The Security Week That Was: 11/16/07

Fear of Flying

I don't know about the rest of you, but my perception of airport security invulnerability that enveloped me following the Sept. 11 aftermath has taken a beating this week. While the U.S. Transportation Security Administration has certainly maintained its track record — keeping the continental skies safe from menacing 80-year old Baptist grandmothers from Mississippi and six-year-old Disney-bound youngsters posted on its “no-fly” list — it seemed to have difficulties this week.

A few chinks in the security armor arose with a newly released report on security vulnerabilities in the airport screening process from U.S. Government Accountability Office turned heads early this week, followed by the stunning revelation that dozens of illegal immigrant workers were allegedly using fraudulent ID badges to access high-security areas of Chicago 's O'Hare Airport.

Not to insinuate that the U.S. Congress is not on top of the situation, but one Illinois congressman thought it might be a good idea to propose federal legislation that would allow only U.S. citizens to hold airport jobs that provide access to sensitive security areas like planes, tarmac and baggage areas. Gosh, what a novel idea! The congressman also proposed that the feds take over responsibility for issuing airport security credentials, taking it out of the hands of locals.

U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) said he wants “federal security zones” created at all national airports, with the TSA having full jurisdiction. The feds would be responsible for background checks on anyone applying for airport security credentials and their legal status.

Obviously there is a hole in the current system that allows local airport administrators to issue access control/ID badges to employees who have access to secured areas of the airport, including the planes themselves. The fact that 30 illegal aliens were working at O'Hare with fraudulent badges is more than a little frightening. Kirk indicated that this was no way to run security at the second busiest airport in the world. Don't you just love a politician's gift for understatement?

The GAO compounded the TSA's bad week by releasing a new report saying terrorists, who had little trouble slipping past screeners with disparate bomb parts, could later assemble them to create an explosive device large enough to severely damage an in-flight aircraft.

GAO investigators ran these screener stings at 19 various airports around the country looking for holes in the passenger screening process. The investigators had success smuggling materials through checkpoints that could be used to make both explosive and incendiary devices. Investigators obtained all the components for the devices from easily accessible outlets at local stores and over the internet for less than $150.

According to the report, “By using concealment methods for the components, two GAO investigators demonstrated that it is possible to bring the components for several improvised explosive devices (IED) and one improvised incendiary device (IIE) through TSA checkpoints and onto airline flights without being challenged by TSA officers. In most cases, TSA officers appeared to follow TSA procedures and used technology appropriately; however, GAO uncovered weaknesses in TSA screening procedures and other vulnerabilities as a result of these tests.”

While the failures exposed by the GAO report are good for headlines and seem to bear out the threat a group of savvy terrorists could wreak havoc with a few simple devices, the findings are no big surprise, according to a former high-ranking FAA security official who preferred to remain anonymous.

“I could have written that GAO report. Almost everything in there was exactly what you would expect to hear if you have been in the industry. You can not prevent somebody who knows the system from using it to their advantage – and believe me, anyone looking to get explosives onto an airplane knows the system. We are not talking about some mad bomber from Montana here, but military-style trained terrorists who know how airport security works and the dynamics of an airplane,” the former FAA official told me in a phone interview.

“That being said, I doubt that the devices the GAO were bringing aboard would be powerful enough to bring down an aircraft, but they could certainly kill a lot of folks,” he continued. “There are just so many ways to configure these devices.”

Our source remains critical of what he called “knee-jerk security procedures” initiated by the TSA. “I have been a huge critic of the TSA's policy on screening liquids. It is window-dressing security that makes the politicians in Washington D.C. feel good and does little to protect the flying public.”

A look at the most read stories of the week: