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Airport Safety Woes Persist, Officials Say

January 24, 2003|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Problems involving baggage screening machines and security checks for foreign travelers persist at airports, government watchdogs said Thursday.

Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead said some of the large machines that many airports use to screen checked bags for explosives give off too many false readings. He is investigating to make sure the machines are functioning properly.

"We need to focus hard on the equipment," Mead said.

Meantime, an audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glen A. Fine criticized the Immigration and Naturalization Service for failing to correct significant security deficiencies at airports.

The report, released Thursday, found airports remain vulnerable to illegal entries by foreign travelers and escapes by people detained for questioning, as well as the smuggling of illegal immigrants, drugs and other illegal substances.

Fine said the INS has largely failed to implement recommendations aimed at fixing problems first identified in a 1999 audit. These include badly located or inoperable surveillance cameras, inability to videotape interviews with detainees, alarms that don't work and other security features never installed.

"We found that the INS had not even advised its own airport staff of the results of the prior audit," the report said. "Significant and ongoing deficiencies continue to exist at INS airport inspection facilities."

The Transportation Security Administration is responsible for overall security at commercial airports, but the INS has oversight of foreign travelers.

Acting INS Commissioner Michael Garcia issued a statement saying the agency would work closely with the TSA to address problems identified by Fine.

He called the audit "an invaluable tool in improving the safety and security of the traveling public."

The TSA was created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to take over airport security. Congress gave it until Dec. 31, 2002, to begin screening every checked bag at the nation's 429 commercial airports.

The TSA has said it met the mandate, but Mead is reviewing how well the new security procedures are working. At the same time, he praised the TSA for making enormous strides to improve safety, noting only about 5% of the roughly 2 million bags checked at airports each day were screened before the terrorist attacks.

TSA spokesman Robert Johnson said the agency is working with the inspector general to figure out how well screening machines are working.

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