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Government to Provide Dogs To Sniff Bombs at Airports

By Pierre Thomas and Anthony Faiola
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms is developing a plan to train and provide bomb-sniffing dogs for up to 50 of the nation's largest airports, in a proposed new step toward tightening security for air travelers in the wake of last month's suspicious crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800.

The labrador retrievers, with highly sensitive and well-educated noses, could offer a cheap method of increasing protection against terrorist bombs in the near future while the government considers an ambitious, long-term plan to require installation of high-tech explosives detection devices.

To purchase and train a dog costs about $8,500, compared with up to $1 million apiece for some of the sophisticated machines that are available but that could take years to install, according to officials familiar with the proposal. Many experts argue that canines alone could not do the job, because they are unable to screen large volumes of luggage as efficiently as machines can and are not as effective at scenting the telltale chemicals used in bombs.

If the ATF plan is approved, individual airports would decide exactly how the dogs would be used, and how visible they would be to the average traveler. Today, dogs are used sparely at most major airports, where they are generally called in to clear aircraft or parts of terminals only when a bomb threat has been made.

Under the proposal, the dogs could make regular patrols in passenger terminals, or might be stationed out of public view and sniff luggage before it is loaded on planes, officials said.

The start-up plan, estimated to cost $7 million to $10 million, would significantly expand ATF's canine explosives detection program in Front Royal, Va. ATF has trained more than 100 labrador retrievers for Israel, Egypt, Greece and four other countries.

The ATF proposal stems in part from congressional concerns about airport security after an explosion brought down TWA Flight 800, killing 230 people, July 17. A terrorist's bomb is considered among the primary possible causes of the crash.

Terrorism legislation overwhelmingly approved by the House, 389-22, and sent to the Senate on Aug. 2 includes a provision that calls for airport administrators to "use dogs or other appropriate animals to supplement existing equipment for screening passengers and cargo for plastic explosives and other devices or materials which may be used in aircraft piracy."

In addition, the House has approved an appropriations bill for an ATF-Federal Aviation Administration pilot program for using bomb-sniffing canines that seeks to combine the expertise of both agencies. Today, each agency already maintains smaller dog operations, which are used as needed.

The plan being developed by ATF requires funding to be approved by the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget. It calls for hiring additional chemists and instructors to run the 17-week training program for dogs and their police handlers.

Local airport police would be responsible for using the dogs provided by ATF. The dogs and their handlers would each be recertified annually. The program could train at least 100 to 150 dogs initially, and expand as needed.

Some experts said the federal government can expect a mixed reaction from the traveling public. Although travelers consistently rank safety and security among their top concerns, they are often unwilling to accept the inconvenience - and sometimes additional costs - that come with those safety measures.

"Americans tend to think of free and unfettered access at airports as a requirement rather than a luxury," said William Norman, chief executive of the Washington-based Travel Industry Association.

"If these dogs can be put in place in such a way that travelers don't see them, or in such a way as to not slow things down, I think the public would be all for it," he said. "But if we see an element of inconvenience, travelers could very likely complain."

ATF's dog-training program was developed in 1991, after the agency entered into an agreement with U.S. State Department to train the canines for foreign countries under the anti-terrorism assistance program.

"A good dog can check an average-sized parking garage in 20 minutes," said Neil Livingstone, author of nine books on terrorism and security. "These are good, smart animals that are very effective at weeding out the terrorist threat."