As TSA Claims Progress in Securing Commercial Aviation From Explosives, 21 Airports Show That Little Has Changed

In this instance, the test was to determine if the components used in “improvised explosive devices” (IED’s) of the kind being used with such deadly effectiveness against our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan could be smuggled through screening for assembly once in the sterile area of the airport. The tests were conducted by government investigators in 21 airports with unanimous success on the part of the investigators. The initial response from TSA to the report was to trivialize the tests: “While random items commonly found under a kitchen sink could conceivably be concocted into an IED, there are so many things that could go wrong with this hypothetical scenario that we find it highly implausible.” Hopefullythe author of that implausible comment has been appropriately enlightened. Since such IED’s are being produced all over Iraq by irregular combatants, one can safely assume that it is quite plausible to repeat the process here and without the benefit of a laboratory.

After some introspection, TSA has revised its initial response to yet another seriesof failed screening performances by announcing that it has since last fall put 18,000 screeners through additional explosives detection training. It must however be noted that TSA has given similar assurances of remedial action in the past when its screeners failed earlier tests for explosive detection yet they continue to perform poorly. Some will say that security for our airports is a work in progress and in time we will do better. Looking back over past TSA performance failures after promised re-training and upgrading however does not offer much promise for future success in interdicting explosives whether the “under the sink” variety as these were described, or plastic explosives favored by terrorists around the world, or other chemical explosives ranging from stolen dynamite to home-made nitrogen fertilizer bombs of the kind used from Oklahoma City to Bali.

Past Vulnerabilities and Their Remedies.
In September, 2003, Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center alerted by performance evaluations by the same governmental sources identified aviation security vulnerabilities that needed attention either because they were mandated in the ATSA legislation passed in 2001, or had been identified by federal agents testing the aviation security system at the request of Congress after a series of airport security breaches. In addition to the need for better training of screeners and their supervisors which has continued to head the list of security vulnerabilities, was the need for the security training of flight attendants,the acceleration of the program for arming pilots, airport perimeter security programs,the introduction of more effective explosive detection equipment for checked baggageand screening stations, the introduction of airport law enforcement security officers and the need to introduce physical screening for the 900,000 strong airport workforce to name just some of the security issues which remain a work in progress.

Despite the repeated efforts of federal law enforcement in breaking up criminal enterprise activities on airport ramps in all regions of the country where they have arrested workers involved in the movement of narcotics, ramp workers still continue to enter and leave daily without being subjected to physical screening. Even after other ramp employees were found to be illegal aliens working in sterile security zones with the highest level of security clearance and the identification and arrests of workers with significant criminal histories and outstanding arrest warrants, airport workers with access to restricted areas, cargo, baggage and aircraft are still not physically screened before accessing sterile areas. Each day we screen approximately 2.5 million passengers and in addition terminal vendors and flight crews, but baggage handlers, maintenance workers, cleaners, ramp-side vendors and others continue to move about sterile areas unscreened and often unsupervised.

Congress has asked that perimeter security, particularly to defend against shoulder launched missiles be implemented so far to no avail. Incursions directly onto airside roadways, ramps and even across active runways by unauthorized persons both on foot and in vehicles needs to be prevented, yet this to remains a work in progress. Despite some $100 million spent on research and development for protection against portable shoulder fired missiles, none of these programs has offered much promise in defending low flying departing and arriving airliners from this threat. Suggestions that in the meantime we consider the use of existing electronic surveillance systems and security patrols to secure often heavily overgrown airport perimeters or adjacent waterwayswith also have not received much traction despite the growing concern over these vulnerabilities.

The several initiatives to provide lawful and much needed passenger profiling, under discussion in 2003 and earlier, has still not come off the TSA drawing board. We continue to hear promise of passenger identification programs such as “Secure Flight,” mandated by Congress, yet TSA supports the implementation the Registered Traveler program in which passengers will trade private information about them and pay an annual fee in the $100 range in exchange for expedited security service provided by private vendors. These programs designed to better identify high risk passengers will in no way eliminate the need to search for explosives at screening stations which will still require detection systems that can do the job through chemical analysis as opposed to the visual examinations relied upon – technology that also remains a work in progress.

Government Testing and Government Failures
Each year the Congress asks the its investigative arm, the General Accountability Office (GAO) to take a look at progress in aviation security. The GAO, and the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, has looked at screener hiring practices, screener training programs, the performance of the Air Marshal program, the implementation of Explosive Detection System protocols and in general compliance with the Aviation and Transportation Security Act and amendments. They have reported back to Congress, and to the public when there findings are not classified. In September, 2003, the GAO reported on screener training and supervision and in particular on the ability of screeners to detect threat objects. In January, 2004, the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security investigated the risk level of the screener job, the depth of the investigations preceding screener employment, 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 agencies candidly reported that the TSA was continuing with a work in progress that had a long way to go before it achieved its goals.

Contrary to the TSA argument that reform was under way, problems with the center piece of the TSA aviation security program, the screening of passengers and baggage, continued to suffer security breaches that resulted in departure delays and the closing of facilities all around the nation. The 22 percent of America’s cargo that is moved byair continued to move without official inspection relying on shipper self-policing policies to ensure their integrity. The need to screen the movements and parcels of airport workers which TSA was and is confident can be handled by criminal background checks was highlighted with arrests of 20 airport drug smugglers at JFK airport. The U.S.Attorney commenting on the TSA background check program for those workers said”…A network of corrupt airport employees, motivated by greed, might just as well havebeen terrorists as drug smugglers…All of the baggage handlers and supervisors arrested…had passed standard background checks.” N.Y.Times, November 26, 2003.

Lessons to be Learned
The recent GAO report should not have surprised anyone familiar with TSA’s past performance. A workforce with the history of TSA’s screeners and managersas described in the scores of pages of GAO, Inspectors General, Think Tank and other private agency reports simply should not be expected to identify an IED in carry-on baggage. They have failed to identify guns, knives, swords and bombs in controlled tests and in actual practice; surely Congressman Mica who chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee knew what the out come of the recent tests that he called for would be. In commenting on the expected release of reports from the DHS Inspector General andthe GAO on screener performance in April, 2005, Chairman Mica said “A lot of peoplewill be shocked at the billions of dollars we’ve spent and the results they’re going to see, which confirm previous examinations of the Soviet-style screening system we’ve put in place.” (N.Y. Times, April 17, 2005). And the words of the DHS Inspector General spoken in January, 2005 as reported in the same Times article should certainly have served as a warning of things to come “…the ability of TSA screeners to stop prohibited items from being carried thought the sterile areas of the airports fared no better than the performance of screeners prior to Sept. 11, 2001.” In speaking to the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Inspector General, Skinner attributed the failures of our screeners to training, equipment, management and policy.

Sigmund Freud said that “being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.” It is time for the TSA leadership and that of DHS to take those words to heart when evaluating the performance of the nation’s aviation security program, particularly as it relates to airport screening. TSA must understand that if they cannot train screeners to identify knivesand guns in carry-on bags during tests at screening stations, believing that their recent screener training will be effective in interdicting IED’s is not being honest. Repeated failure to produce competent screening proves that little progress is being made despite a huge expenditure. Securing airports from the perimeter in has similarly shown little progress with the example of several unauthorized vehicles having by-passed security at airports around the nation in recent weeks. The challenge of detecting suicide bombers as well as securing air cargo from exposure to terrorists bent on introducing explosivesand weapons of mass destructions also remains a work that has seen little progress. If real progress is to be made, a new force of screeners and managers with proven skills,better equipment and talented leadership is needed.


To fight a war, we need trained soldiers – even in the domestic war on terrorism. Almost daily, American soldiers are returning home and re-entering civilian society. Sadly for all of us, the war on terrorism these men and women have fought for their nation overseas needs also to be fought at home. To fight that war in our airports we need some of the same training and skills our soldiers needed abroad. They have handled civilian crowds tactfully yet firmly. They can profile a human threat far better than most now being asked do so in our transportation facilities. Who can better respond quickly and efficiently to a terrorist act than they? Where can we find a group better prepared to identify IEDs, plastic explosives, and other weapons than among them? They have been trained, vetted, and have the discipline and leadership for the job, let’s offer it to them so that we can bring this work in progress, the building of a secure commercial aviation system, to completion without too much further delay.

Produced in ReadSmart®

Share this post: