Updated Jan. 6, 2010
Jonathan Alcom for the New York Times
Under Times Topics
The Department of Homeland Security has spent $40 billion rebuilding the aviation security system since the terror attacks of 2001. Congress pulled responsibility for aviation security out of the Federal Aviation Administration and created the Transportation Security Administration, which also assumed control of security for other modes of transportation. Much work that was formerly done by the airlines or private contractors is now done by federal employees.
The years of effort have created a security net that is much stronger in key areas, from simple things like secure cockpit doors to the routine inspections now done on checked baggage.
But a self-proclaimed terrorist's attempt to bring down a passenger jet headed to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, exposed gaps in the system. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian charged in the attempted attack, was able to board a plane even after his father was so alarmed by his son's radical talk that he contacted U.S. officials after his son disappeared while studying abroad.
The incident led to an immediate increase in security efforts at airports. Less than two weeks after the attempted attack, the Obama administration mandated extra scrutiny - including full-body pat downs - for people flying into the United States from 14 mostly Muslim countries. Under the new rules, all citizens of Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen must receive a pat down and an extra check of their carry-on bags before boarding a plane bound for the United States, officials said. Citizens of Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria - nations considered "state sponsors of terrorism" - face the same requirement.
As officials began another round of struggles to strengthen the country's aviation security system, a review of government audits and interviews with experts inside and outside the government showed that the system has been slow to make some large changes because of a balky bureaucracy, fickle politics and, at times, airline industry opposition. It has also squandered tens of millions of dollars on faulty technology, like high-tech "puffer" machines that repeatedly broke down and flunked the most basic test: they failed to detect some explosives.
As a result, the government has delayed putting in place some of the most important recommendations from the Sept. 11 commission report, which examined the missteps that led to attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.
For example, the government has yet to fully deploy a sophisticated method of matching passenger names with terrorist watch lists. And it has still not finished changes that would make it harder for terrorists to sneak bombs into airplane cargo holds, according to government reports.
Officials from both the Obama and Bush administrations argue that the progress is real, and they contend that with additional steps since the Christmas incident, and others under way, a robust security network is in sight.