Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

How Secure Are Our Airports?
CBSNEWS ^ | Tuesday, September 18, 2001

Posted on 09/17/2001 9:31:38 PM PDT by JohnHuang2

How Secure Are Our Airports?
  • Some Experts Say There Is Little Security
  • Who Is Manning The X-Ray Machines?

NEW YORK, Sept. 17, 2001
A Boeing 737 Continental plane prepares to land at the Newark Airport on Thursday, Sep. 13.
(CBS) If the President and the Congress are going to make good on their pledge to end terrorism, they will have to examine all the things that might have gone wrong this past week. The place they should start is the nation’s airports.

The fact that security there was lax has been an open secret for many years - just how lax is a scandal. Government study after government study, test after test, report after report demonstrated conclusively that security at America’s airports was hopelessly ineffective.

We still don’t know how terrorists managed to hijack four airliners and turn them into weapons of mass destruction. But we do know that, in spite of all those X-ray machines, metal detectors, and requests for picture ID’s, the system is riddled with holes and manned by undertrained, underpaid workers. And even the most sensitive restricted areas leading directly to the airplanes have proven easy to breach with weapons and explosives.

No one was more aware of the problems than Steve Elson. Until 1999, he worked as a special agent for the Federal Aviation Administration’s office of Civil Aviation Security. A former Navy SEAL trained in counter-terrorism, Elson spent three years as part of an elite, secret FAA unit called the Red Team.

Elson’s five-man team traveled all over the country, conducting covert assessments, secretly probing security at major U.S. airports. They didn’t tell people they were coming, and they didn’t tell people they had been there. Their findings went to their bosses at the FAA.

“We found generally that the results were almost the converse of the standard FAA results over the years,” says Elson. “For instance, if the FAA standard testing methods indicated a 90, 95 percent success rate, in many of the type of tests we did, it was more of a 90, 95 percent failure rate.”

According to Elson, the reason the reason for the wide discrepancy is simple. The official tests, he says, were a joke. “The FAA runs out and does a lot of testing. These are basically designed for the airports and the airlines to pass, so the results look good,” he says. He says that the FAA would frequently let a particular airport or carrier know that it would be tested. Not only did airport and airline security people know when the tests would occur, according to Elson, they even knew what to look for: FAA-approved test objects. These objects are, Elson says, “devices that have been developed by the FAA, to test different stations in a screening checkpoint, to check the metal detectors.”

He says that employees are trained to know what they look like. Elson gives some examples: “We have like an old dynamite bomb. It's just a couple sticks, a huge clock, wire and generally, an empty bag in this - anybody can see it. And I wrote FAA headquarters and said, "Do we have a memorandum of agreement with the terrorists that they promise to use a big bomb, very obvious in an empty bag?”

At one point, Elson says, he got his hands on something called a modular bomb unit, a replica of an sophisticated, difficult-to-detect explosive device that was much more representative of something a terrorist might use. Out of 50 to 60 tests, he says, there was one detection. “But I was able to talk my way out of it and get away, without being caught. So, I was 100 percent successful as the bad guy.”

But it wasn’t just the red team that was getting those results. In 1998, the FAA’s deputy administrator for security, Cathal Flynn, contracted an outside firm to conduct a vulnerability assessment at a major U.S. airport, which 60 Minutes agreed not to name because the results were so abysmal. It was all spelled out in this FAA memo.

“According to the document, and this is not a restricted or classified document, there were 450 tests conducted. The team was caught four times. That meant the bad guys got through 99.11 percent of the time,” says Elson.

According to the document, testers got into baggage areas and passenger lounges, planting fake explosives in suitcases, carry-on luggage, and catering carts. They got into ramp areas and aircraft holds. And they breezed through metal detectors with no problem.

“And if you look further through the document, it talks about these people going through a screening checkpoint with pistols behind metal belt buckles sometimes, and Mac10 machine guns on their back,” says Elson, who calls the current level “non-security.”

“It's a facade. It looks like something. There's a lot of people and a lot of buzzers and noise. But in effect there is no security,” says Elson.

At Congressional hearings last year, the Inspector General for the Department of Transportation seemed to agree. Alexis Stefani said her office had conducted its own secret tests to see how easy it was to get unauthorized personnel into restricted areas. In 68 percent of those tests, which took place at eight major airports, they accessed secure areas without being challenged.

The Inspector General’s report went on to say that “after penetrating secure areas, we boarded a substantial number of aircraft operated by U.S. and foreign carriers… and were seated and ready for departure at the time we concluded out tests.”

Six days later, in November 1999, the FAA responded stating that “the agency has already worked with airports, tenants and air carriers… and “tests showed airports had fixed the problems.”

Six months after that, the General Accounting Office, the investigative and auditing arm of the U.S. Congress, conducted yet another set of secret tests at two major airports. Using phony identification, they were waved around security checkpoints 100 percent of the time. That result points out perhaps the most serious deficiencies in the system, one that seemed apparent to anyone who regularly passed through a major airport.

The passenger-screening checkpoints with metal detectors and X-ray machines are the responsibility of the airlines, which in turn contract the work out to the lowest bidder. A handful of private companies, like Globe, Huntleigh, and Argenbright Security, man the front lines in the war against terrorism with low-skilled, poorly-trained employees, who earn slightly more than the minimum wage, usually about $7 an hour to start.

Until last February, Dan Boelsche ran Argenbright Security’s passenger screening operation at Dulles airport in Washington. Boelsche, a graduate of the Naval Academy and a former Navy pilot, says he competed with fast-food businesses for employees.

“Low skilled jobs. In a in a position that really requires some skill,” he says. “(And) extreme responsibility.”

Boelsch says 90 percent of his employees at Dulles airport were not even born in the United States; some were foreign nationals with work visas who had come to this country less than a year ago from places like Russia, Africa and the Middle East. Boelsch estimates that roughly 15 percent were from Pakistan, a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. There was no requirement that employees be American citizens. The fact that many employees had recently arrived in this country made it difficult to do background checks, Boelsche says.

Besides low wages no benefits, and abuse from passengers, the hours are long and the work is tedious. At many airports, the annual turnover rate exceeds 100 percent. At Boston’s Logan Airport, where two of the hijacked flights originated, the turnover rate was 200 percent. Last year, federal prosecutors indicted Argenbright Security for supplying applicants at Philadelphia International Airport with phony high school diplomas, falsifying test scores, and lying about background checks that were never conducted. Fourteen security screeners had been convicted of various felonies including aggravated assault, robbery, resisting arrest and forgery.

At Oakland International , procedures were so lax that even employees are embarrassed. All Daniello Worcullo and Kevin McCree had to do to get their jobs at Huntley Security was to watch videos for two days and take a test, true or false. They may lose their jobs for talking about their training, or lack of it.

Every six months, they were given what the company called a called a refresher course. McCree describes it: “Just go through the same video that we've been taught with The same video. So you're going through the same test over and over and over.”

One of the few lawmakers in Washington who showed an interest in airport security before last Tuesday’s events was Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas. Last November, she pushed through legislation that was supposed to remedy some of the problems. But most of the provisions hadn’t taken effect last Tuesday.

"I've had a lot of depressed days and nights to think about it by myself and with friends," Elson says. "And now that the reality has hit and I… we all knew this was gonna happen, and the Congress knew, and I said the whole government structure knew. So right now… I'd rather be angry than sad. And I am really angry."

60 Minutes wanted to talk to the FAA and to the private security companies that man the airport checkpoints , but they did not want to talk to 60 Minutes – at least, not this week. They may have to talk at a Senate hearing later this week. Among the recommendations to be discussed is the formation of a federal police force responsible for airport security.

© MMI, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved.

For Education And Discussion Only. Not For Commercial Use.

TOPICS: News/Current Events

1 posted on 09/17/2001 9:31:39 PM PDT by JohnHuang2
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: JohnHuang2
It's not the major airports that must be secured now, it's the small jobbies from which a terrorist can rent or steal a piper and spread anthrax spores across the country side via airdump.
2 posted on 09/17/2001 9:37:07 PM PDT by MHGinTN
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: JohnHuang2
3 posted on 09/17/2001 9:40:21 PM PDT by Untouchable
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

What about flying into a Nuclear Power Plant with a Lear?
4 posted on 09/17/2001 9:41:43 PM PDT by Untouchable
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 2 | View Replies]

To: JohnHuang2
The vast majority of people I encounter at security checkpoints in airports look like slugs who are are bored out of their minds and couldn't possibly care less about their jobs or anything else. Of course, the same can be said about so very many workers that we encounter in our society today. Sad but true.

Underpaid? I think they're overpaid. Pay isn't the problem. The problem is the festering laziness and self-centered attitudes of so many of today's workers.

5 posted on 09/17/2001 9:42:38 PM PDT by MississippiMan
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Untouchable
There is the mistaken impression that our nuclear plants would follow the same paradigm of Chernobyl. Our systems are very different from the Soviet graphite block systems. Crashing a nuclear plant in our country wouldn't result in the same type of catastrophe as Chernobyl, though it would be very serious but over a much smaller area.
6 posted on 09/17/2001 9:45:23 PM PDT by MHGinTN
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: Physicist, Boris, longshadow, AndrewC
(PING)))))) Your expertise is needed, sirs! Thank you.
7 posted on 09/17/2001 9:47:11 PM PDT by MHGinTN
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 6 | View Replies]

To: Untouchable
What about flying into a Nuclear Power Plant with a Lear?

The conatainment buildings on nuclear power plants are designed to withstand the impact of a large passenger jet. I think that in the future there will be anti-aircraft missles and guns located at nuclear power plants, dams, and other vulnerable facilities.

8 posted on 09/17/2001 9:47:23 PM PDT by Paleo Conservative
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: MississippiMan
I don't know. We had Barney Fife guarding the Tampa airport up until last Friday...scares the hell out of me.
9 posted on 09/17/2001 9:51:44 PM PDT by Nuke'm Glowing
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 5 | View Replies]

Thanks for the info. Are they secure facilities? How easily could one get in there with a bomb. And if they did, would it cause enough damage to create some sort of meltdown?
10 posted on 09/17/2001 9:51:47 PM PDT by Untouchable
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 6 | View Replies]

To: JohnHuang2
I love Ann Coulters comments about airport security:

"The airport kabuki theater of magnetometers, asinine questions about whether passengers "packed their own bags," and the hostile, lumpen mesomorphs ripping open our luggage somehow allowed over a dozen armed hijackers to board four American planes almost simultaneously on Bloody Tuesday. (Did those fabulous security procedures stop a single hijacker anyplace in America that day?)

Airports scrupulously apply the same laughably ineffective airport harassment to Suzy Chapstick as to Muslim hijackers. It is preposterous to assume every passenger is a potential crazed homicidal maniac. We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now."

(Off topic: her next lines are "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war")

11 posted on 09/17/2001 9:52:53 PM PDT by TheGoodDoc
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: MississippiMan
Upon returning from an Alaska cruise via Vancouver earlier this summer, I was accosted like a criminal by Canadian airport personnel after passing through the final security checkpoint. I might add that there were SEVERAL checkpoints, including immigration, before arriving at the gate areas. The REASON for the problem was that I had failed to see a sign at the front baggage check-in area prohibiting Ulu knives -- an Alaskan type of food chopper --and had two of them in my carry-on bag. They were boxed and ready to be given as gifts to co-workers. The furor of the airline employees was astounding. They accused me of igoring their sign, but the truth was that I really did NOT see it when I at the counter because I was concentrating on getting my ticket changed for an earlier flight. My point is that we need this kind of security at OUR airports. The personnel did not appear bored, tired, lazy, or any of the other adjectives that could be used to describe security agents at U.S. airports. The two "knives" were taken from me, packaged, and sent to the cargo hold of the plane. Unfortunately, I was hoping to get on that flight as a standby, so my knives made it but I did not. Upon arrival in L.A., it was not easy tracking them down, but I finally did so. All in all, it was a good lesson. Clearly, we need this type of diligence here in the U.S.
12 posted on 09/17/2001 10:53:49 PM PDT by Califreeper
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 5 | View Replies]

To: Califreeper


Israel Airlines bolts the Cockpit door and all Pilots and copilots carry Firearms.

New Release

Ponder for a moment.

We trust a pilot with a 30 million-dollar plane knowledgeable of complex airplane functions, but government policy will not allow them to operate a simple firearm.


Israel Airlines bolts the Cockpit door and all Pilots and copilots carry Firearms.

Scanning the websites this week the following thread from Pilots, Law Enforcement, and American Citizens discuss ways to take positive action against air terrorism.

We trust a fancy security question (Thanks to Jim Kallstom, former FBI, did you pack your bags?) but not millions of active and retired law enforcement officers to Citizen Carry on an airplane.

May I rant for a second! Get these liberal, antigun activists out of our government decision making process. Consider, Israel Airlines policy is to bolt the door, arms it pilots, and has armed travelers in the cabin.

We allow lowly-paid gate-guards to gate dis-arm us, creating a "killing zone of disarmed citizens", as passingers "do battle" in the sky with terrorists, using passion for weapons because misguided government policy has left us defenseless.

The government can not protect you when the terrorist is eyeball to eyeball with you. Now they have ban my pocketknife used to clean my nails. What next, bottles, because they can be smashed for a weapon??

Most all of the former military pilots strapped firearms to their legs when on active duty. Today they are considered not capable, wear the wrong uniform, or untrust worthy.

This BS about putting a 9mm hole in the skin of an airplane will bring it down is more rhetoric and fiction than fact. Just ask the thousand of airmen who returned from flights over Germany in WWII. How about the 747 over Hawaii with a 20-foot hole in the side. Still got a problem with possible decompression? Consider the alternative!

I’ll trust anyday my life to any active or retired law enforcement officer to CITIZEN CARRY on any airline.

I’ll trust anyday my life to any pilot or copilot active or retired to carry on any airline.

I’ll trust any American citizen willing to CITIZEN CARRY after extensive training to carry on any airline. It is a huge responsibility, however, the current "Killing Zones" set up by faulty thinking is killing our husbands, wives, children, and our nation.

I am sure thousands perhaps millions of American’s would trust their life to armed pilots, copilots, air crew members, retired, policemen, FBI, CIA, ATF, or American Citizens willing to train, quality, and stay current with cabin safety issues keeping America airlines safe.

I personally trust all of the above personnel, rather than phony security questions, low-pay air guards, unlocked backdoor food and cleaning functions or gates at airports, or government officials with big titles.


What do you want in your cockpit, a pilot and copilot with a firearm, or a terrorist? 2,180 dollars (four colt pistols)would have prevented all four terrorist acts and saved five thousand lives.

Government will spend billions of dollars with highly visible, and breach-able security that irritates American citizens during check-in when other more effective obvious solutions exist. Just ask Israel.

Thousands of American veterans, retired LEO's and American Citzens want to sign up today to fight terrorism. Don't tell them they are unqualified. If you do tell them they are unqualifed, they may have a word or two for you.

Visit to carry the fight.

Paul Williams



Advising Director

end Five thousand American Citizens lost their life for the want of two thousand one hundred eight dollars.


end ------ Let us hear from the active and retired Law enforcement, pilots, and concerned American citizens.

13 posted on 09/17/2001 11:11:57 PM PDT by CHICAGOFARMER (
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 12 | View Replies]

It seems to me that an innovative engineer could come up with some sort of emergency patch to seal a bullet hole in an aircraft fuselage.

Also is it true that ceramic knives like the Mirage-X are totally impervious to metal detectors? If so, what can be done to safeguard against them?

14 posted on 09/18/2001 4:26:28 AM PDT by SC DOC
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 13 | View Replies]

To: Califreeper
Clearly, we need this type of diligence here in the U.S.

I concur.

15 posted on 09/18/2001 9:06:54 AM PDT by MississippiMan
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 12 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson