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TSA should learn a lesson

Oregon editors say

The college kid's box cutter caper was stupid, but it was a wakeup call

The Oregonian

Why are we standing in long airport lines, emptying our pockets, stripping off our belts and holding our shoes, if a college kid can waltz through security with box cutters, bleach and clay shaped like an explosive?

Nathaniel Heatwole, a 20-year-old North Carolina student, smuggled the banned items aboard four Southwest Airlines jets and then e-mailed the Transportation Security Administration explaining what he had done. Five weeks later ' five weeks! ' the items were discovered in two of the airplanes' lavatories, not by the vaunted TSA, but by airline crews cleaning the toilets. Heatwole has made his point about this nation's new, improved and still vulnerable airport security system: Passenger screening is not nearly as good as the flying public fervently hopes that it is.

Meanwhile, the embarrassed federal government is preparing to teach Heatwole a lesson of his own. Prosecutors have charged the college sophomore with taking a dangerous weapon aboard an airline, a federal crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Heatwole's prank was stupid and potentially dangerous, but his punishment should stop short of prison. The college kid has done the nation a favor by demonstrating that airline security still is not as thorough or sophisticated as it must be in the age of global terrorism.

— This country has not made the kind of sustained commitment needed to truly secure passenger planes, says U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., ranking Democrat on the House transportation aviation subcommittee.

Most airports still are using older-model, one-dimensional screening equipment that can miss knives and other weapons, DeFazio said. Congress should spend the money to equip airports with the same sophisticated backscatter screening equipment now in use at the Capitol, White House and most other federal buildings.

Too, it was a mistake for Congress and the administration to abruptly slash the TSA budget this year and force the layoff of 6,000 employees. It's now clear that the TSA needs to be strengthened, not weakened by staffing cuts.

A federal inspector general carried knives, a bomb and a gun through Boston Logan International Airport's boarding procedures without being detected. Both hijacked airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center towers took off from Logan.

It's true that other security measures, including strengthened cockpit doors and onboard air marshals, are in place. Yet passenger screening still is the first and best line of defense. Screeners at two major airports failed to stop Heatwole with his box cutters and bleach.

No one should feel secure about that.