Monday, January 4, 2010

TSA Embarrasses Self Yet Again with Newark Security Breach

For all of the shortcomings of the terrorist watch lists and the inability to communicate interdepartmentally that led, via a confluence of incompetency, to the failed Christmas Day bombing by newly nut-less Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab there was one thing that you could say about it: he was not screened by the TSA. Given that his flight originated in Nigeria and transferred in Amsterdam before heading to Detroit, the TSA's fingerprints were not directly on this mishap (a little more on that later). It seemed that the TSA would avoid the majority of the scrutiny. Until yesterday.

Last night around 5:20 p.m. some mysterious character somehow managed to enter the "sterile" side of Terminal C from the public side by going through an exit lane at the security area. Details are sketchy, as no one seems to know who this mystery man is. Even more embarrassing, the TSA did not notice the breach, but had to be alerted by a bystander that someone had improperly entered the terminal. Screening was temporarily halted, then the terminal was cleared out and passengers on planes at the gate were forced to deplane and be re-screened. Naturally, disorganization ensued.

Flights were grounded for six hours after the incident, and Newark is just about done shaking off delays and cancellations due to the incident (flights in and out of Newark as of noon today were not experiencing delays according to the FAA). However, given the interconnectedness of the airline system both nationally and internationally, the incident caused some major problems for Continental, who is Newark Airport's largest tenant and uses the majority of Terminal C's gates.

Meanwhile, the TSA has identified the screener whose responsibility was manning the exit lane to make sure no one did exactly what this mystery individual did. The TSA declined to publicly name the screener or what disciplinary action would be taken. Anything less than termination, however, would be insulting.

Needless to say, this incident just throws an ever-increasing spotlight on the dysfunction of the TSA as a whole. Between embarrassing test failures, an insecure website which leaves passenger's personal information available to those who know how to get it, and publishing TSA screening guidelines online, the TSA has not really proven itself to be a competent agency worthy of the public's trust. Now this, a little over a week after an attempted bombing of an airliner in Detroit put the agency on high alert.

So where's the problem with the agency? To begin with, they lack leadership. The nominee to head the troubled agency, Erroll Southers, is stuck because Senator Jim DeMint (R- SC) is worried that Southers might allow the TSA members to unionize. I'm still waiting to hear from Senator DeMint's office for clarification of his stance on Southers' appointment.

Another issue with the TSA comes from the lackluster requirements to become a TSO (Transport Security Officer). All you need is the following: a GED or one year of work as either an X-ray tech, security work, or aviation screening. In other words, if you have dropped out of high school but have found work as a security guard or an X-ray tech, you are qualified to screen passengers, in the hopes of weeding out terrorists, boarding commercial airliners in the United States. These "requirements" set the bar lower than numerous municipal police departments, yet TSA officers are supposed to be able to detect tools of terrorism and prevent attacks onboard airliners?

On top of all of this, Chuck Schumer (of "the public option getting voted down is a victory for it" fame) stated only hours before the security breach at Newark that security at some airports abroad is "appallingly lax," while calling for a boycott by commercial airlines of those foreign airports not up to snuff. But Schumer's not the only clueless entity in this story. Less than a month before Abdulmutallab got explosives through Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria and tried to blow up a Delta airplane in Detroit, the TSA confirmed that the airport was in compliance with all 25 ICAO security procedures that were examined (though Representative Peter King (R-NY) stated that "Nigeria [has] inadequate security to begin with." An e-mail to his office asking if Rep. King had done anything about the TSA certification of Lagos' airport prior to the Christmas Day incident or plans to do anything about the TSA certification process has not yet been answered.). So it looks like our leaders are either misinformed/ignorant or, if they think they know something, don't do anything about it except to grandstand after the fact.

In summation, the TSA is a highly disorganized and woefully underqualified authority to be running something as important as airport and port security. They've proven it time and again and, if nothing is done to rectify the shortcomings of the organization, they'll prove it in the future. While our elected officials want to whine about overseas airport security, we really need to be looking at our own nation's security framework to see where we can improve. I said last post that a problem has been identified, now it's time to fix it. So will we just get lip service or will things actually be fixed?

Photos - TSA logo (TSA), Passengers stranded in Newark on Sunday night (ABC News)

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