Government takes layered approach to aviation security

House members say Homeland Security should make a greater effort to gauge the public's response to potential passenger screening technologies.

The Homeland Security Department is developing new baggage and passenger screening tools and explosive detection technology in the aftermath of the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, an official told a House panel on Wednesday.

"There is no single technological solution to aviation security," said Bradley Buswell, deputy undersecretary of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, during a House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation hearing. "A layered security approach to passenger screening features multiple passenger and baggage screening tools and integrates human factors considerations, metal detectors, advanced imaging technology with X-rays and millimeter waves, trace explosives detection, and canines."

Research and development within the directorate is focused on "improving the performance of currently deployed screening equipment and procedures in the near term, and developing and deploying new technologies and procedures in the long term," Buswell said. Technology in the pipeline will screen passengers and baggage for a wider range of threats, while easing certain restrictions, including requirements for passengers to remove shoes and limits on liquids in carry-on luggage.

The White House asked for $5.6 billion for aviation security in the fiscal 2011 budget released last week. Of that, no more than $4.5 billion will be used for screening operations, including $214.7 million to deploy an additional 500 advanced imaging machines at airport checkpoints. When combined with the 500 systems already planned for fiscal 2010, three-fourths of the nation's largest airports will have the scanning devices. Nearly $706 million also will be available for explosives detection systems.

The Checkpoint Program, which evaluates currently deployed technologies against new threats for possible areas of improvement and focuses on threat detection capabilities in advanced imaging technology and X-ray screening devices, would receive a slice of the funding, according to Buswell. President Obama's budget request included $22.3 million for this initiative, homemade explosives research, and systems research and engineering related to human factors.

Also included in the aviation security funding is $8.9 million for DHS' Suspicious Behavior Detection Program, which seeks ways to identify unknown threats through analysis of deceptive conduct by passengers, and for a separate program to counter improvised explosive devices. About $30 million was budgeted for checkpoint screening for explosives; $9 million for basic research to develop enhanced explosive detection and mitigation capabilities; and $11 million for "leap-ahead" technologies, including physiological and behavioral sensor tools that detect the mental state of individuals intending to cause harm, and for systems similar MRI machines to identify liquids.

Members of Congress expressed concern, however, about privacy and civil liberties, noting a lack of research on the public response to more intrusive screening methods at airports.

"I am troubled by the lack of attention DHS has paid in the past to public acceptance issues," said Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., chairman of the subcommittee. He pointed to recommendations in 1997 by the National Academy of Sciences to pay more attention to public acceptance issues when deploying passenger screening technologies.

"Ten years later the academies concluded that nothing had changed," he said. "No wonder the deployment of body-scanning technologies has proved to be such a public failure: the relevant agencies did not do their homework and follow-up on the recommendation in a serious way. Of course the screening process must protect the public, but it must be accepted by the public as well."

Buswell said the directorate has asked experts from industry, and public interest and community-oriented organizations to identify potential acceptance issues, but he agreed to look into further efforts to gauge public response, including polling of travelers.