In the News

Major Gaps in Airport Employee Screening Threaten Homeland Security

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Amanda Vicinanzo (Homeland Security Today), February 6, 2015 | comments
After several high profile security breaches involving airport personnel smuggling firearms onto commercial flights after bypassing security, lawmakers are discussing ways to bolster access control measures to deter and prevent future incidents, including 100 percent employee screenings, increased random screenings, expanding the list of disqualifying crimes for employees and more frequent criminal history records checks.

On Tuesday, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Transportation Security held a hearing to discuss airport access control measures after several alarming security incidents, including the December 23, 2014 arrest of a Delta baggage handler at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for gun smuggling the FBI called a “serious security breach.”

Just weeks after the arrest of the Delta airlines worker, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety inspector reportedly bypassed security and flew from Atlanta to New York with a gun in his carry-on baggage.

As Homeland Security Today reported last month, the FAA employee used a Security Identification Display Area (SIDA) badge to avoid Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening and gain access to a secure area of Hartsfield-Jackson airport.

Most recently, on January 24th, the FBI arrested another Delta employee at Atlanta airport for boarding a flight to Paris without being screened. Similar to the other two incidents, the worker used his SIDA badge to gain entry to the sterile area of the airport.

“TSA spends billions of dollars every year to ensure every passenger is screened before boarding a commercial flight,” said Rep. John Katko (R-NY) who chaired the hearing. “What good is all of this screening at the front door if we are not paying enough attention to the backdoor?”

“The reality is that the threats we face today are not the same threats we faced two, three, or even four years after 9/11,” Katko said. “Nearly 14 years later, terrorists have adapted to our security protocols in ways that require us to be agile and resourceful. We cannot afford to be set in our ways and risk missing a glaring vulnerability.”

In his remarks before the hearing, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said that in addition to the most recent access control breaches at Atlanta airport, there have also been a number of insider threats and employee issues at various other airports in recent years.

In September 2013, a TSA screener at Los Angeles International Airport was arrested a few hours after resigning his position for making threats against the airport that cited the anniversary of 9/11. In the following December, the FBI arrested an avionic technician at Wichita Airport for plotting a suicide attack using a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.

Most recently, in September 2014, a former airline employee at Minneapolis Airport died in Syria fighting alongside the Islamic State (ISIS).

“There are significant lessons to be drawn from these and other incidents involving employees,” McCaul said. “The bottom line is that our aviation network remains a prime target for terrorism. We must be vigilant and constantly reevaluate our security posture according to the threats we face, and that includes potential insider threats.”

In examining which security programs to put in place to mitigate potential airport insider threats, Miguel Southwell, general manager for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, noted it is important to remember that every airport is different, saying, “Each is unique in its configuration, and each is unique in terms of its risk profile. As such, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to airport security.”

Southwell advocated some minimum standard of employee screening at all US airports. At Hartford-Jackson airport, Southwell said the aviation department is working with TSA, Customs and Border Protection, the FAA, airlines and other key stakeholders to immediately implement new security measures.

Among these measures is reprogramming SIDA badges based on employee job function and work location so the number of access portals through which an employee can enter the airport’s secured areas is reduced.

Southwell asserted, however, that “100 percent screening of airport employees has operational and cost challenges, and is neither practical nor sustainable.”

In agreement, Mark Hatfield, TSA's acting deputy administrator, said the Homeland Security Institute (HIS) determined in 2008 that “100 percent physical screening of all airport employees is both cost prohibitive and poses a wide range of operational challenges."

For example, HSI found 100 percent screening causes long delays in the screening process. Many employees, for instance, wear steel-toed shoes for safety at work, which can cause a delay in screening through a magnetometer.

According to Hatfield, HSI also determined that random is nearly as effective as 100 screening, stating they “did not see a clear distinction between the number of items confiscated at 100 percent versus random screening airports.”

Hatfield said, “TSA is examining its legal authorities to assess if additional measures may be required or imposed to enhance security.”

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) recommended airports beef up employee screening, require local law enforcement agencies to notify federal law enforcement any time an airport employee is undergoing a criminal investigation, and conduct background checks that go back further than ten years.

“Number one, we need to beef up employee screening. If an airline employee can get 153 guns into an airport and onto a plane, the current system isn’t cutting it,” Rice said. “A passenger or an employee who works at the gate wouldn't get away with that, because they have to go through metal detectors. I think we need to seriously consider requiring the same measure for airline and airport employees who have access to secure areas."

“Number two," she said, "I think we need a requirement under the law that local law enforcement agencies notify federal law enforcement agencies any time an airport or airline employee is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation."

Finally, Rice recommended that, “a ten year ‘look back’ period for employee criminal background checks is not enough. Criminal background checks should cover at least 20 years, if not more, and they should be recurring, not performed only at the time of hire. That’s just common-sense, and I see no reason why we can’t make those changes.”

Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy for Airlines for America, also highlighted these initiatives, calling for tighter controls over SIDA access control areas, lengthening the “look back” period of criminal background investigations and expanding random screening of employees to include, for example, airport access control entrances and company employee parking lots.

“The airline industry regards any breach of civil aviation security as unacceptable,” Pinkerton said, noting, “Such breaches need to be carefully examined, root causes identified, and appropriate corrective actions formulated and implemented.”

Gary Perdue, the FBI's deputy assistant director of counterterrorism, said the recent security incidents underscore the threat of airport insiders who exploit their credentials, access and knowledge of security protocols.

“We live in a time of acute and persistent terrorist and criminal threats to our national security, our economy, and to our communities,” Perdue said, noting that, “These diverse threats illustrate the complexity and breadth of the FBI’s mission and make clear the importance of its partnerships, especially with the Transportation Security Administration, in reducing security vulnerabilities in our nation’s transportation system.”

The Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC) is currently conducting an in-depth review of access control measures. The subcommittee will hold a follow-up hearing to review ASAC’s findings, including how its recommendations could be implemented at airports nationwide.

Katko said he was encouraged by the willingness of airlines to work with Congress.

“Instead of sweeping it under the rug, the industry’s realized there is a problem and we’re going to work together to fix it,” he said.

(Homeland Security Today)
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