- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

A Washington Dulles International Airport official yesterday denied reports that the airport's security office is under investigation by two federal agencies.

Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, disputed a statement by Argenbright Security Inc. that the Department of Transportation and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are investigating security shortcomings at the airport in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks.

Atlanta-based Argenbright Security, a private company that handles passenger security checks at Dulles, has come under scrutiny as federal officials race to find out how organized teams of terrorists boarded and hijacked four U.S. airliners.

Argenbright, in a statement issued earlier this week, said investigators were focusing on the airport security office's policies regarding the issuances of airport passes to unauthorized non-U.S. citizens, who then worked as security checkers at Dulles.

"We know of no investigation," Miss Hamilton said. "I don't know where they are getting that. If there is an investigation of that process, we don't know about it."

Argenbright President Bill Barber and spokesman Bryan Lott did not return repeated calls made to their Washington and Atlanta offices, but the company, in a statement issued earlier this week, said "Argenbright is not the focus or the target of the investigation."

The Transportation Department's inspector general said in a statement dated Sept. 14 that it had begun an investigation on the unauthorized use of noncitizens working as security checkers in secured areas of the airport.

A spokesman for the inspector general said he could not disclose details of the investigation.

Kenneth M. Mead, Department of Transportation inspector general, said in a statement to Congress yesterday that the airport-security system is so flawed that the government should create a private nonprofit corporation to take over security.

"Given the scope and complexity of the security challenge as we now know it, coupled with the long-standing history of problems with the aviation-security program, we believe the time has come to consider the option of vesting governance of the program and responsibility for the provision of security in one federal organization ,'" Mr. Mead said. "This entity would have security as its primary and central focus, profession and mission."

The Dulles investigation began in July, but it was stepped up a week ago in the wake of the Sept. 11 hijackings. Two planes from Boston destroyed the World Trade Center's two towers, one plane from Newark, N.J., crashed into a western Pennsylvania field and the fourth slammed into the Pentagon after taking off from Dulles.

Argenbright, which is hired by the airlines, provided security checkers at all three of the airports, but only at Newark and Dulles did the hijackers and passengers of the ill-fated flights pass through the company's security checkpoints.

The Washington Times reported this week that the company is on three-year probation and was fined $1.2 million for failing to conduct background checks on its airport-security employees in Philadelphia. The company was also on one-year probation in Illinois for failing to conduct background checks of security guards.

Argenbright said in its statement that the investigation is focusing on issuing airport-security passes to people who are not qualified or authorized and "Argenbright is not responsible for issuing airport passes."

But Miss Hamilton said the airport only issues security passes at the request of companies working at the airport.

She said the employees are fingerprinted and the fingerprints are sent to the FBI to conduct criminal-background checks. Then the employer, like Argenbright, receives the background check and requests a security pass be issued to the employee.

"The FBI sends the background check to the employer, who determines [eligibility]," Miss Hamilton said.

An airport-security pass allows employees access to most areas of the airport without being screened. The Department of Transportation has found the current system is ineffective.

The DOT found criminal-background checks are only required if there is an unexplained gap of 12 months or more. Statistics, however, show 43 percent of people convicted of violent crimes spend less than seven months in prison.

The DOT also said that the security passes can be issued to employees who have been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, larceny and possession of drugs.

The General Accounting Office, in a June 28, 2000, study of airport security, said the Federal Aviation Administration has been slow in implementing new security standards. The GAO also noted that the FAA had no minimum residency requirements for security checkers who are not U.S. citizens.

The GAO noted that other countries studied have a five-year residency or citizenship requirement to work in secured areas of airports.

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