- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 16, 2001

More than 80 percent of the departure-gate screeners and baggage handlers at Washington Dulles International Airport are not U.S. citizens, which makes completing full background checks on them difficult, according to Kenneth M. Meade, inspector general of the Department of Transportation.
At recent congressional hearings, Mr. Meade also testified that "non-U.S. citizens without proper" immigration status by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) "were authorized to enter secured areas of Dulles."
"Say someone is from Somalia, and they may be a wonderful person, but they have just been through a war and they don't have records," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican. "How am I going to do the background check? The records are destroyed, you just can't do it."
Mr. Wolf, one of several House Republicans seeking to federalize security and baggage screeners, said the public is at risk because proper background checks are not being done. He said the Justice Department should handle airport security.
He said the need for a federal takeover of airport security can be seen clearly in the Justice Department's recent finding that Argenbright Security Inc. of Atlanta had hired screeners with criminal records and did not perform proper background checks.
Argenbright, one of the nation's largest airport-security companies, provides all of the passenger security and most of the baggage handling at Dulles. It also provides security screeners for some parts of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Last year, Argenbright paid $1.5 million in fines and other costs associated with its failure to perform background checks on its employees. Between 1995 and 1998, Argenbright hired more than 1,300 untrained screeners at Philadelphia International Airport.
Argenbright officials yesterday did not return calls seeking comment.
The Senate last week unanimously approved an airport security bill that includes a provision for federalizing airport security workers. A similar bill has stalled in the House because of Republican concern about federalizing the screeners.
Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, said the hiring of foreign nationals does not provide the proper security needed.
"It's too important of a function not to have a higher quality work force," Mr. Moran said.
Mr. Moran said he does not want anyone who can legally work in the country to be out of a job, but part of the problem is that the low pay offered by the security companies $5.15 to $7 an hour to start usually attracts "the lowest common denominator" of the work force who lack the skills needed for sensitive positions.
David Barnes, a spokesman for Mr. Meade, said it is a "significant concern" that foreign nationals who have criminal records or are not in the country legally are able to get high-level security clearances at airports.
More disconcerting, however, is that security companies are not following regulations already in place that require background checks, he said.
Scott Brenner, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said his agency has concerns about the high number of foreign nationals working as security guards. "It's very difficult to do background checks on people who are not American citizens because they have not been in the country that long," he said.
Mr. Brenner said the FAA does require that criminal background checks be done on potential employees, but it is up to the private security firm to perform them. Some companies will cut corners by not performing the checks just to get "a body" that can fill a job slot, he said, because the labor market is tight for low-wage jobs.
The airlines, which are tasked with contracting with the security agencies, he said, "are looking at the bottom line."
The FAA, Mr. Brenner said, has begun auditing background checks at major airports across the country, including Dulles. The audits will make sure the security screeners were hired in accordance with FAA standards and that criminal background checks were performed on each employee.
Dulles has 33 airlines; and United Airlines, the airport's largest carrier, is responsible for issuing the contract with Argenbright, said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority. United officials did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
At Reagan Airport, three different firms including Argenbright each employed by different airlines operate security screening at the four terminals, Miss Hamilton said.
Federalizing security screeners and baggage handlers may not necessarily be the answer, said Sen. George F. Allen, Virginia Republican.
Instead of transferring 28,000 private jobs to the federal bureaucracy, Mr. Allen suggests putting airport security under the U.S. Marshal Service or the Justice Department and having the federal government oversee and pay security workers while outsourcing the contracts.
Tough new standards should also be in place so criminals, not just foreign nationals with checkered pasts, can never work as security screeners or baggage handlers, he said.
"I don't think the federal government should hire anybody who they can't do a criminal background check on," Mr. Allen said.
"It doesn't mean you can't work, but that you can't work for airport security. If you set a higher standard these people, [criminals] would wash out," he said.

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