CBSN

Box Cutter Stunt Stirs TSA Changes

Nathaniel Heatwole leaves the United States courthouse in Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 20, 2003. Heatwole, who told authorities he placed box cutters and other banned items aboard two airliners to test security, was charged with taking a dangerous weapon aboard an aircraft and released without bail. (AP Photo/ Matthew Cavanaugh)
AP
The Bush administration pledged Tuesday to move more aggressively against potential threats in the wake of an incident in which federal authorities said a young man boasted about successfully compromising airline security.

From now on, a Transportation Security Administration official said, the agency will automatically single out for response any threatening communication and will seek to better train its employees on how to recognize such messages.

"One of the system weaknesses that we've discovered since this is that a center that is essentially designed to receive incoming consumer communications was not set up to flag a communication like the e-mail that Mr. Heatwole sent," TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield told CBS' Early Show "We've taken steps to address that both on the automatic flagging and on the manual response that the operators in that center will be able to do in the future."

His statement came a day after Nathaniel Heatwole of Damascus, Md., was charged in federal court in Baltimore with taking a dangerous weapon aboard an aircraft.

The case against Heatwole, 20, followed discovery of bags containing box cutters, bleach and other prohibited items aboard two Southwest Airlines planes. The government says Heatwole spirited box cutters onto two airplanes and then told the TSA what he did.

But an FBI affidavit said it was more widespread. On Sept. 15, the document said, the Transportation Security Administration received an e-mail from Heatwole saying he had "information regarding six security breaches" at the Raleigh-Durham and Baltimore-Washington airports between Feb. 7 and Sept. 14.

Hatfield conceded Tuesday that the TSA must help its employees become more capable of recognizing the threatening messages among some 5,700 complaints, queries, compliments and other comments that flow daily into the agency's Contact Center.

Hatfield said layers of airline security have been added since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Hatfield told CBS that since Sept. 11 the TSA has taken "the old focus that relied purely on passenger screening as the end all be all for airline security and we've made it just one of many layers in the aviation security system.

"We've made significant improvements in the checkpoint in the quality of the equipment, the training, the quality of the personnel that are there but we still recognize it has limitations.

The incident has produced calls in Congress for hearings into the performance of the TSA.

After his court appearance Monday, Heatwole, a junior at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., was released without bail for a preliminary hearing Nov. 10. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

Heatwole sent an e-mail to federal authorities in mid-September saying he had put the items aboard two specific Southwest flights as an act of civil disobedience to expose weaknesses in the security system, an FBI affidavit said. The objects were not found until last week, more than a month later.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, whose department includes TSA, said the agency gets a high volume of e-mails about possible threats and officials decided that Heatwole "wasn't an imminent threat."

Heatwole's e-mail provided details of where the plastic bags were hidden — right down to the exact dates and flight numbers — along with Heatwole's name and telephone number.

The TSA did not send the e-mail to the FBI until last Friday. FBI agents then located Heatwole and interviewed him.

In response to the incident, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said Monday he told TSA chief James Loy that the panel would review the agency's operations, including airline passenger screening.

"Despite significant seizures of prohibited items from passengers going through TSA security checkpoints, this week's events highlight possible weaknesses in the system which need to be addressed," Davis said in a letter to Loy.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, the top Democrat on the House Transportation aviation subcommittee, said someone should be fired because of the incident. But he said Loy, a former Coast Guard commandant, should stay if he owns up to what the agency's deficiencies are.

"I'm still willing to give the admiral a chance to come clean with us," said DeFazio, D-Ore. "He's a political appointee under tremendous pressure by this administration to cut corners, make things look good, not upset the airlines and not upset the passengers."

The incidents followed reports that aviation security still has substantial gaps more than two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Significant weaknesses in testing and training TSA screeners were cited in recent reports by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general and the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm.

The inspector general's investigators recently carried knives, a bomb and a gun through Boston Logan International Airport's boarding procedures without being detected.

Both hijacked airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center took off from Logan.