Damage control: Top-secret TSA lab is front line on terror

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Inside the TSA's colossal counter-terrorism complex at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., a conveyor belt is the lifeline of the TSA's test screening operation. (WLS)

An ABC7 I-Team Exclusive
Summer travel is predicted to hit record levels and Transportation Security Administration officials are sounding the alarm.

Long lines are expected to form at checkpoints and extra funding from Congress to speed up and tighten the screen process is still pending. In the meantime, TSA techs work in a top secret lab to defeat the next terror attack before it happens.

Inside the TSA's colossal counter-terrorism complex at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., a conveyor belt is the lifeline of the TSA's test screening operation.

When terrorists try something new overseas, the response right here at the Transportation Security Systems Integration Facility, or TSIF. There, bombs are mocked up, hidden in luggage and then sent on a screening journey to make sure airport technology would detect a threat and isolate the bag.

The stakes are enormous. Videos show the devastation planned by terrorists with shoe bombs, or other cells who built bombs disguised as printers and in 2010 tried to ship them to Chicago synagogues.

"They can recreate, make replicas of different bombs like the printer bomb and things like that. We purchase all of these different types of clothing material so we make we can make bags that are as realistic as possible. We may also utilize some simulants so we make sure the technology is able to detect threats no matter the size of the luggage or the shape of the luggage," said Stephanie Carter Naar, of TSIF.

It's not just luggage explosive detection. TSIF also works with what's called the Phantom Family: Dummies designed to mimic human skin and test passenger screening technology.

"We're able to put different types of mock explosives in different areas to make sure that the technology is detecting the explosives," Carter Naar said.

There is a smaller, lighter version of the TSA's current passenger scanner, designed for smaller airports. Though some many people think that when they go through the screener at the airport, it shows the anatomy, Carter Naar said that's wrong.

"It does not, it only shows this cookie cutter image and then no images are stores," she said.

TSA says their new technology only highlights areas of potential concern so agents can target pat downs, and they are no longer storing the controversial anatomy photos.

"These bounding boxes show that there's something in your pocket, something here in your middle area, maybe something-that's probably your watch," Cartner Naar said.

Ultimately, TSA safety experts say these bells and whistles don't matter; they're more concerned about the human factor - breakdowns in their screening process because of distracted agents.

The address those concerns they're shooting a Hollywood-style training video for their agents, showing how being too interested in discussing weekend plans could lead to terrorists slipping through the screening cracks.

"We have this technology here, you saw our facility, it's an incredible facility, but there's also a human aspect," said Mike McCarthy of TSA. "On a daily basis our officers are undergoing additional training, refresher training to make sure they're prepared to handle the public that comes to the checkpoint."

Once screening technology is approved at the lab, it's put into test programs at a few airports across the country to be sure it's ready for action in busy airports, including O'Hare or Midway.

Related Topics:
I-TeamterrorismTSAairport securityWashington D.C.Chicago - O'HareChicago - Midway Airport
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