The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), working with US intelligence experts, built a large personal electronic device (PED) laden with explosives and tested it “on a real airplane, on the ground [and] pressurized,” US Department of Homeland Security  (DHS) secretary John Kelly said last week at a security forum event in Aspen, Colorado. “To say the least, it destroyed the airplane,” Kelly said.

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum July 19, Kelly described the circumstances behind DHS’ March 21 ban on allowing passengers from 10 Middle Eastern airports to bring large PEDs into the passenger compartments of US-bound aircraft.

“People should understand that there are people who work very hard, long and hard, to knock down an airplane in flight,” Kelly said. “Ideally, they’d like to knock down a US airplane in flight on the way to the United States. That’s their Stanley Cup/World Series, if you will.”

Kelly indicated a new device had come to the attention of US security officials, but did not elaborate on the intelligence’s origin. “This particular one was not only sophisticated, but it was real and it was targeted at certain airports,” Kelly said. “So … TSA built a device, working with the intelligence community, working with the FBI, they built two devices, actually, [and] tested them. We didn’t feel at the time that overseas airports had the kind of security initially that could give me a comfort that they could detect this device.”

With the successful test of the explosive PED, Kelly issued the March large PED ban, and by late June DHS issued a comprehensive set of security requirements for all US-bound international flights that included enhanced overall passenger screening, heightened screening of PEDs, increased security protocols around aircraft and in passenger areas, deployment of advanced technology and expanded canine screening.

In that June 28 directive, DHS indicated the 10 Middle Eastern airports could have the so-called laptop ban lifted if the airports complied with the enhanced security measures required by the US. Beginning July 1, when Abu Dhabi International Airport was removed from the list, the other affected airports followed, one-by-one, with their own respective departures. In his comments at the Aspen forum, Kelly announced “all of those airports, as of about an hour ago, are off the list.” DHS issued a formal statement declaring the end of the laptop ban July 21.

“We worked very closely with the airlines, airline advocacy groups, my counterparts overseas, [including] the Middle East, explaining what was going on. Of course I [could not] tell them too much about the intelligence, where it came from,” Kelly said. “[We] said to all final points of departure airfields in the world: ‘If you want to fly directly to the United States with large electronic components in the passenger compartment, you have to do these things.’ So in my view, globally, at least at those final points of departure airfields that come to the US … we are raising aviation security as opposed to just going after one single threat.”

“How it started was, we have a device that we don’t think we can detect with enough accuracy to give me comfort in terms of allowing it to go in the passenger compartment,” Kelly said. “That’s where we were then and the Intel had told us where the most threatened airfields/airports were. With these new protocols in place, that gives me sufficient confidence that we can detect [this device].”

Kelly said he was “reasonably confident” that devices will be detected given all of the new requirements.

“Many of the things, by the way, you’ll never see. It’s how we vet, it’s how airlines, how countries vet the people that work—the insiders, the people that work behind the counter, that load the airplanes, refuel the airplanes—you’ll not see that,” Kelly said. “If you travel in the Middle East, [you will probably] not see canines, but there will be canines. What you will see is additional testing of electronic devices. What you will see is a greater number of people pulled aside for some secondary screening based on the country, and based on an individual profile. Most of it you will not see, but I believe it raises aviation security adequately.”

Kelly foresees increased utilization of CT (computed tomography) technology, similar to CAT scan devices used in medical scenarios. “Your baggage goes through, for the most parts, CT technology. The next step is CT technology at the point at which passengers go through. Right now it’s X-ray and some other technologies. So the technology generally already exists. We just have to now start purchasing it. And airports will be required to purchase it in the out years,” Kelly said, adding the technology will likely be in widespread usage within two years.

“We’re not mandating … that airports, airfields, airlines have to do this,” Kelly said. “But what we are saying is, if you don’t do it, you won’t be able to fly to the United States unless you restrict the large electronic devices.”

“I can’t emphasize enough: There are people out there, very smart people, very sophisticated people who do nothing but try to figure out how to blow up an airplane in flight. So it’s not going to stop,” Kelly warned.

“CT technology’s the next thing. Who knows after that … the other issue is cargo planes [and] there’s a fair amount of cargo flown on passenger airplanes on a space available [basis],” Kelly said. “They are constantly looking for ways to do this and so … [we] are in a constant battle—a game, if you will—to stay at least two steps ahead of them. And we are.”

The 2017 Aspen Security Forum met July 19-22 and was organized by the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies organization based in Washington DC. 

Mark Nensel