WASHINGTON -- How serious is it that undercover teams were able to smuggle bomb components, including liquid explosives, past passenger checkpoints in all 19 airports they tested this year?
So serious, in the view of investigators, that they made a video showing in slow-motion detail how they blew up several cars with bombs made from the commercially available materials, purchased for under $150 in local stores or on the Internet.
"Our tests clearly demonstrate that a terrorist group, using publicly available information and few resources, could cause severe damage to an airplane ... by bringing prohibited improvised explosive device components through security checkpoints," said Gregory D. Kutz, a managing director for the Government Accountability Office.
But the nation's top transportation security official, Edmund S. "Kip" Hawley, played down the findings in a tense hearing yesterday, insisting that his screeners focused "on what might actually take down a plane, as opposed to what could do severe damage."
"We focus on the piece that could do catastrophic damage," Hawley said. "The terrorists are very smart. They know what takes a plane down. That's what we have to stop."
On the eve of the busy holiday travel season, Democrats and Republicans expressed exasperation at the findings, demanding to know how the agency could have failures two years in a row. In 2006, GAO investigators smuggled bomb components, also hidden on their persons or in carry-on bags, past checkpoints at 21 airports.
The results are especially troubling, lawmakers said, in the wake of last year's foiled plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners with liquid explosives.
"The Transportation Security Administration has had six years and has spent billions of taxpayer dollars," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat. "Yet our airlines remain vulnerable. That's an embarrassing and dangerous record."
But Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican and ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, said that while TSA must do better, "I think it's wrong to panic people."
"Obviously, more has to be done," he said. "But we have the best system in the world, except for the Israelis. There's only so far we can go with the technology we have. These reports make a good case for using much more sophisticated screening equipment, much of which is objected to by civil liberties groups."
Hawley said the agency was phasing in what he called "the first significant technology upgrade" for checkpoints since the 1970s, including X-ray machines that can identify devices hidden beneath clothing. Privacy protections are being put in place, he said.
Carol Eisenberg writes for Newsday.