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Twenty-seven years ago — more than a decade before the Transportation Security Administration was created — I tested security at airports’ carry-on baggage checkpoints, and screeners repeatedly failed to detect suspicious and potentially perilous items. Last week, ABC News reported that undercover Department of Homeland Security tests of multiple checkpoints found that screeners, their equipment or their procedures failed more than half the time, possibly as much as 80 percent of the time.
Details of last week’s failures are classified and were provided to the House Homeland Security Committee at a closed-door briefing by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General. At a subsequent public hearing Nov. 8, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, declared that the details were “disturbing,” the terrorist threat against aviation targets is high and Americans “cannot afford to wait” for improved airport security.
Similar sentiments were expressed to me by federal officials in early 1991, when two House subcommittees invited me to come to Washington, and Vice Admiral Clyde Robbins, the federal government’s head of airport security, flew to meet me in New York. They asked me to point out holes in carry-on baggage security, and we discussed solutions to plug them.
I was an investigative journalist for New York-based Condé Nast Traveler magazine, and I had just revealed that security at carry-on checkpoints and other airport areas was dangerously lax. Those findings were reported by Peter Jennings on ABC’s World News Tonight just hours before U.S. planes began bombing in the Persian Gulf War, and by Bryant Gumbel, who shook his head in astonishment on NBC’s Today show. The findings were particularly disturbing, because the federal government had said airport security had been upgraded to a high level because of the war.
Accompanied by former Continental Airlines security director Tommy Stadler, I tested checkpoint security at five major U.S. airports. We carried batteries and a clock that resembled a bomb’s timing device inside a lead-lined bag; the contents could not be seen by screeners manning the X-ray machines. We also carried video equipment rigged with wires and batteries to resemble a crude bomb.
Screeners failed to detect the items or do a thorough hand search of the items in 54 of the 55 times we passed through security. At Los Angeles International Airport, we asked a security guard on duty about the effectiveness of screeners’ X-ray machines, and, though we were total strangers, he told us it would be easy to sneak a bomb through security and told us how to do it.
I thoroughly discussed these results with Robbins, the Department of Transportation’s top security official, and the subcommittees. Robbins said Federal Aviation Administration personnel should begin testing checkpoint security as I did instead of relying on the agency’s test objects which screeners were trained, and often alerted in advance, to look for.
For decades after my meeting with Robbins, tests or investigations by the FAA’s undercover Red Team, the Department of Transportation Inspector General, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (formerly the General Accounting Office) have shown weak security at carry-on baggage checkpoints.
Not even the nearly 3,000 deaths in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — when terrorists carried prohibited items, including mace, pepper spray and box cutters, past security screeners — have led to ways to make the carry-on bag checkpoints secure. Last year, my investigation of the terrorist attacks was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, and it showed that the FAA, airlines and airports could have prevented or foiled the attacks if they had heeded intelligence warnings and fixed security holes at carry-on checkpoints.
In July, undercover agents of the Transportation Security Administration, which assumed the FAA’s airport security oversight role after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, succeeded in getting explosive materials, fake weapons or drugs through a TSA checkpoint in Minneapolis on 17 of 18 attempts, according to Minneapolis area TV station Fox 9.
Two years ago, TSA screeners failed 95% of tests to find weapons of the Department of Homeland Security’s undercover agents at dozens of airport checkpoints.
So last week, after ABC News reported massive checkpoint holes, I wondered why this country can send astronauts to the moon and have its citizens watch movies on mobile phones and enjoy other technological achievements, but cannot figure out a foolproof way to stop weapons and other prohibited items from getting through carry-on bag checkpoints.
I asked TSA why the checkpoint problems still exist and what needs to be done to finally plug the holes.
TSA spokesman Michael England responded by sending the agency’s statement last week after TSA Administrator David Pekoske appeared at the House Committee on Homeland Security hearing.
“We take the OIG’s (Department of Homeland Security Inspector General) findings very seriously and are implementing measures that will improve screening effectiveness at checkpoints,” Pekoske says in the statement. “We are focused on staying ahead of a dynamic threat to aviation with continued investment in the workforce, enhanced procedures and new technologies.”
The TSA says it is “pursuing” increased investment in screener training and “pursuing technology investments” related to automated screening lanes and computed tomography scanners. Such scanners, which the agency was testing at two airports in June, reportedly provide better detection capability than X-ray machines.
The key words I hear from TSA are “pursuing” and “testing,” and a congressman pointed out at the hearing that funding needed for improving checkpoint security is not in place. It surely sounds like the alarming holes will continue to go on and on and on…and on.
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