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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. security measures could detect a non-metallic bomb like the one in the latest plot by al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, but key technology such as body scanners is not deployed at all U.S. airports, Obama administration officials said Tuesday.
U.S. and allied intelligence agencies in the last 10 days seized an explosive device that was an improved version of the "underwear bomb" in the failed Christmas Day 2009 airline bombing attempt, U.S. officials said on Monday.
Officials said the bomb and the plot to introduce it aboard an aircraft with a suicide bomber was the work of Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, considered to be the group's most dangerous offshoot.
There was no immediate sign the Obama administration was ordering changes in airline security procedures. The latest plot never came close to fruition and no aircraft was in danger.
The Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday emphasized the importance of security measures to air carriers and foreign government partners. "The guidance issued today simply reiterates and updates existing security guidelines and encourages continued vigilance in light of the recently apprehended device," a DHS official said.
Because the device was similar to the one in the failed 2009 attempt over Detroit by Nigerian-born militant Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, security steps taken since "would have been able to prevent this device from bringing down an airplane," the official said.
Other U.S. officials said that current airport metal detectors probably would have trouble spotting a device which had no metal parts.
But airport body scanners, which use light doses of radiation to scan through a passenger's clothes, ought to be able to detect "anomalies" which could then be further examined in a hands-on, pat down search, they said.
According to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, about 700 full-body scanners have been deployed to more than 180 airports nationwide since 2007.
However, there are about 450 airports in the United States that have federal security, according to the TSA.
A DHS official said there is a "multi-layered security approach which includes intelligence-derived watchlists, behavior detection, explosive trace detection and canines."
Security at international airports, which varies widely from country to country, is an additional concern for U.S. authorities.
Sheldon Jacobson, a University of Illinois professor and expert in aviation security, said airline security shouldn't change in response to the recent plot.
"The most important lesson to be learned from this finding is that intelligence information is what prevented this incident from escalating into an actual event," Jacobson said.
"More intrusive, indiscriminate airport screening is the worst possible response, and will ultimately make the entire air system less secure for all," he said.
The latest device appeared to be similar to the work of fugitive Saudi militant Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who U.S. sources believe is a bomb-maker working with AQAP. It was being studied to help prevent any future bombing attempts.
"I'm convinced that Asiri is behind this. He is an evil genius when it comes to bomb-making," House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King said on FOX.
"The FBI is exploiting it. We're trying to understand the different aspects of the design to make sure that we're able to take preventive actions in the future to prevent this or other types of devices from getting into areas that could threaten the American public," John Brennan, a White House counter-terrorism official, said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
The United States continues to take into account the latest measures from al Qaeda and will make adjustments as needed, Brennan said, adding he was confident the security system provides the necessary protection.
"Now we're trying to make sure that we take the measures that we need to prevent any other type of IED (improvised explosive device) similarly constructed from getting through security," Brennan said.
Other officials said security body scanners would almost certainly fail to detect a bomb implanted in a body organ or cavity. However, the public might find it unacceptable to be subjected to scanning by machines powerful enough to detect devices hidden inside a body due to the risk of exposure to excessive radiation, a U.S. official said.
U.S. officials have said AQAP has been working to design explosive devices which could be implanted inside suicide bombers and there were doctors willing to perform the necessary surgery.
What happened to the suspect who had the device seized within the last 10 days was unclear. Officials said the person was alive and either was captured or voluntarily turned over the underwear bomb to a foreign intelligence service.
The would-be bomber's defection or infiltration was handled by an allied intelligence service in the region, likely Saudi Arabia or Yemen, officials said.
Accounts differed over whether a suspected U.S. drone strike in Yemen that killed two members of al Qaeda on Sunday was linked to the operation that foiled the "underwear bomb" plot.
The drone strike was "part of the same intelligence-gathering operation that allowed us to keep the bomb from going on to the plane and also allows us to keep possession of the bomb," King said on FOX.
Other officials said, however, that the drone strike, which killed a senior AQAP operative, was not directly linked to the foiling of the underwear bomb plot.
On Sunday, two Yemeni members of al Qaeda were killed by a missile strike on their car.
Additional reporting by Karen Jacobs, Susan Heavey, Vicki Allen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman