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New covert tests expose TSA screening vulnerabilities

Yesterday ABC News broke a story about recent covert tests by the DHS Office of the Inspector General of TSA screening activities, highlighting the following results:

An internal investigation of the Transportation Security Administration revealed security failures at dozens of the nation’s busiest airports, where undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials, ABC News has learned.

The series of tests were conducted by Homeland Security Red Teams who pose as passengers, setting out to beat the system.

According to officials briefed on the results of a recent Homeland Security Inspector General’s report, TSA agents failed 67 out of 70 tests, with Red Team members repeatedly able to get potential weapons through checkpoints.

DHS Secretary Johnson responded to this media story by removing Mel Carraway from the position of acting TSA Administrator and by indicating that DHS and TSA would take a detailed set of actions in response to the results of these tests.

Neither the relevant news stories nor the responses to them have revealed the specific nature of the vulnerability (or vulnerabilities) that were tested; and hopefully this will remain a secret, given the sensitive nature of the information. But it is perhaps noteworthy that the Secretary’s statement places a great deal of emphasis on issues related to screening equipment:

Fourth, I have directed TSA, in phased fashion, to re-test and re-evaluate the screening equipment currently in use at airports across the United States. As a related matter, I personally intend to meet with senior executives of the contractors involved in the development of the equipment at issue to communicate to them the importance of their assistance in our efforts to investigate and remedy the deficiencies highlighted by the Inspector General.

….Longer term, in the coming months, I have directed TSA to ensure that all screening equipment is operating up to the highest possible standards. I have also directed TSA and the Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary for Science and Technology to examine adopting new technologies to address the vulnerabilities identified by the Inspector General’s testing.

This seems to indicate that there is a specific issue or set of issues with respect to the currently-deployed base of screening equipment at the passenger checkpoint. On a potentially related note, DHS Inspector General John Roth noted the following in testimony before a House committee last month:

We are currently conducting covert testing to evaluate the effectiveness of TSA’s Automated Target Recognition software and checkpoint screener performance in identifying and resolving potential security threats at airport checkpoints. Once that testing is completed and evaluated, we will report our results to the Secretary and Congress.

It is possible (but by no means certain) that this is the same testing on which ABC News is now reporting. If it is, it would suggest that there may be weaknesses with respect to the algorithms being used to flag potentially anomalous items in carry-on baggage and on one’s person. I expect that we will learn more as TSA pushes out information to the field in response to these covert tests.

Finally, it’s worth keeping in mind two things as this story continues to develop:

a) It is very important that DHS continues to conduct these covert tests; these types of failures in testing are embarrassing to the agency, but are necessary given the adaptive nature of aviation security threats, and can be used as the basis for making real improvements to security. If anything, there needs to be more covert testing within DHS than there is today, particularly at Customs and Border Protection (CBP), where GAO noted in 2014 that additional covert testing would be warranted.

b) Any decisions about new investments in screening equipment need to be made thoughtfully in response to this story, and not in a rush as part of a PR-driven damage control effort. Too often in its 14-year history, TSA has rushed to make large new investments in screening equipment without fully assessing the costs and benefits of such investments, factoring in the impact of such investments on other aspects of the aviation security system. We saw this most recently at TSA with the rush to acquire AIT machines following the 2009 Christmas Day plot. Given the budget-constrained environment in which TSA has operated for the past six years, and is likely to continue to operate, it is imperative that decisions on any major new investments in next-generation screening equipment be made judiciously.