Wednesday, October 22, 2003

A 20-year-old college student just made a mockery of Uncle Sam’s 50,000 member airport security army. Nathaniel Heatwole of Damascus, Md., carried concealed weapons — including box cutters and dummy explosives — onto two flights, stashing the goods on airplanes where they remained hidden for many subsequent flights.

Mr. Heatwole e-mailed the Transportation Security, Administration informing them of his actions — but it took the TSA five weeks after receiving the e-mail before it began investigating.

Naturally, the TSA is outraged. Deputy TSA Administrator Steven McHale exclaimed: “Amateur testing like this does not in any way assist us or show us where we have flaws in our system.” But this is from the same agency that continually portrays the 8 million fingernail clippers, cigar cutters, and other pointed objects it confiscates from travelers as proof the feds have made flying safer than ever.

The government’s gross incompetence in responding to Mr. Heatwole’s written notifications sparks memories of last year’s Beltway snipers, who complained of police and FBI “incompetence” in hanging up on their hotline phone calls.

TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark announced: “TSA will require contact center staff to flag messages that discuss illegal activity even if it does not contain threatening information, as in this case.” But if it takes a special management directive to make the agency respond to e-mails revealing gross security breaches, the TSA is beyond hope.

Perhaps the TSA can issue a regulation requiring that all e-mails exposing the agency’s security failings be written in Arabic — thereby providing a simpler alert system for TSA employees who may have limited fluency in English.

The TSA is trying to spin the Heatwole debacle as an aberration. In reality, the same pathetic results have been found again and again by private and by government testers of airport security.

The New York Daily News celebrated the first anniversary of September 11, 2001, by sending two reporters traipsing around the country, taking 14 flights on six airlines and passing through 11 major airports over Labor Day weekend 2002. The reporters carried box cutters, razor knives and pepper spray in their luggage. The News reported: “Not a single airport security checkpoint spotted or confiscated any of the dangerous items, all of which have been banned from airports and planes by federal authorities.” The reporters took their contraband through the checkpoints at all four of the airports used by the hijackers on September 11. The reporters were selected for hand searches several times but nothing was found. There were more security personnel and searches than a year before “but it amounted to nothing more than a big show.”

CBS News also celebrated the anniversary of September 11 by testing airport security. CBS employees, in a test co-designed by former FAA special agent Steve Elson, took X-ray blocking film bags through the checkpoints. The bags cannot be penetrated by the X-ray systems used at airport checkpoints and must be manually opened and searched by screeners. Seventy percent of the airport checkpoints failed to detect or examine the film bags — roughly the same failure rate that occurred six months earlier when CBS first used this method to test airport security. Screeners at Reagan National, Los Angeles International, and New York’s LaGuardia Airport failed to check any of the opaque bags.

The General Accounting Office revealed last month that the federal government is performing fewer covert tests of airport screeners’ abilities to detect weapons than it did before September 11. In the aftermath of September 11, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded its Red Team — an elite squad that traveled the nation to covertly test airport security. The FAA Red Team was abolished and replaced, according to former Red Team leader John Dzakovic, “by a Pink Team that now concentrates on paper audits handicapped to novice-screener skill levels, instead of mock terrorist raids.”

In the wake of September 11, the federal mentality toward airline customers is best summarized by the informal motto posted at the headquarters of the TSA air marshal training center: “Dominate. Intimidate. Control.” But it takes more than browbeating average Americans to make air travel safe. Airline expert Michael Boyd aptly observed: “The TSA is a poorly focused, unaccountable Washington political bureaucracy geared to screen for objects, not for security threats.”

James Bovard is the author of the new book “Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice & Peace to Rid the World of Evil” (Palgrave MacMillan).

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