Security gaps persist in U.S. airports, all these years after 9/11: reports

Two internal audits suggest persistent security flaws despite the now-familiar routine of shoeless passengers
An Air Canada Boeing 767 (767-300ER) flies over the airport security fence on its final approach to Vancouver International Airport, April 1, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Bayne Stanley
Bayne Stanley/CP
Bayne Stanley/CP

WASHINGTON – A pair of embarrassing new reports have raised questions about just how safe U.S. airports are in an era of expensive, invasive anti-terror measures.

They point to persistent security flaws despite the now-familiar routine of shoeless passengers shuffling along in their socks to be virtually strip-searched by a body scanner.

The gaps were exposed in two internal audits, made public over the last week.

In the first, security staff performed abysmally during tests. Undercover investigators apparently waltzed through security with weapons and mock explosives, succeeding at getting those prohibited materials past the guards in 95 per cent of cases.

The second audit examined airport employees. It found 73 with links to terrorism.

People with ties to terrorism were employed by major airlines, airport vendors and other employees, said the report by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, which looked at hundreds of thousands of people with secure-access airport credentials.

It blamed an information gap. Certain types of terrorism links weren’t disclosed to the U.S. agency that handles airport security — the Transportation Security Administration.

The report was released with redacted sections. It blacked out the types of terrorism links that were exempt from disclosure rules. It also did not specify what types of ties those 73 employees had.

The report concluded with a half-dozen recommendations that the TSA agreed to, including broadening its data-gathering for prospective employees.

“TSA acknowledged that individuals in these categories represented a potential transportation security threat,” said the report titled, “TSA Can Improve Aviation Worker Vetting.”

The report also cited gaps in employee files. At least 87,000 did not have social-security numbers listed, 75,000 immigrant workers did not have passport numbers on file and 1,500 had a file that included a first name with two characters or less.

This is more than a decade after the Transport Security Administration took over passenger-screening in U.S. airports from private contractors.

It was part of a big, post 9-11 ramp-up in security, which also included the creation of a new parent agency: the Department of Homeland Security, which oversaw a near-tripling in the security budget.

In 2003, a few months after it took over airport screening, the TSA announced that it had fired more than 1,200 employees, after background checks showed many were convicted felons.

It fell under the spotlight again last week.

Its senior staff was shuffled — the agency’s leader Melvin Carraway was reassigned and replaced on an interim basis by acting deputy director Mark Hatfield.

This was after the someone provided the embarrassing details of an inspector’s report to ABC News. According to the media version, the still-unreleased report said undercover agents succeeded 67 times in 70 attempts to smuggle phoney explosives and weapons through checkpoints.

The cabinet member responsible for homeland security, Jeh Johnson said: “The numbers in these reports never look good out of context, but they are a critical element in the continual evolution of our aviation security.”

Congressional Republicans were a little more scathing. One announced that he’d be conducting hearings in the House of Representatives’ homeland security committee.

“I think (it’s) a dismal performance,” committee chairman Michael McCaul told CBS’s Face the Nation. “We know that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Khorasan group are constantly targeting aircraft through non-metallic (explosives) and such to blow up airplanes.

“With the high-threat environment … that we’re in right now, this is totally unacceptable.”