Bomb-sniffing dogs missing at some high-risk airports

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Bomb-sniffing dogs that screen passengers aren't welcome in some of the highest-risk airports, because the airports don't think the canine teams would be able to handle a suicide bomb attempt, the Government Accountability Office says.

The Transportation Security Administration requires its canine handlers to be accompanied by two additional TSA personnel, who don't have to be law enforcement officers. Numerous airports have refused the passenger-screening dogs because they want law enforcement officers on hand in case the dogs come upon a bombing attempt, the GAO says in a report (.pdf) released Jan. 31.

But TSA doesn't consider it critical to have law enforcement officers accompany the canine teams. It also doesn't require that airports accept the passenger-screening dogs, and it told auditors that it deploys them to airports only where they're wanted, the report says.

As a result, some airport terminals and concourses on TSA's high-risk list don't have the canine teams.

Instead, TSA uses teams trained for passenger screening to screen air cargo or conduct training, though it already has several hundred canine teams for those and other purposes--an arrangement auditors say is hardly cost effective.

Canine teams that screen airport passengers each cost $164,000 annually. The next most expensive canine teams are the air-cargo screeners, which cost $159,000 annually. Most TSA canine teams at airports patrol terminals, ticket counters and curbside areas. They also search unattended bags and generally serve as deterrents, costing about $63,000 per year.

TSA does get some dogs at no cost from the Defense Department, through an interagency agreement. It also runs its own breeding facility at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

In response to the report, the Homeland Security Department said it would deploy its passenger-screening canine teams to the highest-risk airports, though it didn't specify how it will resolve the conflict with local officials.

TSA also told auditors that regardless of an airport's opposition to its protocols, it would deploy passenger-screening teams if it were to identify a specific threat. That, though, has never happened.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-13-239 (.pdf)

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