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Marketplace (National Public Radio): Investing in security checkpoints

August 11th, 2006

Liquids may not be allowed back on planes for quite some time. Bob Moon looks at how much it will cost to implement a passenger screening system that can detect liquid bombs - and whether it's a smart investment.

KAI RYSSDAL: It's not new, you know, this worry over liquid explosives. We first heard about it a decade ago when another plot was foiled. So while you're waiting at security - both times, mind you, the main checkpoint and the new one at the boarding gate - while you're waiting, ponder why screening machines still can't find liquid bombs. And how much machines that can might cost. Here's Marketplace's Bob Moon.

BOB MOON: In a little more than three years after the 9/11 attacks, taxpayers had spent close to $5 billion on supposedly-improved screening devices for airports, borders, ports and mail systems.

Not only has it done nothing to prevent the hassles of the past few days, officials decided last year that rushed decision-making after 9/11 means that most of the equipment needs to be replaced. It either doesn't work or costs too much to operate.

Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff said today the public understands and accepts the latest inconveniences.

But the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, Bennie Thompson, tells Bloomberg Television that Chertoff needs to hurry along better equipment:

BENNIE THOMPSON: "If we move to the next-generation technology, the traveling public will not be inconvenienced. But until we perfect the technology, we have to go with what we have."

RANDALL LARSEN: "Everybody's got a lot of technology they want to sell, but first we need to be asking the right questions."

Retired Air Force Colonel Randall Larsen runs a homeland-security think tank.

LARSEN: "When you're thinking about 400 commercial airports just in the United States, and how much of this equipment we would need, you could see how quickly we could bankrupt ourself buying this. We're going to have to spend money, my concern is that we get the best return on investment for those tax dollars we're spending."

And others argue that terrorists will always be able to find workarounds.

Pratap Chatterjee heads the watchdog group CorpWatch. He says terrorists don't need high-tech gear to cause mayhem:

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: "Something that detects liquid explosives will work in preventing somebody in blowing up an airplane, but it will not stop somebody from blowing up a shopping complex or a movie theater."

Chatterjee suggests it's more effective, and ultimately much cheaper, to address the problems that breed terrorists, than it is trying to outguess their next move.

In Los Angeles, I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.



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