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STANFORD -- Used in conjunction with other tools, technology is government's most effective defense against airline terrorism, a Stanford scholar says.

"This is the field in which the targets, often advanced Western states, may have a decided advantage over the terrorists," said Anthony Fainberg, a physicist on leave from the federal Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control.

Technology is not, however, an instant fix, Fainberg said.

"You can't exclude the possibility of one particular technology being the answer sometime in the future, but it sure doesn't look that way now," he said.

For example, X-rays currently are easy for a knowledgeable saboteur to get around, Fainberg said. Newer techniques - such as thermal neutron analysis and nuclear resonance absorption - will improve the efficacy of defenses, Fainberg wrote in the March 20 issue of Science magazine.

And a mix of technologies could confuse terrorists, who would not know which airport uses which devices, he said.

"Each airport would likely pick its own combination from a suite of approved techniques that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would have," Fainberg said.

One problem is producing devices that not only discover explosives but do so without producing an unacceptable number of false alarms. Additionally, the devices must be able to handle the huge flow of baggage through large airports or the airlines will fiercely resist their introduction.

"Right now, the FAA is talking about international flights," Fainberg said. "If you're talking about domestic flights as well, there's about a billion bags a year, which is an extremely large number."

Dogs remain the most sensitive detector, but each dog requires an individual handler and dogs get bored after about 20 minutes, Fainberg said.

Humans checking carry-on luggage are often paid minimum wage and also get bored after 15 to 20 minutes, he said. Some airlines are beginning to change that pattern, Fainberg said, but at U.S. airports it remains the norm.

American airports do not rate the highest priority, he said.

"Right now there doesn't seem to be much of a domestic threat on aircraft," Fainberg said.

"Most of the people who put bombs on aircraft are either from the Middle East or from South America and there's a certain logistic difficulty in transporting not only the equipment but the infrastructure for an attempt like that.

"I would not rule it out at all, but the general perception is that the threat is generally in the Middle East and Europe."

Airplane sabotage has lessened since the Gulf War, Fainberg said, largely because international security forces joined efforts to disrupt the terrorists' infrastructure, and the fall of communism has cost the terrorists their most important logistical allies.



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