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The Nation

New Airport Screeners Failing Tougher Tests, Officials Say

May 11, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Undercover agents continue to regularly sneak mock bombs and weapons past federal airport security screeners, despite the $5 billion a year taxpayers are spending to safeguard aviation, government and industry officials say.

The Transportation Security Administration refused to discuss specific undercover testing results and methods, but said the inspections are much tougher than those conducted before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"In the old days, the test items consisted of things you might see in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon," said TSA spokesman Robert Johnson. The agents' "job now is to go out and break the system, so we can improve the system."

Because the TSA undercover tests are more sophisticated, Johnson said "you cannot compare" the failure rates of federal screeners with those of the previous minimum-wage screeners employed by the airlines.

But the failures have alarmed lawmakers overseeing the agency, who point out that Al Qaeda operatives would also be expected to use sophisticated subterfuge to get weapons and explosives aboard an airliner.

"If the tests are tougher and the screeners are still failing, then we've got a problem," said Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee. "The feedback I'm getting is that results aren't much different than when we had a private workforce."

Mica has asked Congress' watchdog agency, the General Accounting Office, to evaluate the performance of TSA screeners and its undercover testing program. Private screeners failed a quarter of the time in one series of tests performed last year, before the federal takeover of airport security was complete.

Several federal screeners said the problem is insufficient training.

"It's real easy to spot scissors, but people who want to get weapons on board are going to be more clever," said a screener at Los Angeles International Airport. "We are not getting familiar with the stuff I think we need to get familiar with, particularly explosives."

Some also said that the agency, in its rush to hire staff last year, took on some screeners who don't take the job seriously.

"Part of the problem is they've got incompetent people who don't realize they are guarding a plane that's going to be 35,000 feet in the air, as opposed to guarding your local Target store," said a senior screener at a Bay Area airport.

The screeners asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs.

Shortly after he was appointed last summer, TSA chief James M. Loy told reporters one of his main goals was to set up a realistic and rigorous system for inspecting the screeners.

Government and aviation industry officials say the results of TSA's testing have been disappointing.

The pass/fail rate is classified, said a government official who has been briefed on the testing, but "if you look at it on strictly percentage terms, it's no better" than before Sept. 11. The official acknowledged, however, that "the testing is not easy."

Aggressive testing will not result in a 100% detection rate, said Cathal Flynn, who headed the Federal Aviation Administration's security branch during much of the 1990s. Homemade bombs assembled by experts are particularly hard to catch, he said.

"If you don't see a pistol, you're obviously asleep," said Flynn, "but improvised explosive devices can be quite subtle. Finding them is a 50-50 proposition, and even people who are very good can fail the test."

Working an airport X-ray machine can be repetitive work. A screener has only an instant to evaluate what's inside each bag. Even the best miss "threat objects" about 20% of the time in realistic testing, experts said.

TSA spokesman Johnson said the agency's undercover teams deliberately try to breach security. "They consider themselves the friendly terrorists," Johnson said. "It's their job to find the holes and plug them."

Although airport police are notified just prior to the test -- to prevent misunderstandings that could lead to violence -- screeners do not know the inspectors and are not told they are coming, Johnson said. One member of the undercover team scouts the checkpoint, selecting a lane that might offer an opportunity. The team is looking for problems with equipment, procedures or people.

After the test, inspectors meet with the screeners to discuss what they did right or wrong. Since its inception a few months ago, Johnson said the testing already has led to several changes in procedures.

Screeners have confiscated more than 5 million prohibited items at checkpoints in the last 13 months, including more than 1,160 firearms.

But among the more than 55,000 federal screeners checking passengers and bags, some joke that TSA's initials stand for "taking scissors away" and they worry about their ability to spot more deadly objects.

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