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Sunday, March 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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GAO tests airport security screeners

WASHINGTON — Despite the multibillion-dollar overhaul of aviation security since Sept. 11, 2001, congressional investigators were able to sneak homemade bomb components past federal screeners at all 21 airports they targeted in an exercise.

The General Accountability Office (GAO) conducted the tests between October and January to determine the vulnerability posed by a would-be suicide bomber carrying easily purchased materials that could be assembled into a bomb once past security.

The GAO findings, first reported by NBC News, are classified, and the airports' identities were not disclosed. The GAO refused to comment.

The head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which oversees nearly 43,000 screeners at 429 commercial airports, didn't quarrel with the GAO analysis. Indeed, he termed it helpful as his agency focuses on its top mission: intercepting improvised explosive devices.

But Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Edmund "Kip" Hawley said the GAO testing doesn't take into account the many layers of security that occur before passengers reach the screening checkpoint and once they're through.

Among them: checking travelers' names against watch lists; analyzing behavior patterns; making security procedures less predictable; and deploying federal air marshals.

While deeming the report "interesting," Hawley said it is "not at all an evaluation of the entire system. It's a data point on that one particular thing."

At a Homeland Security Department briefing, he added, "This should not be an alarming report."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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