TSA inspectors in Tampa say it is not safe to fly

2:36 PM, Apr 17, 2010   |    comments
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UPDATE: TSA responds to 10 Connects investigation

Tampa, Florida -- It was an agency created by Congress just two months after 9-11 that was supposed to keep the flying public safe. However, several Transportation Security Administration inspectors working at Tampa International Airport tell us there are huge problems and holes in airport security.

One inspector told us they are supposed to defend the country against radical terrorists who want to hurt Americans, but they say they are working with handcuffs behind their backs. Another told us there could be multiple tragedies like 9-11 because of the security problems. Another says it is simply terrifying.

The inspectors could not only be fired for talking to us, but they could also go to jail for exposing what is wrong with the system. One supervisor told the inspectors at a public meeting that they know some are talking to the media and they will be charged with treason if they are caught. That's why we are not revealing their identities.

An inspector told us the security at Tampa International is like a "Three Card Monte" game. He says the system loses track of bags and there is no verification. He says on busy occasions, when the baggage belt is busy, about 15 percent of the bags that need to be screened for possible contraban never make it down to the search area.

The inspector is talking about a $124 million baggage screening system at Tampa International. The system runs a bag through what's called an "L3 Explosive Device System." If the machine picks up a potential problem, a Transportation Security Officer (TSO) hits an alarm and the bag is sent to another area to be hand searched.

Another inspector tells us the problem was discovered early on. He says a TSO would see something that would set off an alarm in the L-3 machine as a possible bomb and was supposed to be sent for a hand inspection but, in many instances, that doesn't happen.

According to these inspectors, as many as 500 bags a day that set off an alarm for a possible explosive device and are supposed to be hand inspected never make it to the second inspector. Instead, those bags go onto the airplane.

One inspector told us about an item that came through the system that looked like three pipe bombs put together. He says the item was on a Jet Blue flight bound for Boston. According to the inspector, the item was supposed to be sent for a hand check, but it never showed up and instead ended up on the airplane.

Although inspectors say they have warned managers about the problem, including sending a memo saying there is an intrinsic  flaw in the checked baggage in-line system,  the TSA tells them nothing is wrong.

Just a year and a half ago, a TSA  undercover inspector wore simulated explosives and a chemical that mimics explosive residue and went through the screening process at Tampa International. It should have set off alarms as he went through the screening process, but never did.  Even after the inspector identified himself and tells the screener about the simulated explosive, the screener could not find the simulated dangerous substance.

If the inspector were a terrorist, he would be on his way to an airplane.

One of the inspectors told us he won't fly and won't allow his family to fly. He says it is to dangerous, because there are so many gaping holes in the system.

The Government Accounting Office agrees. In an October 2009 report, it says "the TSA lacks assurance that its strategy addresses the highest priority needs and mitigates the risk of an attack. Although the TSA has information on vulnerabilities, the agency has not assessed weakness in the system that terrorists could exploit to carry out an attack."

For example, the inspectors say the system has problems detecting the center of rigid golf bags, which is where a terrorist could hide an explosive device.

An inspector told us that when you have a rigid item going on a ramp and it goes on an angle, the sensor goes underneath the bad and doesn't see it. Instead, he says, it sees the front of the bag and the back and thinks it is two different bags.

Meanwhile, the inspectors say the machines were picking up to many potentially problem bags, which slowed down the transportation system, so the TSA ordered the sensitivity of the machines be turned down.

The inspectors say the airlines seem to dictate how they operate and push to make the bags get screened as quickly as possible. They say American lives are being put at risk so they can lower the number of screeners.

And the inspectors say, because of the lower sensitivity, a low-level explosive device that could bring down a plane could get through the machines.  Another screener told us you don't have to have just one bomb. They say, if they put in 10 low-level bombs that are spread apart, they could get through security.

But, the inspectors say, when problems are brought to managers, the inspectors often get disciplined and are told not to talk about the problems. They say the TSA says it is not a problem.

But, the 2009 GAO report says there something wrong,   writing, "the TSA lacks a method to systematically test and identify vulnerabilities in its passenger and baggage screening equipment to identify vulnerability at checkpoints." But, the agency won't publicly admit it. The TSA told us it is aware of the allegations and is looking into them.

However, the inspectors say TSA management at headquarters is completely aware of the problems, but they say they are playing the odds a terrorist won't put a bomb on a plane. The inspectors say an 85 percent chance of catching it sound good to management, but they say it sound frightening and say it should sound frightening to the flying public as well.

Update: Following our story, TSA spokesperson Shari Koshetz released this additional statement:

"The Transportation Security Administration (TSA)  is confident the security systems at Tampa International Airport provide safe and secure screening of all passengers and their baggage.  The men and women who make up the Tampa TSA Team are proud to be providing the traveling public with world class security screening at the checkpoints and in baggage screening.  Just as the workforce is continually training and testing on the screening equipment,  Tampa's screening equipment is continually monitored for operational effectiveness, as is the equipment at all other airports around the country."

"To ensure complete confidence in the TPA baggage screening system, an additional technical and operational assessment of the baggage systems is now underway and will again re-validate that TPA screening technology systems remain strong."

In addition, Koshetz says:
"Transportation Security Officers are one of the most tested workforces in the nation. They are tested every day, on every shift, at every checkpoint, in every lane at more than 450 U.S. airports.  By constantly challenging our workforce to the extreme, we create an ever strengthening layer of security at the checkpoint. TSA works with the intelligence communities around the world to identify threats, uncover vulnerabilities and develop solutions system wide." 

Mike Deeson, 10 Connects

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