Two million airport workers may pose pandemic security threat

Nearly 2 million workers with unescorted access to security restricted areas at airports throughout the U.S. could pose an “insider threat,” according to a new federal audit, yet the government is still studying how to effectively curb the risk. Congress has tasked the famously inefficient Transportation Security Administration (TSA), created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to protect the nation’s transportation system, with submitting a plan examining the cost and feasibility of enhanced worker screening measures at American airports, but it seems that the agency cannot handle the task. The assignment was embedded in a 2018 law, TSA Modernization Act, that aims to improve the agency’s screening technologies, streamline its passenger screening process and mandate more rigorous background checks of airport workers, among other things.

A provision of the law requires TSA to produce a study within one year determining the cost and feasibility of implementing enhanced airport worker inspection measures at all access points between non-secured and security-restricted areas at a significant number of airports. The screening measures include the use of equipment, such as walk-through metal detectors and explosives trace detection equipment to vet all employees, and access controls, such as closed-circuit television cameras and secure doors. The study is also supposed to include assessments and comparisons of the security effectiveness and operational efficiency of different screening measures and technologies. The TSA submitted its findings to several congressional committees at the end of September 2020 and the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), inspected the information and issued a report trashing the TSA for conducting a faulty analysis.

The TSA determined that enhanced airport worker screening would cost American taxpayers between $2.9 and $3.6 billion, with ongoing annual costs of $2.5 to $3.1 billion. The estimates include four possible methods, including the TSA providing screening officers, third-party entities performing the screening at private industry rates and a combination of both. Congressional investigators found that the TSA “used incomplete information to assess the feasibility of implementing enhanced airport worker screening.” For starters, the TSA failed to consider local airport constraints, such as availability of space for screening operations, that it stated could influence feasibility. The Homeland Security agency’s assessment also relied on the perspectives of and experiences at large airports, which may not be applicable to smaller airports, the GAO found. The report diplomatically slams the TSA, stating that its “inconsistency could be, in part, because the agency does not have formal guidance for staff to follow.”

This is a critical issue because the TSA estimates that more than 1.8 million workers have unescorted access to security restricted areas of airports nationwide. The employees may wittingly or unwittingly misuse or allow others to misuse their access to sensitive areas or knowledge of security procedures to exploit vulnerabilities and potentially cause harm, the GAO report states. “For example, in July 2019, an aircraft mechanic was charged with willfully attempting to damage an aircraft,” congressional investigators write. “Additionally, in August 2018, a ground services agent commandeered a small aircraft, which subsequently crashed.” TSA has tried to curb these types of “insider threats” by conducting random physical screening of employees at larger airports and requiring most airport operators to perform random worker screening. Apparently, it is not enough. “The aviation industry faces a consistent threat posed by workers and other insiders who have used their access privileges and knowledge to commit criminal acts, such as drug smuggling, gun smuggling, theft, and attempted suicide bombing,” the GAO report says.

The TSA’s inability to provide Congress with an accurate assessment involving a vital security matter is hardly surprising. The agency’s transgressions have been well documented since it was created after the 2001 terrorist attacks to secure transportation by adequately screening luggage, passengers and properly vetting foreign flight students. Instead, it is best known for its shameful security lapses and efforts to cover them up. For nearly a decade Judicial Watch has reported extensively—and uncovered records—involving the TSA’s failure to adequately fulfill its mission. This includes missing guns and bombs during covert exercises known as “red team tests,” TSA agents literally sleeping on the job and stealing from passengers, the failure to properly screen luggage and a number of other violations that have risked the nation’s safety. Records obtained by Judicial Watch a few years ago show hundreds of badges that allow agents to access secure areas of airports went missing along with uniforms and other devices used to control entry. In 2018  a bipartisan congressional investigation found that persistent misconduct by TSA managers often goes unpunished and whistleblowers who report it as well as airport safety risks are penalized by senior officials.

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