By Blake Morrison, USA Today
In the months after Sept. 11, airport screeners confiscated record numbers of nail clippers and scissors. But nearly half the time, they failed to stop the guns, knives or simulated explosives carried past checkpoints by undercover investigators with the Transportation Department’s inspector general.
In fact, even as the Federal Aviation Administration evacuated terminals and pulled passengers from more than 600 planes because of security breaches, a confidential memo obtained by USA TODAY shows investigators noticed no discernable improvements by screeners in the period from November through early February, when the tests were conducted.
At screening checkpoints, the memo reads, “only the opaque object (such as a film bag) were routinely caught.” Guns passed through in 30% of tests, knives went unnoticed 70% of the time, and screeners failed to detect simulated explosives in 60% of tests.
Perhaps just as troubling, investigators “were successful in boarding 58 aircraft” at 17 of the 32 airports tested. “In 158 tests,” the memo says, “we got access to either the aircraft (58) or the tarmac (18) 48 percent of our tries.”
The Feb. 19 memo, sent from the inspector general’s office to top transportation officials, including Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, illustrates that major security problems remained in the months after Sept. 11.
Indeed, security might even have gotten worse after the terrorist attacks. Failure rates in the memo are higher than those in FAA tests cited during congressional testimony last year. For example, according to the General Accounting Office, “in 1987, screeners missed 20%” of weapons in FAA tests. Because knives were banned after Sept. 11, investigators hadn’t included them in previous tests.
Days after the inspector general’s tests ended, the new Transportation Security Administration took control of airport security from the FAA. But screeners remain employed by private security companies, overseen by TSA officials.
“We still have the same people doing the same jobs they did before Sept. 11,” says Reynold Hoover, an expert on counterterrorism who conducts screening seminars.
Hoover cautions that screeners are only part of the problem. Tests of aircraft security and access were equally unsettling, he says.
“The ability to access aircraft in what is supposed to be the most secure area of the airport, that is pretty frightening,” Hoover says. “The fact that they’re able to get in shows that there’s still a weakness in the control measures.”
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown says security agents “took aggressive enforcement action” during the test period. Among the actions: evacuating 40 terminals and deplaning 636 flights between Oct. 30-Feb. 16.
“Before Sept. 11, the FAA recognized significant improvements were needed in screener training, and we developed regulations to require better training and to give us more direct control over screening companies,” Brown says.
Other current and former FAA officials say the agency often ignored results of its own testing, failed to take corrective action, and after Sept. 11, did not dispatch its elite undercover team to test security.
A senior TSA spokesman says the new agency plans an aggressive approach to security ? both in training screeners and imbuing a new philosophy of vigilance.
“We have significantly enhanced what people are looking for and what procedures they go through to look for things,” the spokesman says. “Secondly, the training has been readjusted to meet the requirements and needs post-Sept. 11.”
In the next four weeks, 1,200 new supervisory screeners begin a 45-hour training program, then report to airports for two weeks of on-the-job training. “These are fresh people,” the spokesman says.
Whether the new approach or new workers will make airports safer quickly remains unclear.
Hoover calls the TSA’s screener training program “an ambitious plan,” but he says he expects dramatic improvements by November, when screeners become federal workers.
“Hopefully, you’re going to be able to raise their skill level,” he says.
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