Air Insecurity and the Failures of Government Oversight

| Thu Dec. 31, 2009 2:26 PM EST

In announcing January hearings of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which he chairs, Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman promised to address the “big, urgent questions” raised by the midair bombing attempt that took place on Christmas. Lieberman said that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab “evaded our homeland security defenses,’’ adding, “We were very lucky this time but we may not be so lucky next time, which is why our defenses must be strengthened.’’

The answer to those questions may lie not far from home--in Lieberman’s own office and those of other members of Congress who have routinely turned away federal whistleblowers trying to alert the government to the weaknesses in our air security systems. These alarms were sounded even before 9/11, and have been repeated many times in years following.

Steve Elson, a former Navy Seal, served as a member of the FAA’s “Red Team”— a special ops outfit deployed to secretly probe U.S. air security defenses—from 1992 to 1999. After 9/11, as a private citizen, he continued to try to draw attention to the serious security problems in commercial aviation. Elson began working with TV reporters in setting up undercover operations and penetrated air security systems, he says, in dozens of airports around the United States, including JFK, Dulles, O’Hare, and San Francisco. In most cases, he smuggled lead protected bags, which could hide explosives, through checkpoints tailed by TV crews using hidden cameras. Elson easily made it past screeners in more than 70 percent of the cases.

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