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THE NATION

Airport Security Flaws Bring Criticism

Screening: Employees missed a quarter of the fake weapons smuggled by undercover agents. Some argue searches should be more selective.

July 02, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The fact that undercover agents continue to sneak dummy weapons through airport security points to a need for better training of screeners and highlights the problems of a system in a difficult transition, Transportation Department officials acknowledged Monday.

"We are making sure that what we learn from these tests becomes incorporated into our training," said Mari K. Eder, a spokeswoman for the new Transportation Security Administration. "That is why we were conducting them in the first place."

Critics said the TSA's tests--in which screeners missed about a quarter of the fake guns and bombs in 387 smuggling attempts at 32 airports last month--demonstrate that airline security is still full of holes.

"It's old wine in a new bottle," said Brian Sullivan, a retired Federal Aviation Administration security agent who was calling attention to shortcomings long before the Sept. 11 attacks. He urged better use of profiling to focus intensive searches on a relatively small number of passengers.

Los Angeles International Airport ranked among the worst airports in the test, with a failure rate of 41%. But Eder cautioned against drawing broad conclusions about any one airport, since relatively few tests were performed at each location. Agents conducted an average of 12 tests per airport, although some had as few as five.

Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that operates LAX, declined to comment. "We don't know how the tests were conducted [and] we really don't have a sense of what the data means, if anything," said an LAX official who asked not to be identified.

Most airport screeners are still employed by private security companies, which are now under contract to the government instead of to the airlines. A better-qualified federal screening force is supposed to be in place by Nov. 19, but it is doubtful that all 429 commercial airports will meet that goal. About half of the current screeners applying for federal positions did not pass the initial selection process, TSA officials said.

"TSA is transitioning to a new federal work force and it may not be able to devote enough attention to the security companies that are doing the screening," said Cathal Flynn, a retired FAA security chief. "It may be difficult for the screening company personnel to maintain motivation, since many of them run the risk of losing their jobs.

"These are not good numbers," added Flynn, referring to the results of the tests. "But there is a lot more to it." He called for more sensitive metal detectors and X-ray machines at security checkpoints, noting that much of the current equipment was inherited from the airlines and is obsolete.

The TSA refused to release details of the test results, which were first reported Monday by USA Today. The TSA's Eder said the numbers cited by the newspaper were "accurate" but "incomplete," since they did not reflect additional tests conducted later in the month. "Those numbers are giving you a snapshot, but it is not a complete snapshot," she said. "They don't talk about other things that we are doing. They don't talk about the fact that we continue to do security screenings at the gate. As long as we continue to see that things are going through the initial screening, we will continue to do security screenings at the gate."

Sullivan, the retired FAA security agent, said the test results should be jarring because the undercover officers probing the system were instructed not to make dummy weapons difficult for screeners to find.

"If you can't notice easily identifiable test items, how are you going to recognize Semtex (a plastic explosive)?" asked Sullivan. "If there had been an attempt to use realistic terrorist tactics in these tests, they wouldn't have caught many of them."

A TSA official who asked not to be identified said that agency personnel were disappointed with the results. "The testing was so simple, it is not really accurate if you want to establish a baseline for [terrorists using] trickery," said the official. "It's still the same [flawed security]--it's just costing a lot more money."

Persistent problems with porous checkpoints are generating pressure on the agency to be more selective in deciding whom to search more closely among millions of daily passengers.

The airlines, pilot groups and many security experts are urging the agency to rely on computerized passenger profiling, which would lead to more intensive searches of a smaller number of travelers. Such a system is in use; a more extensive version is being developed.

The profiling system attempts to detect unusual behavior by prospective passengers, focusing primarily on travel patterns and financial transactions, not racial or ethnic criteria. Known as CAPPS--computer-assisted passenger pre-screening--it selected six of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers for additional screening. At the time, the only follow-up required was closer inspection of their checked baggage, which revealed nothing. Procedures have since been tightened.

"The screeners can't be asked to find every sharp item that exists," said Anya Piazza, a spokeswoman for the Air Line Pilots Assn. "TSA has to change a threat-driven enforcement model. We shouldn't be checking nonthreatening people."

Pilots and flight attendants are campaigning for a high-tech identification card that would exempt crew members from extensive searches at checkpoints.

The program could later be expanded to include frequent travelers who agree to a background check. However, such improvements could be a year or more away.

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