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Some alarmed by number of post-9/11 security breaches

Jul. 12, 2011 - 09:33PM   |  
By GARY STOLLER, USA TODAY   |   Comments
Transportation Security Administration agents screen passengers at Los Angeles International Airport, Calif., on May 2. More than 25,000 security breaches  an average of about seven per day  have occurred at U.S. airports since November 2001, according to newly released Department of Homeland Security documents.
Transportation Security Administration agents screen passengers at Los Angeles International Airport, Calif., on May 2. More than 25,000 security breaches an average of about seven per day have occurred at U.S. airports since November 2001, according to newly released Department of Homeland Security documents. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

More than 25,000 security breaches an average of about seven per day have occurred at U.S. airports since November 2001, according to newly released Department of Homeland Security documents.

More than 14,000 were people entering "limited-access" areas by going through airport doors or passageways without permission, or unauthorized people going from airport buildings to planes, according to the documents to be presented at a House subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

The documents, obtained in advance, don't provide details about the security breaches or whether any could have led to potential attacks on planes or passengers.

The total number of infractions is small when compared with the large volume of traffic at the USA's 450 major airports, which have served more than 5.5 billion fliers since 2001. But critics say there is still reason to worry.

"It's clear the airports are not secure," says Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations. "For all the money, time and persistence we have thrown at airport security, it's a real mess."

Transportation Security Administration spokesman Nicholas Kimball said the breaches represent a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the air travelers who used U.S. airports in the past decade. The term "breach" is broadly defined and can mean accidental violations that pose no real danger to the public, he said.

"Many of these instances were thwarted or discovered in the act," Kimball said. "These events were reported, investigated and remedied. ... We have taken extensive steps to increase the safety of the traveling public, and that is why airports today are safer than ever before."

Security consultant Raffi Ron will testify Wednesday that the TSA has spent billions of dollars to screen passengers and bags and relegated other aspects of security "to the back seat," according to written testimony submitted to the House subcommittee.

"As it stands today, the vast majority of commercial airports in this country ... do not have the capabilities to detect and prevent an intruder from entering the air side of the airport through the fence or an adjacent waterfront," says Ron, a former security director at Tel Aviv Ben-Gurion International Airport.

The House subcommittee says it does not have a breakdown by year when the security breaches occurred, but former Federal Aviation Administration security director Billie Vincent says 25,000 security breaches indicates a problem.

"We're open to penetration if someone decides to penetrate," he says.

Vincent says, however, that more details are needed, such as what specifically occurred. Until such information is provided, fliers should only "be mildly concerned" about their safety, he says.

In 2006, tests by the TSA showed that security screeners at Los Angeles International Airport and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport failed to find fake bombs hidden on undercover agents posing as passengers in more than 60 percent of tests, according to a classified report.

In 2003, five undercover Homeland Security agents posing as passengers carried weapons undetected through several security checkpoints at Boston's Logan International Airport.

Documents to be introduced at Wednesday's subcommittee hearing also show:

6,000 security breaches in which Transportation Security Administration screeners failed to screen, or improperly screened, a passenger or a passenger's carry-on items.

2,616 security breaches involving an individual gaining unauthorized access to the "sterile area" at screening checkpoints or an exit lane without submitting to all screening procedures and inspections.

1,026 incidents when someone gained unauthorized access to a sterile area but was "contained" or "constantly monitored" by airport or security personnel until apprehended.

1,318 incidents in which someone gained unauthorized access from airport perimeters to aircraft operations or security identification display areas and was under constant surveillance until apprehended.

Vincent, who praises the TSA for compiling security-breach numbers, says that very few perimeters at airports worldwide are secure except those in Tel Aviv and Tokyo.

Chaffetz has no praise for TSA.

"It's absolutely stunning that the vulnerabilities are so wide," Chaffetz says. "There's not much to suggest that airports are more secure than years ago. We've just been lucky."

Besides the security-breach data provided to the subcommittee, a Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday reveals other concerns about airport security and TSA oversight.

For example, the GAO says TSA plans to upgrade its explosive-detection devices for screening checked bags but "has not established an upgrade plan or conducted an analysis to determine what type of approach ... is likely to be most feasible, efficient or effective."

The GAO says that because TSA has not yet upgraded the screening devices, many of them "are only capable of detecting certain explosives."

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