- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Demanding answers from industry experts Tuesday, lawmakers warned that while passenger screening at airports usually works, a lack of comprehensive screening for airport workers and airline employees could threaten national security.

A Congressional hearing Tuesday was convened after two major incidents where airport and airline employees brought loaded weapons onto a plane. On Dec. 23, agents arrested an Atlanta airport baggage handler for using flights to smuggle guns to New York. A few weeks later, on Jan. 13, police arrested an aviation safety official who flew with a loaded gun in his luggage.

“It is vital that the agencies responsible for protecting our airports are doing all that they can to keep our aviation sector safe,” said Michael McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “This responsibility does not end at the passenger screening checkpoints. A robust system of vetting employees at airports is equally as important.”

The two incidents in only the last two months has national security officials working to ensure passenger safety and Congressional leaders demanding answers.

“What good is all of this screening at the front door if we are not paying enough attention to the backdoor?” said Rep. John Katko, New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security.

Lawmakers called upon a panel of Transportation Security Administration officials and air travel experts to answer how they are making sure security screening is as extensive and rigorous for airport workers as it is for passengers.

The FBI labeled the December arrest of Eugene Harvey, a 31-year-old baggage handler at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, as a “serious security breach.” Agents believe that Mr. Harvey may have smuggled as many as 150 guns in carry-on baggage from Georgia to New York, where his accomplices sold the weapons illegally.

Also, a Federal Aviation Administration safety inspector flew from Atlanta to New York with a loaded firearm. As part of his inspection duties, he flew inside the cockpit, leading police to arrest him as soon as the plane set down at LaGuardia.

Though neither incident was meant to harm passengers, it’s caused officials concerns over security procedures.

“These alarming incidents could have had devastating consequences if those involved had intended to carry out an attack,” Mr. Katko said.

In both instances, the employees used their Security Identification Display Area badges (“SIDA” for short) that let employees access secure areas of airports not available to the general public, and often allow employees to bypass security checkpoints.

Mark Hatfield, acting deputy administrator at the TSA, said the agency vets all airport worker applications against their Terrorist Screening Database, but added that without additional resources it isn’t possible to do a thorough, top-level security check of each and every employee

“Airport workers are vetted before they are granted unescorted access to the secure area of the airport,” he said. “We weed out potential bad actors however, we must balance the importance of conducting checks on employees with the need to facilitate air travel, and so have designed a system of background checks, inspections and random checks as a risk-based approach to access control.”

On Jan. 24, the FBI arrested yet another Atlanta employee for boarding a flight to Paris without going through screening checks first — and again using a SIDA badge to bypass security. But despite all three recent incidents occurring in Atlanta, lawmakers said the problems extends to all airports.

Sharon Pinkerton, a representative for industry trade organization Airlines for America, provided a list of suggested changes to lawmakers to improve security. They included having local law enforcement notify federal agencies of a criminal investigation against an airport employee and expanding the number of crimes that would disqualify someone from carrying a SIDA badge.

“The airline industry regards any breach of civil aviation security as unacceptable,” she said. “Such breaches need to be carefully examined, root causes identified, and appropriate corrective actions formulated and implemented.”

Mr. Katko said he was encouraged by the willingness of airlines to work with Congress.

“Instead of sweeping it under the rug, the industry’s realized there is a problem and we’re going to work together to fix it,” he said.

But Mr. Katko cautioned that Americans must remain vigilant in protecting the nation’s airports.

“The reality is that the threats we face today are not the same threats we faced two, three, or even four years after 9/11,” he said. “Nearly 14 years later, terrorists have adapted to our security protocols in ways that require us to be agile and resourceful. We cannot afford to be set in our ways and risk missing a glaring vulnerability.”

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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