will be banned from carry-on baggage.

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Asked if the government could detect the liquid explosives that the suspects allegedly planned to use, he said, "We're in the process of assessing that - and, you know, honestly, some of these are pretty difficult. We want to, frankly, take the most protective stance, and that's why we have ... excluded liquids from the cabin."

Technology is in development, funded by the Homeland Security and Transportation departments, aimed at seeing substances in their molecular form and identifying them as bomb ingredients. But it's still experimental.

HiEnergy Technologies Inc. of Irvine, Calif., has been working on commercial applications of the technology since the mid-1990s.

The company is nearing the end of a field test with Philadelphia transit authorities on a suitcase-size unit that can tell what's in a suspicious or unattended bag with almost 98 percent certainty, said Sean Moore, a vice president.

The company could develop an in-line baggage system that works with existing X-ray machines or as stand-alone units to screen all airport luggage, Moore said.

Although the company has received some TSA funding, he said, that baggage system is considered a priority to fund now.

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"X-ray and trace detection and sniffer systems don't have the capability to distinguish substances in liquid form," he said. "This technology can in a matter of a half a minute ... to a few minutes, depending on the amount present. ... That's important. Holding up planes for even a minute can be astronomically costly."

But experts say the best systems in the world don't necessarily depend on the best technology.

They point to El Al, the Israeli airline famed for its security that does more extensive behavioral profiling and screening. It searches passengers and luggage over and over and will explore body cavities to look for threatening items, said Gale, the terrorism expert.

American citizens expect a high priority on civil liberties and less inconvenience, he said, but authorities might have to insist they endure more.

The experts also say authorities will have to do more with existing technology. They should pay more attention to cargo and general aviation planes, such as small corporate jets, that face little or no screening but could be subjected to the same process as commercial passenger planes, said Arnold I. Barnett, an operations research professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He said authorities also need to ensure that checked luggage matches passengers that board planes, a process instituted in 2002 but dropped.

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TSA could permanently ban liquids, or carry-on baggage, Barnett said. He said those measures would face resistance from U.S. travelers, who are accustomed to bringing everything from laptops to full meals on board.

"If TSA says explosives aboard airplanes represent the greatest threat to air safety, and indeed a plot was just thwarted," Barnett said, "then the question is: 'What are we willing to do to keep explosives off airplanes?' An argument could be made that we're not doing enough."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com


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