Airport Security: A Work in Progress

A CNN Wolf Blitzer Report of February 23, 2004, on aviation security describes it as “a work in progress.” Recent reports to Congress by the General Accounting Office (September 24, 2003), and the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General (January, 2004), both completed more than two years after the Transportation Security Administration was created, indicate that “the work in progress” may not be keeping pace with events threatening the nation’s security from another aviation industry based disaster.

The GAO report focused on the training and supervision of airport screeners; the ability of screeners to detect threat objects; the ability of the TSA to implement and evaluate the contract screening pilot projects; and how to implement airport-specific staffing needs while reducing the screener workforce. The DHS report was undertaken to evaluate aspects of the risk level of the airport screener job; the depth of investigation appropriate for screener positions; the status of screener background checks; the process of verifying screener citizenship and personal identification; and the overall management of the personnel security program. Both reports contain recommendations for the improvement of the functions investigated. Both reports speak for themselves.

The Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center has studied the reports with great interest; and we continue to express great concern over the manner in which our nation has undertaken the formidable challenge of building the world-class aviation security system promised after the events of 9/11. We applaud the candor with which both the GAO and DHS have objectively pursued their goals in presenting an accurate picture of how the TSA has proceeded with its assigned duties to safeguard America’s domestic airports and commercial aviation system.

We have listened to the TSA’s responses to criticism from reporting agencies, the Congress, the media, and other interested partners in the effort to provide reasonable security against foreseeable risks of aviation crime, including the risk of terrorism; and we have heard their promises to the American people as well. We have complimented the TSA on its initiatives and we have criticized what we believe to be its shortcomings. We have spared no criticism of the Congress for its passivity in urging the necessary program changes to fill the gaps in our aviation security system, and for its failure to faithfully work to protect the security interests of the American people from future criminal terrorist events at airports and aboard airliners. And we have congratulated it for providing the funding to bring the promise of a secure commercial aviation system to fruition.

We have eschewed siding with the interests of any of the stakeholders in aviation except where we believed in the issue at hand. We have not and will not endorse any political party or political ideology, and we have accepted no money from any external source in our efforts to present our findings to the American public. We do this because we are dedicated to making a contribution to the effort to protect the flying public and those in the aviation industry who serve us from future damage, injury, and death resulting from a security breach in American aviation. We believe that the public has a right to know whether progress is truly being made to provide us with effective aviation security, and so we continue to raise our voice on the issue and plan to continue to encourage the media to remain vigilant in their efforts to provide the public with the facts about how successfully this work in progress, undertaken by government on our behalf, is unfolding.

Each day the successes and failures of the nation’s aviation security program find its way into the media’s reporting. It is axiomatic that the media will report that which is the exception to the rule; so far, aviation security breaches are still considered to be such an exception and the numbers support that conclusion. With approximately 2.5 million passengers flying in the U.S. each day, the reported breaches and intelligence alerts serious enough to affect the commercial aviation schedule remain a statistical footnote. In aviation security, the cause of a security breach must be determined and corrected quickly because, unlike with other risks, they are much likelier to cause catastrophic harm. In addition, because serious criminal acts, and specifically acts of terrorism, usually occur after a long planning process, it is difficult to remain faithful to the duty to foresee such acts and prevent them. That duty is itself at risk as it competes for attention, coupled with limited resources. It is therefore essential that those charged with the duty of providing aviation security in the face of a national threat do so with the conviction that they may well be in the front line of our homeland defense.

The Director of the CIA told the Senate recently that al Qaeda remains capable of “catastrophic attacks” and that they consider acquiring chemical, biological, and radiological weapons a “religious obligation.” These should be sobering words for those who claim that the risk of terrorism in America is lessening because we haven’t had another attack of the 9/11 magnitude. Minimizing the risk of terrorism in America is a fool’s errand, and only serves to undermine the efforts to provide real security against such acts. And failing to respond to repeated security breaches or avoiding the need to provide competent leadership and responsible management for the nation’s aviation security program offers a similar threat to this nation’s security.

Since last September, when the GAO presented its critical report to Congress on the training and supervising of airport screeners, a number of events have occurred which indicate that the DHS has not yet had the desired affect on directing the TSA (which it acquired from the DOT last year) on a path of reform.

Examples of the need for the TSA to reconsider its current direction abound. Rather than forge ahead with the development of a screening program for the 22 percent of all cargo which is shipped in the bellies of airliners, the TSA has supported a program to screen the backgrounds of workers involved in the handling of cargo. Most independent analysts, both in and out of Congress, have little faith in what amounts to a self-policing program on an issue so fraught with dire consequences for America.

Rather than finally addressing the mandate to screen the 900,000 workers moving unfettered about the ramps of the nation’s airports while passengers and flight crews are screened, the TSA continues to hide behind the idea that criminal background checks, which tell you if somebody has been convicted of a felony crime, is a sufficient obstacle to preventing the placement of explosives or weapons in baggage, cargo, or directly onto an airliner. On November 26, 2003, the New York Times, reporting on the arrest of 20 airport drug smugglers at Kennedy Airport in New York, quoted the acting assistant secretary of the F.B.I.: “A network of corrupt airport employees, motivated by greed, might just as well have been terrorists as drug smugglers….All of the baggage handlers and supervisors arrested . . . had passed standard background checks, officials said yesterday.”

The critical DHS report on the hiring and vetting of airport screeners submitted to the Congress this year has arrived, together with a score of reports of security-related failures resulting in delays and cancellations of international flights, the disciplining of TSA management and supervisory personnel, security breaches, and faulty screener performance and supervision. While pointing a finger at foreign commercial aviation partners for inadequate security and the need for sky marshals aboard their flights, TSA has been quiet about the need to cancel flights from domestic airports and serious security breaches on international flights originating in the U.S. Nor is it accurate to attribute the cancellations to a faulty screening process abroad when the cancellations were at least in part the result of our inability to match manifests with terrorist watch lists.

In January, a Sudanese man was arrested after arriving in London’s Heathrow Airport from Washington’s Dulles Airport with five rounds of ammunition in his coat pocket. This was clearly not the result of inadequate screening abroad but rather a serious breach here at home. On February 24, 2004, a spokesman for the TSA was quoted on CNN as saying, in support of TSA’s screener selection and training process: “Our screeners go through a rigorous evaluation before they’re even hired. Once they’re hired they go through an extraordinary amount of training.”

That the GAO and DHS in their reports don’t share that same view aside, the recent story coming out of the Denver International airport on the caliber of the personnel selected and the supervision under which they are working speaks volumes. A screener at the Denver International Airport, apparently not convinced that the TSA hiring and training program is as good as his employer claims it is, as well as other screeners from across the country, have put their bodies through the x-ray machines at screening stations to “see what their brains look like.”

Apparently, the TSA has not faired much better in the selection of supervisory and management personnel. An Assistant Federal Security Director in the Minneapolis Airport was accused by subordinates of “threatening to shoot baggage screeners and financially ruining their families if they did not do their job to his satisfaction.” (Congressional Quarterly, January 29, 2004). At the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, “A security screening supervisor at Sea-Tac Airport who had been accused of taking money from other workers seeking promotions was put on administrative leave yesterday while the investigation continues into his case and other issues raised by security screeners.” (Seattle-Post Intelligencer, February 5, 2004) The allegations were first raised in a letter sent from more than 200 workers, claiming the manager accepted $300 from each worker to help complete promotion applications. These stories, coming on the heels of the Dulles Airport Federal Security Director’s arrest on New Years Eve for DUI while a British Airliner at his airport was being quarantined and its passengers and baggage were being searched pursuant to terrorism intelligence information; and the investigation into the hiring of a former topless dancer as a supervisor and the hiring of his brother-in-law as a manager by the FSD in the Philadelphia Airport, round out a dim picture of TSA’s personnel selection and supervision policies.

The recent reports on serious security breaches coming from the nation’s airports also do not make much of a case for the competency of the nation’s aviation security program. CNN reported on January 25, 2004, that a woman passed through security screening at New York’s LaGuardia Airport with a stun gun and a knife in her purse. She later discovered the mistake herself and alerted authorities. The Associated Press on February 6th reported a story from the Los Angeles International Airport of the 19-year-old on probation from a burglary who was discovered in an airplane lavatory by passengers after he had “strolled unnoticed” past two security checkpoints onto a jumbo jet without a ticket. Not to be outdone by La Guardia Airport with its terrorism-sensitive security program, Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. needed to evacuate 200 passengers out of a terminal and off of airliners after “a woman wandered away from the screening area as she was waiting to be secondary screened.” K-9 teams and law enforcement searched the secure side of the airport; the woman was never found. (Associated Press, February 10, 2004)

In the face of the continued threat of terrorism, a disingenuous response to the serious failings of our aviation security system by government agencies charged with operating our airport security programs cannot be allowed to continue. That airport security remains “a work in progress” is to be expected, given the magnitude of the undertaking and the ever-changing needs to predict new threats and develop better security against them. But we must not allow ourselves to be misled with regard to the shortcomings of existing programs, the efforts being made to implement change and improvement, and the skill and abilities of those to whom we have entrusted this project.

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