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Lawmakers Grill TSA on Airport Security in Wake of Metrojet Crash

Lawmakers Grill TSA on Airport Security in Wake of Metrojet Crash Homeland Security TodayThe recent crash of Metrojet Flight 9268, which Russian President Vladimir Putin dubbed a terrorist attack after the Islamic State released messages on social media and its online magazine claiming responsibility for the incident, serves as a grim reminder that aviation remains an attractive target for terrorist organizations.

In the wake of the Metrojet tragedy, which killed 224 people, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Transportation Subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday to examine current efforts to bolster security at airports serving as last points of departure to the United States. In his opening remarks before the hearing, subcommittee chairman John Katko (R-NY) noted the UK believes the Metrojet airliner was brought down by the very same type of device used in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, which tookdown Pan Am Flight 103 killing all aboard, including 35 Syracuse University students traveling home for the holidays.

“It is deeply disturbing to me that innocent people from my district in Syracuse, as well as all of traveling public, may still be threatened today by the same type of bomb used over 27 years ago,” Katko said. “Even though this most recent attack was not targeted at American citizens or an American aircraft, we cannot and should not hesitate to learn from this tragedy and identify ways in which we can mitigate such threats from becoming successful again in the future.”

Katko added, “The international aviation system represents our modern, globalized world. However, with interconnected transportation systems comes interconnected risk. Much like the Lockerbie bombing affected my community in Syracuse, the Metrojet tragedy affects our security, as well.”

There have been a number of attempted terrorist attacks on aviation targets in the past decade. For example, in the notorious case of the Shoe Bomber, a British man attempted to detonate explosives packed into the shoes he was wearing while on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami.

There was also the case of the "Underwear Bomber," a Nigerian man who attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear while on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253 en route from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan on Christmas Day, 2009.

Despite these incidents, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) frequently comes under fire over failure to address glaring vulnerabilities in airport and aviation security. Earlier this year, an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General (IG) found 73 airport workers linked to terrorism TSA failed to flag.

In another recent investigation, undercover investigators posing as legitimate airline passengers for TSA and the IG managed to smuggle fake explosives and other prohibited weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials. These results were concerning given the fact that 2014 was the fifth consecutive year in which TSA screeners discovered record-setting numbers of firearms, 2,212 — more than six firearms perday — in carry-on bags at airport security checkpoints across the country.

Furthermore, earlier this year the subcommittee held a hearing to discuss airport access control measures after several alarming security incidents, including the arrest of a Delta baggage handler at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for gun smuggling the Federal Bureau of Investigation called a “serious security breach.”

“TSA spends billions of dollars every year to ensure every passenger is screened before boarding a commercial flight,” said Katko, who chaired the February hearing. “What good is all of this screening at the front door if we are not paying enough attention to the backdoor?”

During Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers grilled Joseph Terrell, deputy assistant administrator for TSA’s Office of Global Strategies, after he failed to answer Katko’s repeated questions regarding how Congress can help the agency mitigate major security gaps at overseas airports. He asked that Terrell tell him what needs to be fixed, not just the thingsthe agency is doing right, since the airline industry indicates there are things needing improvement.

“Perhaps I need some time to think about it and get back to you,” Terrell responded.

Ranking member Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) asked Terrell what the outcomes were, in general, for the 146 foreign airport assessments conducted by TSA in Fiscal year 2015. Terrell said in almost every instance there are opportunities for improvement, particularly the need for better access controls.

Rice asked for a summary of these assessments in order to help the Subcommittee better understand how to help the agency ensure the security effectiveness of overseas airports.

Katko also asked if there is any way to help foreign airports improve employee screening. Terrell said that if they discover a deficient system of background check, the agency provides recommendations that they believe would help the improve security of the international airport. The agency also requires that flight and cabin crew who fly to the US be vetted to US standards. The agency implements additional requirements when the host government does not cooperate with recommendations.

“If a mechanic breaks bad they could do something on an airplane, a problem that could only manifest itself once they’re in the air,” Katko responded. “Those are the types of things I’m concerned about, finding the needle in the haystack, the lone wolf, which is so vexing here in the United States with our higher standards. I worry about it doubly so in foreign countries, where their standards may not be as high as ours.”

“It seems to me we have to do more,” Katko added.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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