Ex-TSA chief on L.A. drug smuggling: "This is betrayal, this is treason"

(CBS News) LOS ANGELES - We reported Wednesday about a bust of TSA airport screeners, allegedly caught up in a smuggling operation. Correspondent Brian Rooney in Los Angeles has new details surrounding the operation.

The L.A. investigation turned on a bungled drug shipment that led to an arrest, and information that TSA screeners were taking bribes to let parcels of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana through security.

"The timing was critical because the screener had to be on the X-ray monitor at the exact moment that the courier put the bag with the drugs on the X-ray conveyor belt," said Assistant U.S. Attorney David Herzog.

One of the TSA screeners was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport Wednesday.

Transportation Security Administration drug-smuggling case stems from airport mix-up

The indictment says shipments were set up through meetings and cellphone calls for bribes up to $2,400, a lot of money for TSA screeners who earn between $24,000 and $44,000 a year.

"This is about as bad as it gets," says Kip Hawley, who ran the TSA for nearly four years, "because it's compromising security and could potentially endanger the flying public." He also says the agency needs an overhaul.

TSA screeners have been accused of on-the-job crime before, but usually theft:

  • Earlier this month a TSA agent was accused of stealing eight iPads from luggage at Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport.
  • In February a screener at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport was charged with stealing $5,000 in cash from a passenger's jacket on the conveyor.
  • And last June, a TSA employee was charged with theft of $30,000 worth of items from suitcases.

"If people are taking money to let drugs through, they might as well potentially let explosives through or people through or anything for that matter," said Hawley. "This is betrayal, this is treason, this is against the whole fabric of what the agency is about and the people are about."

"Evening News" anchor Scott Pelley asked Rooney about what the accused TSA screeners have to say for themselves.

"We've have yet to hear from the four TSA screeners or their lawyers," said Rooney. "They have not been arraigned yet. The TSA issued a statement saying that the actions of a few are deplorable and obviously it taints the entire organization. We should say there has been some critical testimony in front of Congress about TSA hiring practices. They've had a lot of turnover and maybe an unordinary number of firings."