The report, obtained exclusively by CBS News, details how GAO investigators conducted covert tests at 19 airports earlier this year to test the vulnerabilities of the passenger screening process. The investigators succeeded in passing through TSA checkpoints undetected with components for making improvised explosive devices (IED) and improvised incendiary devices (IID).
"Our tests clearly demonstrate that a terrorist group, using publicly available information and a few resources, could cause severe damage to an airplane and threaten the safety of passengers," the report states.
Investigators identified two devices a terrorist could use to cause such "severe damage." The first was an IED made up of a "liquid explosive and a low yield detonator." The second was an IID "created by combining commonly available products (one of which is a liquid) that TSA prohibits in carry-on luggage." The bomb parts were purchased over the Internet and from a local store for approximately $150, according to the report.
Specific details about the components and methods of concealment for these devices are classified, however the report states the components were concealed in carry-on luggage and on the bodies of investigators.
The report also details some of the interactions between TSA officers and the GAO investigators. On one occasion, a TSA officer did not allow an investigator to pass through with a small, unlabeled bottle of medical shampoo - a "legitimate toiletry item," according to the report. "However, a liquid component of the IID - despite being prohibited by TSA - was allowed to pass undetected through the checkpoint."
More precise technology, like so-called backscatter x-rays could eventually help screeners find hidden bomb parts, but that equipment is still being tested.
For, now the Transportation Security Administration is relying on 2,500 undercover tests every day to keep screeners on their toes.
"That means every checkpoint, every shift, everyday, every one of the four hundred fifty some airports that we have," says TSA Administrator Kip Hawley.
Still, the failures exposed by the GAO report underscore a long-held fear that a team of terrorists working together could easily beat the system.
"If you start to break up all the components over several different people, and you bring them in in different ways, on your person, in your carry-on luggage, how is a TSA screener supposed to put all those pieces together?" says CBS News security analyst Paul Kurtz.