National News

TSA Machines That Detect Bombs Belong in Subways, Schumer Says

Posted December 17, 2017 10:16 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Less than a week after a man detonated a pipe bomb strapped to his chest in a crowded subway corridor in Manhattan, Sen. Chuck Schumer urged the federal government on Sunday to speed up the rollout of a technology that can detect concealed explosives in crowded areas.

“ISIS said they are going to continue to look at subways as a target with suicide bombers,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said at a news conference at a station at 53rd Street and Third Avenue. “The good news is there is technology being developed that can actually detect explosives and suicide vests in subways.”

The attack last week in the heart of Manhattan materialized a scenario that the police had long dreaded: an attempted suicide bombing, a plot exceedingly difficult for the police to stop once it has been set into motion.

Since 2004, the Transportation Security Administration has been testing machines that can detect whether a person is concealing an improvised explosive device in crowded mass transit environments. Schumer called on the agency to speed up the tests and deploy the machines in New York City subways, bus stations and airports.

The machines, called stand-off explosive detection units, can detect metallic and nonmetallic explosive devices on people walking past by spotting an obstruction of the emissions naturally given off by bodies, according to the agency’s website. An alarm is triggered if a threat is detected.

Schumer on Sunday lauded the technology and called on the agency to partner with transit agencies in the city and bring it to New York permanently.

The agency is currently testing the equipment in Los Angeles. The machines, which resemble film projectors on tripods and are meant to be operated by local transit employees, have also been tested in partnership with Amtrak, New Jersey Transit and other mass transit agencies.

“The new tech will be rolled out if and when its effectiveness has been demonstrated by thorough testing,” Michael England, a spokesman for the agency, said on Sunday.

But Schumer said the agency “has shown too lax an attitude.”

“I am telling TSA, ‘Wake up,'” Schumer said. Referring to attacks, he continued, “We need to be able to defend against them with increasing diligence and effectiveness, and the idea that we have this technology is good, but the idea that it’s taken so long to develop is bad.”

“Imagine the relief if we knew that at the entrance of every subway there was a machine like this that could detect a suicide bomber and stop them before they could do their evil deed,” he added.

The suspect in the attack last week, Akayed Ullah, a 27-year-old immigrant from Bangladesh, told investigators that he chose the crowded passageway between subway stations because of its Christmas-themed posters and that he detonated the bomb in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State targets in the Middle East.

Ullah built a pipe bomb and fastened it to his body, law enforcement officials said. The so-called lone wolf attack was the third one in New York City since September 2016.

New York City law enforcement officials have foiled suicide attacks in the past.

In 2009, Najibullah Zazi and two friends were accused of planning to strap explosives to themselves and board crowded trains during rush hour at the Grand Central and Times Square stations. Zazi pleaded guilty to what officials at the time described as one of the most serious threats to the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The police also arrested two men with Jordanian passports in 1997 when officers found them in a Brooklyn apartment making pipe bombs that officials said were part of a terrorist plot to detonate bombs in the Atlantic Avenue subway station and on a commuter bus.