Just weeks after the discovery of numerous security failures at dozens of the nation’s busiest airports, a new investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) found 73 airport workers linked to terrorism that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) failed to flag.
According to TSA data, these workers had access to secure airport areas despite posing a potential threat to transportation security. Moreover, the 73 individuals were employed by major airlines, airport vendors and other employers. The portions of the report identifying the individuals and their job titles were redacted.
In addition, the OIG investigators uncovered thousands of records used for vetting aviation workers containing incomplete or inaccurate biographic information, such as missing social security numbers and first names.
Specifically, 87,000 records did not list a social security number; 75,000 listed no passport number for immigrant workers; 14,000 immigrant employee records did not list alien registration numbers; and 1,500 records listed first names with two characters or less.
Consequently, the OIG’s audit report noted, “Without complete and accurate information, TSA risks credentialing and providing unescorted access to secure airport areas for workers with potential to harm the nation’s air transportation system.”
It’s not the first time
The report comes on the heels of the reassignment of the acting head of TSA, Melvin Carraway, after undercover investigators posing as legitimate airline passengers for TSA and the Inspector General managed to smuggle fake explosives and other prohibited weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials.
Homeland Security Today reported TSA screeners failed 67 out of 70 tests—or 96 percent–carried out by special DHS investigators known as "red teams," as part of a DHS OIG review. The red teams posed as passengers attempting to deliberately defeat TSA airport screeners and technology.
TSA’s difficulty in detecting firearms during this series of tests raises serious concerns given the fact that 2014 was the fifth consecutive year in which TSA screeners discovered record-setting numbers of firearms—2,212 or more than six per day—in carry-on bags at airport security checkpoints across the country, many of which were loaded and had a round chambered.
Testifying before the House Committee on Oversight andGovernment Reform last month, DHS Inspector General John Roth stated, “Unfortunately, although nearly 14 years have passed since TSA’s inception, we remain deeply concerned about its ability to execute its important mission. Since 2004, we have published more than 115 audit and inspection reports about TSA’s programs and operations, and have issued hundreds of recommendations to attempt to improve TSA’s efficiency and effectiveness.”
In addition, TSA has statutory responsibility for properly vetting aviation workers such as baggage handlers and airline and vendor employees with unescorted access to Secure Identification Display Area (SIDA) and sterile areas of commercial airports.
However, over the past year, Homeland Security Today reported, several high profile security breaches involving airport personnel smuggling firearms onto commercial flights after bypassing security occurred.
On December 23, 2014, a Delta baggage handler at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was arrested for a gun smuggling incident the FBI called a “serious security breach.” Just weeks later, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety inspector reportedly bypassed security and flew from Atlanta to New York with a gun in his carry-on baggage.
Then, on January 24th, the FBI arrested another Delta employee at Atlanta airport for boarding a flight to Paris without being screened.
In all three incidents, the individuals used their SIDA badges to gain entry to the sterile area of the airport.
Meanwhile, US airline passengers appear to have been in potential jeopardy to terrorist attacks for nearly a decade “because TSA has not properly been managing the maintenance of its airport screening equipment,” the Inspector General reported in May.
“TSA spends billions of dollars every year to ensure every passenger is screened before boarding a commercial flight,” said Rep. John Katko (R-NY) at a hearing held earlier this year to discuss airport access control measures.
“What good is all of this screening at the front door if we are not paying enough attention to the backdoor? The reality is that the threats we face today are not the same threats we faced two, three, or even four years after 9/11,” Katko said. “Nearly 14 years later, terrorists have adapted to our security protocols in ways that require us to be agile and resourceful. We cannot afford to be set in our ways and risk missing a glaring vulnerability.”
Just last month, prior to reports that several thousand SIDA badges had been reported missing, lost or stolen in recent years, DHS’s OIG reported it had discovered “numerous vulnerabilities” affecting controlled access to secured airport areas “critical to the safety of passengers and aircraft.”
"Clearly, there are an awful lot of things falling through the cracks and there’s just no room for an error when it comes to this issue,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, commented. “We need answers. They’re not providing them."
After reviewing TSA’s process for vetting workers for terrorist links, criminal history and lawful status, DHS’s Inspector General determined TSA’s failure to identify the terrorism-connected airport workers stems from interagency watchlisting policies preventing TSA from receivingall terrorism-related codes for their vetting process.
An official at the DHS Office of Policy indicated that in order to receive additional categories of the National Counterterrorism Center’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment records, TSA must work with DHS to formalize a request to the Watchlisting Interagency Policy Committee.
Although the vetting procedures TSA uses are generally effective, TSA lacks effective controls to ensure airports have a robust verification process for a credential applicant’s criminal history and authorization to work in the United States.
According to the report, TSA relied on airports and airlines to carry out criminal background checks, and did not sufficiently oversee or verify the process. TSA relied on the credential holders themselves to report disqualifying crimes to the airports where they worked.
Part of the problem is that current FBI policy prohibits the TSA from conducting recurrent criminal checks on aviation workers, which is considered a “non-criminal justice purpose.”
However, TSA is launching a pilot program that will address this weakness by giving TSA automated updates from the FBI for new criminal history matches for individuals who have already undergone a criminal history check.
In response, the report provided a number of recommendations. First and foremost, TSA needs to work with interagency partners to close loopholes in the aviation worker vetting process. DHS’s OIG also recommended that TSA take steps to ensure the data it uses for aviation worker vetting is complete and accurate.
TSA concurred with the recommendations and has taken steps to address some of these weaknesses, including systems enhancements to improve the quality of the data it receives from airports.
Commenting on the report, Roth said, “It is vital to airport security that only fully vetted aviation workers receive credentials to access secure areas of our nation’s airports.”