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How Secure Are Our Airports?

Some Experts Say There Is Little Security

If the President and the Congress are going to make good on their pledge to end terrorism, they will have to examine all the things that might have gone wrong this past week. The place they should start is the nation’s airports.

The fact that security there was lax has been an open secret for many years - just how lax is a scandal. Government study after government study, test after test, report after report demonstrated conclusively that security at America’s airports was hopelessly ineffective.

We still don’t know how terrorists managed to hijack four airliners and turn them into weapons of mass destruction. But we do know that, in spite of all those X-ray machines, metal detectors, and requests for picture ID’s, the system is riddled with holes and manned by undertrained, underpaid workers. And even the most sensitive restricted areas leading directly to the airplanes have proven easy to breach with weapons and explosives.

No one was more aware of the problems than Steve Elson. Until 1999, he worked as a special agent for the Federal Aviation Administration’s office of Civil Aviation Security. A former Navy SEAL trained in counter-terrorism, Elson spent three years as part of an elite, secret FAA unit called the Red Team.

Elson’s five-man team traveled all over the country, conducting covert assessments, secretly probing security at major U.S. airports. They didn’t tell people they were coming, and they didn’t tell people they had been there. Their findings went to their bosses at the FAA.

“We found generally that the results were almost the converse of the standard FAA results over the years,” says Elson. “For instance, if the FAA standard testing methods indicated a 90, 95 percent success rate, in many of the type of tests we did, it was more of a 90, 95 percent failure rate.”

According to Elson, the reason the reason for the wide discrepancy is simple. The official tests, he says, were a joke. “The FAA runs out and does a lot of testing. These are basically designed for the airports and the airlines to pass, so the results look good,” he says. He says that the FAA would frequently let a particular airport or carrier know that it would be tested. Not only did airport and airline security people know when the tests would occur, according to Elson, they even knew what to look for: FAA-approved test objects. These objects are, Elson says, “devices that have been developed by the FAA, to test different stations in a screening checkpoint, to check the metal detectors.”

He says that employees are trained to know what they look like. Elson gives some examples: “We have like an old dynamite bomb. It's just a couple sticks, a huge clock, wire and generally, an empty bag in this - anybody can see it. And I wrote FAA headquarters and said, "Do we have a memorandum of agreement with the terrorists that they promise to use a big bomb, very obvios in an empty bag?”

At one point, Elson says, he got his hands on something called a modular bomb unit, a replica of an sophisticated, difficult-to-detect explosive device that was much more representative of something a terrorist might use. Out of 50 to 60 tests, he says, there was one detection. “But I was able to talk my way out of it and get away, without being caught. So, I was 100 percent successful as the bad guy.”

But it wasn’t just the red team that was getting those results. In 1998, the FAA’s deputy administrator for security, Cathal Flynn, contracted an outside firm to conduct a vulnerability assessment at a major U.S. airport, which 60 Minutes agreed not to name because the results were so abysmal. It was all spelled out in this FAA memo.

“According to the document, and this is not a restricted or classified document, there were 450 tests conducted. The team was caught four times. That meant the bad guys got through 99.11 percent of the time,” says Elson.

According to the document, testers got into baggage areas and passenger lounges, planting fake explosives in suitcases, carry-on luggage, and catering carts. They got into ramp areas and aircraft holds. And they breezed through metal detectors with no problem.

“And if you look further through the document, it talks about these people going through a screening checkpoint with pistols behind metal belt buckles sometimes, and Mac10 machine guns on their back,” says Elson, who calls the current level “non-security.”

“It's a facade. It looks like something. There's a lot of people and a lot of buzzers and noise. But in effect there is no security,” says Elson.

At Congressional hearings last year, the Inspector General for the Department of Transportation seemed to agree. Alexis Stefani said her office had conducted its own secret tests to see how easy it was to get unauthorized personnel into restricted areas. In 68 percent of those tests, which took place at eight major airports, they accessed secure areas without being challenged.

The Inspector General’s report went on to say that “after penetrating secure areas, we boarded a substantial number of aircraft operated by U.S. and foreign carriers… and were seated and ready for departure at the time we concluded out tests.”

Six days later, in November 1999, the FAA responded stating that “the agency has already worked with airports, tenants and air carriers… and “tests showed airports had fixed the problems.”

Six months after that, the General Accounting Office, the investigative and auditing arm of the U.S. Congress, conducted yet another set of secret tests at two major airports. Using phony identification, they were waved around security checkpoints 100 percent of the time. That result points out perhaps the most serious deficiencies in the system, one that seemed apparent to anyone who regularl passed through a major airport.

The passenger-screening checkpoints with metal detectors and X-ray machines are the responsibility of the airlines, which in turn contract the work out to the lowest bidder. A handful of private companies, like Globe, Huntleigh, and Argenbright Security, man the front lines in the war against terrorism with low-skilled, poorly-trained employees, who earn slightly more than the minimum wage, usually about $7 an hour to start.

Until last February, Dan Boelsche ran Argenbright Security’s passenger screening operation at Dulles airport in Washington. Boelsche, a graduate of the Naval Academy and a former Navy pilot, says he competed with fast-food businesses for employees.

“Low skilled jobs. In a in a position that really requires some skill,” he says. “(And) extreme responsibility.”

Boelsch says 90 percent of his employees at Dulles airport were not even born in the United States; some were foreign nationals with work visas who had come to this country less than a year ago from places like Russia, Africa and the Middle East. Boelsch estimates that roughly 15 percent were from Pakistan, a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. There was no requirement that employees be American citizens. The fact that many employees had recently arrived in this country made it difficult to do background checks, Boelsche says.

Besides low wages no benefits, and abuse from passengers, the hours are long and the work is tedious. At many airports, the annual turnover rate exceeds 100 percent. At Boston’s Logan Airport, where two of the hijacked flights originated, the turnover rate was 200 percent. Last year, federal prosecutors indicted Argenbright Security for supplying applicants at Philadelphia International Airport with phony high school diplomas, falsifying test scores, and lying about background checks that were never conducted. Fourteen security screeners had been convicted of various felonies including aggravated assault, robbery, resisting arrest and forgery.

At Oakland International , procedures were so lax that even employees are embarrassed. All Daniello Worcullo and Kevin McCree had to do to get their jobs at Huntley Security was to watch videos for two days and take a test, true or false. They may lose their jobs for talking about their training, or lack of it.

Every six months, they were given what the company called a called a refresher course. McCree describes it: “Just go through the same video that we've been taught with The same video. So you're going through the same test over and over and over.”

One of the few lawmakers in Washington who showed an interest in airport security before last Tuesday’s events was Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas. Last November, she pushed through legislation that was supposed to remedy some of the problems. But most of the provisions hadn’t taken effect last Tuesday.

"I've had a lot of depressed days and nights o think about it by myself and with friends," Elson says. "And now that the reality has hit and I… we all knew this was gonna happen, and the Congress knew, and I said the whole government structure knew. So right now… I'd rather be angry than sad. And I am really angry."

60 Minutes wanted to talk to the FAA and to the private security companies that man the airport checkpoints , but they did not want to talk to 60 Minutes – at least, not this week. They may have to talk at a Senate hearing later this week. Among the recommendations to be discussed is the formation of a federal police force responsible for airport security.

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