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RESPONSE TO TERROR | AIR SECURITY

United Faces Fines, Sanctions From O'Hare Security Breach

Safety: Transportation secretary promises a penalty for the failure to screen a man with weapons in his luggage.

November 06, 2001|ERIC SLATER and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CHICAGO — Having pledged a serious crackdown on airport security lapses, federal officials Monday called for sanctions and fines against United Airlines after guards failed to discover seven knives and a stun gun in carry-on luggage that passed through metal detectors at O'Hare International Airport.

Visibly irritated, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta promised Monday to impose a severe penalty on the already troubled airline after the incident Saturday night in which security workers failed to detain a passenger when two folding knives were found in his pants pocket, and also didn't see seven more knives and a stun gun in his carry-on luggage as it passed through metal detectors.

The incident has provided fodder for those in Congress arguing for federalization of airport security personnel.

"I consider the O'Hare failure a case of dramatic dimensions," Mineta said at a news conference Monday in Chicago.

Mineta announced last week a major effort to plug such airport security leaks. Since then, however, guards have pulled passengers off planes at 10 major airports to screen them again, and officials have temporarily halted several flights because of various suspected breaches.

"These failures," Mineta said, "are evidence to me that the airlines still are not making the necessary investment in security."

Subash Gurung, 27, a Nepalese resident of Chicago, was initially charged by Chicago police with attempting to board an aircraft while carrying weapons, as well as unlawful use of a weapon, police said, both misdemeanor state charges.

He was released on bail Sunday. When he returned to O'Hare to retrieve his baggage, however, FBI agents arrested him again, on a federal felony charge of attempting to board an aircraft while carrying a weapon. It was unclear why the FBI waited until Gurung returned to the airport before arresting him.

It was also unclear late Monday why Gurung was trying to carry the weapons aboard United Flight 1085 to Omaha. The FBI said there was no evidence his alleged crimes were a terrorist act, or in any way related to the attacks of Sept. 11 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Gurung, who is in the United States on an expired student visa, was ordered held without bond Monday by a federal judge.

According to Chicago city officials, seven employees and a supervisor for Argenbright Security Inc., which provides security services for United at its O'Hare hub, were suspended for failing to detain Gurung after finding the two folding knives.

Some of those same workers also failed to notice that Gurung had, in his carry-on luggage, seven other knives, as well as a stun gun and a canister of pepper spray, police said.

United workers, who for reasons officials did not specify Monday searched Gurung again at his departure gate, discovered the weapons and turned him over to Chicago airport police.

United officials declined to elaborate Monday on a statement issued by UAL, United's parent company, which said new Chief Executive Jack Creighton had met with Mineta to discuss the incident.

"United airport security systems are built to ensure that we are not reliant on one single element to defeat terrorists," the statement said. "This system is built upon a series of cross-checks and backup procedures, which successfully resulted in the detention of [Gurung]."

Argenbright, the largest airport security firm in the country, released a statement Monday, saying that Gurung had passed through the metal detector about 4:20 p.m. Saturday without setting off any alarms. An employee, however, noticed something in Gurung's pocket and questioned him. Gurung turned over two small knives, and "a full search was undertaken, which revealed no further prohibited items on his person," the company said.

His bag, unopened by screeners at the entry to the terminal, cleared the X-ray machine.

Knives and even guns can be obscured by clutter in baggage, security experts say.

Douglas Laird, former security chief for Northwest Airlines, said Gurung's weapons probably slipped past the first-defense guards because a screener was not paying close attention, or a bag was cluttered with other objects.

Under new security rules since Sept. 11, screeners X-raying carry-on bags are supposed to stop the conveyor belt and study each article.

"The person operating the X-ray machine should have taken more time," said Laird. "They should have resolved this."

Argenbright is currently on probation in a federal criminal case. Company managers at Philadelphia International Airport falsely certified that they had conducted required background checks on screeners. A recent follow-up audit by the Transportation Department's inspector general found that the company was still hiring screeners without completing background checks.

The incident at O'Hare, the nation's second-busiest airport after Atlanta's Hartsfield International, comes as Congress is debating the future of the aviation security system.

Lawmakers largely agree that the federal government should take over control of security checkpoints from the airlines, but disagree as to the level of federalization. A House bill would allow the government to contract with private security companies, while the Senate's version would require federal agents to do the screening.

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