TSA Still Vexed by Explosives Screening

TSA body scan.

In the wake of the unsuccessful Christmas day attack on a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit, U.S. security agencies are under fire.

The security breach revealed inter-agency communication failures. And in the years since 9/11, there have been other missteps - and misspent millions. CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews has more on how the Transportation Security Administration is still trying to get airport screening right.

When Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab attempted to trigger an in flight explosion, he also rekindled the fear every security official has felt since 9/11 - of a passenger smuggling explosives on an airplane.

"The number one area we need to focus on, the biggest potential vulnerability, is a bomb on the body," said Kip Hawley, head of the TSA under George W. Bush.

Eliminating that vulnerability has been a problem. Eight years since Richard Reid, tried to ignite his shoes, and five years since the 9/11 commission pointedly said, "The TSA and Congress must give priority attention to (detecting) … explosives on passengers," no clear solution has emerged.

For example, when passengers remove their shoes the x-ray machine can detect metal, powder or alterations in the shoe, but not the chemicals from a bomb.

For years the TSA thought the solution was "puffer machines" which do sniff out explosives. But more than $30 million later, there's only one problem: "What we found is the machines were constantly clogging and were out of service and that you end up in a worse case than not having them at all," Hawley said.

Hawley and other officials say the next best choice is full body imaging machine. These don't detect chemicals either, but would have found the package Abdulmutallab sewed into his underwear.

The system is not defenseless against bombs. The TSA has greatly expanded the use of dogs to detect explosives, and the machines used for secondary screening - when a passenger's bags are swabbed - do detect bomb making chemicals.

Officials firmly believe that had Abdulmutallab been flagged he would have gone to secondary screening and been caught.

More coverage from CBSNews.com:

Growing Al Qaeda Threat from Yemen
Abdulmutallab Lonely, Web Postings Suggest
Confusion Reigns Over Flight Security
Key Travel Agencies Lack Permanent Heads
Christmas Incident Renews Scanner Debate
Abdulmutallab's "Jihad Fantasies" Revealed
Behind the Abdulmutallab Security Breach
New Focus on Yemen in Counter-Terror Fight
Abdulmutallab Visited Yemen This Year
What Lies Ahead for Air Travel
Al Qaeda: We Planned Flight 253 Bombing
Obama: Plane Bomb Plot a "Serious Reminder"
Officials: In-Flight Restrictions Eased
Tracing Bomb Suspect's Journey to Detroit
Expert: New Security Steps a Smokescreen
Al Qaeda's Yemen Branch Rising in Stature
Many Questions, Few Answers in Terror Case
U.S. Failed to Catch Suspect's Active Visa

  • Wyatt Andrews
    Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.