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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Appalled by his own findings, Elson tried to pass them on to members of Congress. In 2003, Elson dropped off a videotape at Joe Lieberman’s office showing how he personally had broken through air security time and time again. He wanted the senator to see it. "I took his office incontrovertible proof of the failures, including a one hour 15 minute tape of TSA failure after failure at the most simple security measures," Elson said in an email on Wednesday. He followed up repeatedly by phone, and was finally told by a staffer that they “were too busy doing great things for the people of Connecticut and the U.S.” and didn’t have time to respond. They recommended Elson contact the FBI. (Lieberman’s office did not respond to requests for comment on this story, possibly because of the holiday.)

Elson also left copies of the tape for more than a dozen other senators, and managed to brief a few of their staff. He says he twice passed on documentation, in 2000 and 2003, to John McCain, then chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversees the FAA. He is not aware of any action taken as a result. When Elson tried to present information to the 9/11 Commission, he was rejected. In one instance, an inspector general for the Department of Transportation told Elson the FAA was so corrupt nothing could be done.

Elson was not alone in exposing the cracks in the nation’s air security system. As I reported two years ago in Mother Jones, in 2004 and 2005, teams of undercover federal investigators acting for the Government Accountability Office set out to smuggle onto commercial jetliners component parts that, once aboard, could be put together to make a bomb. There is nothing new in this scheme: The famous Bojinka plot, precursor to the 9/11 attacks, called for just such action. Yet these mock terrorists marched past screeners equipped with x-ray machines and wands at 21 airports, every time. When confronted with these embarrassing results, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) dismissed the exercise as only "hypothetical": "While random items commonly found under a kitchen sink could conceivably be concocted into an IED... we find it highly implausible," the agency said.

In February of 2007, the TSA’s own undercover agents walked through the airport screening system at the Denver international Airport with liquid explosives packed in their luggage and IEDs strapped to their bodies. The machines went off but the screeners didn’t look through their baggage or pat them down. CBS in Denver reported its sources said “an agent taped an IED to her leg and told the screener it was a bandage from surgery. Even though alarms sounded on the walk-through metal detector, the agent was able to bluff her way past the screener.” Earl Morris, then the man in charge of security at the TSA in Washington, said at the time: “We understand that security is not perfect in every aspect, but we understand that we go about trying to be perfect every single day and we are doing a tremendous job out there and the public should feel comfortable flying out today and quite frankly, they do.” The test failures, he said, were caused by “disgruntled and underachieving employees.”

Whatever happens in the wake of this latest bombing attempt will surely be affected by systemic problems in the federal agencies that regulate and oversee the commercial airline industry. The FAA has long been compromised by its cozy relationship with the airlines it is supposed to monitor, and the revolving door between the two is notorious. In 2008, FAA whistleblowers exposed a scandal in which cronyism between staff at the FAA and Southwest Airlines allowed Southwest to falsify hundreds of safety reports before they were caught. The Transportation Security Administration, a post-9/11 creation that has been dogged by accusations of incompetence from the start, couldn’t even keep its own computer systems secure: In one of several scandals, a 2008 security breach was blamed on cronyism in awarding a contract for website design.  And these are the people responsible for keeping us safe every time we take to the air.

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