IG: TSA needs better ways to catch criminals

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A security breach in which two airline employees smuggled guns and marijuana aboard a commercial flight originating from from Orlando in March 2007 shows gaps in the Transportation Security Administration’s procedures, but 100 percent screening for airline employees may not be a feasible response, according to a new report from Homeland Security Department Inspector General Richard Skinner.

The employees of Delta Airlines' Comair took advantage of employee-only procedures to carry 14 guns and 8 pounds of marijuana aboard the aircraft. Police, acting on a tip, removed one of the employees shortly before takeoff but did not remove a second employee who remained on board with the guns and drugs. The worker was arrested on arrival in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Although TSA has taken some actions since the incident, the security breach highlights the need for additional policies and procedures to reduce vulnerabilities, the IG said. Additional policies also are needed to improve TSA’s situational awareness of such incidents as they unfold, the 57-page report said.

One of the key gaps is that the aircraft was allowed to take off without being checked by TSA. Skinner recommended that TSA have the opportunity to clear an aircraft for departure when law enforcement officers intervene before a scheduled departure. The agency also should review whether management protocols, oversight and training related to Delta need to be revised, Skinner said. TSA said it was adopting the recommendations.

In addition, to reduce risks related to insider threats at airports, TSA should mandate phased-in biometric access controls for airport and airline workers and conduct recurrent criminal history and financial record checks, among other measures, the report said. The TSA agreed with those recommendations.

However, screening of all employees is not now recommended, Skinner wrote.

“The concept of 100 percent airport employee screening is feasible," the report said. "However, we do not believe it is realistic at this time. Regardless of the amount of funding, resources, and effort allocated toward this endeavor, vulnerabilities will persist."

TSA has begun testing improved policies for employee screening and identification. In May 2008 the agency released a technical specification for airport credentials. TSA also said it is considering a document released by the Federal Aviation Administration in June 2008 related to biometric airport access controls, according to the IG.

From April to July 2008, TSA conducted demonstrations of employee screening at seven airports. Those results are being evaluated.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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