Newark Airport Screeners Fail To Find Hidden Weapons In Federal Test

The Star Ledger: OCT 27 – Screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport failed 20 of 22 security tests conducted by undercover U.S. agents last week, missing an array of concealed bombs and guns at checkpoints throughout the hub’s three terminals…

The Star Tribune: OCT 27 – “Does this pose a threat to security? No,” TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon said. “Once they enter the screening checkpoint, that individual and his or her bags are screened for dangerous weapons and explosives.”

Screeners at Newark fail to find ‘weapons’ [The Star Ledger via Mere Rhetoric]

Article reprinted inside in case you don’t feel like handing over personal information just to read the second page.

Screeners at Newark fail to find ‘weapons’
Agents got 20 of 22 ‘devices’ past staff
Friday, October 27, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff

Screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport failed 20 of 22 security tests conducted by undercover U.S. agents last week, missing an array of concealed bombs and guns at checkpoints throughout the hub’s three terminals, federal security officials familiar with the results said.

The tests, conducted Oct. 19 by U.S. Transportation Security Administration “Red Team” agents, also revealed significant failures by screeners to follow standard operating procedures while checking passengers and their baggage for prohibited items, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it is against TSA policy to release covert-test results.

“We can do better, and training is the path to improved performance,” said Mark Hatfield Jr., Newark Airport’s federal security director, declining to address specifics. “Test results are not a grade or a scorecard; they are a road map to perpetual improvement; any other characterization is simply misleading. We have to challenge ourselves to do better every day and be relentless in that pursuit.”

The poor test results at Newark come after heightened security procedures that the TSA put in place at U.S. airports in August, after authorities in Great Britain said they foiled an attempt by terrorists to blow up trans-Atlantic flights using liquid explosives.

One of the security officials familiar with last week’s tests said screeners at Newark missed fake explosive devices that were hidden under bottles of water in carry-on luggage, taped beneath an agent’s clothing and concealed under a leg bandage another tester wore.

Additionally, the official said screeners failed to use hand-held metal detector wands when required, missed an explosive device during a pat-down and failed to properly hand-check suspicious carry-on bags. Supervisors also were cited for failing to properly monitor checkpoint screeners, the official said.

“We just totally missed everything,” the official said.

When the tests are conducted, undercover agents hide prohibited items on their bodies or in their checked and carry-on luggage in an effort to slip those items past screeners.

The results point up the continued problems the TSA has encountered as it struggles to keep up with ever-present and changing terrorist threats, aviation security experts said. Those problems, they said, include inadequate training for screeners, pressure from the airline industry to keep passenger lines moving and shortages of security personnel because Congress has imposed a nationwide cap of 43,000 screeners.

“The failures of TSA are failures at the basic level,” said Steve Elson, a member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s “Red Team” who resigned before 9/11 and has been a persistent TSA critic. He said top TSA officials have little aviation security experience and screeners are required to conduct too many tedious and obvious checks.

Like other security watchdogs, Elson advocates having the TSA take a page from Israeli aviation security by more broadly instituting behavioral profiling techniques in which travelers are asked probing questions. The TSA has developed a limited version of the program at some airports, including Newark.

Without such expanded initiatives, the TSA is “going to fail, and they do, with constant, stunning regularity,” Elson said.

Newark Airport — which terrorists got through on Sept. 11, 2001, before hijacking United Flight 93, which later crashed in Pennsylvania — has been plagued by security lapses, screener shortages and testing failures since the TSA took over airport security from the FAA and private contractors in 2002.

From June to September 2004, for example, Newark Airport screeners missed one in four fake bombs or weapons that inspectors tried to sneak past checkpoints, according to weekly confidential inspection reports obtained that year by The Star-Ledger.

Such failings are not limited to Newark. An April 2006 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office reiterated previous widespread GAO findings of screeners failing undercover tests at airports across the country.

“TSA covert testing has identified that weaknesses existed in the ability of TSOs (transportation security officers) to detect threat objects on passengers, in their carry-on bags, and in checked luggage,” the GAO reported. The agency, however, did not provide failure percentage rates in its report.

Bogdan Dzakovic, a TSA employee who testified before the 9/11 commission about his experience as a member of the FAA’s “Red Team” before the attacks, said such poor results are predictable.

“TSA’s learned nothing since 9/11, because they still don’t know what a ‘Red Team’ is for and what to do with the information,” said Dzakovic, who retains federal whistle-blower protections.

Dzakovic said it is time for TSA “Red Team” agents to “start thinking like terrorists” in order to develop theories on what tactics might be developed next to bring down airliners, rather than focusing exclusively on past techniques.

“It’s still a good reflection of how poorly the screening checkpoints are doing five years after 9/11 and billions of dollars later,” Dzakovic said of the continued poor test results. “TSA is always going to be one step behind the bad guy. The only solution to that is human profiling.”

TSA officials at the agency’s Virginia headquarters also declined to discuss specifics of the Newark Airport results, but defended their policies.

“Covert tests are conducted by security experts who expect significant fault rates commensurate with the tests’ high level of difficulty,” said Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman.

“Those tests strengthen the screening system by challenging the work force and identifying factors that could lead to a breach,” Davis said. “TSA then uses test results to adapt and improve upon our screening protocols and training regimens.”


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  1. Chaoticfluffy says:

    This is ridiculous. I fly in and out of Newark fairly regularly, and given how long security lines are and how anal they are about making everyone take off shoes, jackets, and anything else not required for decency, you’d think they’d be, like….productive. It’s all theater to intimidate the innocent traveler, obviously, since it’s sure not actual protection of airline security!

  2. Gari N. Corp says:

    I’ll tell you why. It’s because they spend so long weighing “forbidden liquids” to see if they meet the minimum necessary for a Con Air-grade fictional gel-bomb, or nattering about their sideline selling bomb-detecting equipment to other countries’ security services, as I recently discovered at the aiport in Houston.

  3. CaptainRoin says:

    The problem is they give TSA employees too specific of objects to look for. If you tell them ‘You cannot have more than 4oz of some liquid’ or ‘Tools must be less than 3 inches’ they start to focus on that and take people’s nail clippers and eye drops, but they miss big obvious things. I don’t think any of these Screeners are allowed, or care for that matter, enough to use their own brains to be effective. This ‘profiling’ is only going to make matters worse. If they cannot find a fake bomb effectively how are they going to successfully profile people out of thousands of passengers?

  4. AaronM says:

    Ridiculous. For the BS that we get put through, continual ineffectiveness is truly unacceptable.

    Although, the heightened security itself is a deterrent. It seems unlikely that terrorists will try once again to use airplanes, and it’s a bit of a case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. However, it’s a catch-22. Without the heightened security, terrorists might try to use the planes again. We’re unlikely to catch any more would-be terrorists as long as we have such intense screening scrutiny.

    (And on that note, it’s such a ridiculous argument to say that our government is over-restricting us without reason, the justification for such a statement being that we haven’t had a terrorist attack since 9/11. Could it be that we haven’t had a terrorist attack because of these restrictions?)

  5. Funklord says:

    How come I can’t bring a 15 ounce bottle of mouthwash on a plane, but I can bring 5 3-ounce bottles of mouthwash on a plane?

  6. Anonymously says:

    I went to some podunk airport in Arizona, show up early for my flight. The TSA guy is on a cigarette break and he tells me “you’d better not have any rocks in those bags.”. I guess because taking rocks from the national parks is prohibited?

    So anyway, I tell him I don’t have any rocks. Once I check my luggage, I get to watch him tear apart my entire bag looking for contraband. I don’t know if he didn’t trust me, or if he was just bored since I was the only person at the airport.

    Anyway, the point of this rambling is that I hate the TSA.

  7. Gari N. Corp says:

    Cos John Malkovitch never blew up a jail cell like that in Con Air, which remains, I think, the best source of inspiration for this shakily-sourced bomb plot nonsense.

  8. Chaoticfluffy says:

    @Funklord: because then you can *share*! The TSA is just like your kindergarten teacher…only more thuggish.

  9. NeonCat says:

    Like the poor geologist mentioned on Boing-Boing, IIRC, who had a prized specimen confiscated from him, rocks are “dual-use”, i.e. not only is it a rock, it could be used as a weapon!

    I’d like to see some idiot try to take over a plane with a rock.

    People like to joke that eventually you won’t be able to board a flight without being naked, carrying nothing at all. This does not go far enough in ensuring security. After all, a terrorist could have a bomb surgically implanted, undetectable by current technology. No, the only sure way to be safe is for the TSA to make it as hard as possible for people to fly. Then the only people willing to put up with it, besides those with a very odd form of masochism, will be terror minded individuals. Prevent them from flying and everyone will be safe!

  10. Chaoticfluffy says:

    NeonCat, I’ve always thought that it’s far easier to kill someone with a pencil or a pen than with a nail clipper or anything else the TSA bans. One good stab with a six-inch pencil, and you’re down…so why can I pack a sharp pencil when it’s such an obvious weapon, and not a rock, which really is harder to kill someone with for your average Joe or Jane?

  11. Pelagius says:

    Are the reporters at the Star-Tribune going to be hassled by the FBI now that they’ve revealed this dangerous security hole?

  12. Falconfire says:

    Its simple. Screening is bogus. Its simply a tool of the government to make you fearful that a attack could happen (and thus keep you electing the very people who caused the environment that these “terrorists” are created in) while at the same time making the public feel safe cause its happening, all the while letting tools much worse than the ones used in 9/11 (box cutters and fake, yes FAKE explosives) through.

    We will overlook the fact that the hijackers could have been stopped at least 25-30 times BEFORE the week of the attacks by our own government but wasnt because they are so stupid and politically inept to see the warning signs. We’ll just blame it on airport security and leave it at that, while the real threats continue on.

    That way if someone gets through its the poor guy working a minimum wage jobs fault, not the 100-200 k a year government appointee (ie buddy of the party in charge) who couldn’t even pass high school most likely but still got a important job that those screens could probably do better simply cause they padded so and so’s election fund with a little bit of green.

    Unfortunately way too many Americans in this country are just stupid enough to believe in this kind of bullshit from our government, either from the left, or the right. The fun of being a free country… your completely free to have no common sense.

  13. The_Truth says:

    Penny Arcade for teh w1n as ever:

  14. capturedshadow says:

    If we cannot keep weapons out of prisons, how can we keep them out of airplanes?

  15. Trai_Dep says:

    20 of 22 tests failed. I can’t even begin to calculate how much lower than an F that is.

    Favorite quote:
    “Mark Hatfield Jr., Newark Airport’s federal security director [said], “Test results are not a grade or a scorecard.”

    Well then! I’m relieved.