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Our Air Security Is In Shakey Hands

Every attempt to warn the government has been rebuffed.

by James Ridgeway
First published in his blog Unsilent Generation yesterday, 30 December 2009

When a special ops expert deployed to secretly probe U.S. air security defenses (Steve Elson) tried to present information to the 9/11 Commission, he was rejected. In 2000, he passed on documentation to John McCain, then chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversaw the FAA. The committee took no action.

In announcing January hearings of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which he chairs, Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman promised to address the “big, urgent questions” raised by the midair bombing attempt that took place on Christmas. Lieberman said that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab “evaded our homeland security defenses,’’ adding, “We were very lucky this time but we may not be so lucky next time, which is why our defenses must be strengthened.’’

The answer to those questions may lie not far from home–in Lieberman’s own office and those of other members of Congress who have routinely turned away federal whistleblowers trying to alert the government to the weaknesses in our air security systems. These alarms were sounded even before 9/11, and have been repeated many times in years following.

Steve Elson, a former Navy Seal and ex-member of the FAA’s “Red Team”— a special ops outfit deployed to secretly probe U.S. air security defenses—told me earlier today that he was turned away by a homeland security aide in Lieberman’s office when he tried to meet with the Connecticut senator three years ago. Elson had brought with him a videotape showing how he personally had broken through air security time and time again. He wanted the senator to see it. “I took his office incontrovertible proof of the failures, including a one hour 15 minute tape of TSA failure after failure at the most simple security measures,’’ Elson said in an email. “His staffer told me that he [Lieberman] didn’t have time for these issues’’ because of pressing constituent concerns in Connecticut.

Elson worked for the FAA from 1992 through 1999, when his frustration at the stone wall of seeming indifference he met at every turn finally led him to quit. After 9/11, as a private citizen, he continued to try to draw attention to the problem. Elson began working with TV reporters in setting up undercover operations and penetrated air security systems, he says, in dozens of airports around the United States, including JFK, Dulles, O’Hare, and San Francisco. In most cases, he smuggled lead protected bags, which could hide explosives, through checkpoints tailed by TV crews using hidden cameras. Elson easily made it past screeners in more than 70 percent of the cases.

Every attempt to warn the government was rebuffed, Elson told me yesterday. In one instance, an inspector general for the Department of Transportation told Elson the FAA was so corrupt nothing could be done. When Elson tried to present information to the 9/11 Commission, he was rejected. In 2000, he passed on documentation to John McCain, then chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which oversaw the FAA. The committee took no action.

Elson was not alone in exposing the cracks in the nation’s air security system. As I reported two years ago in Mother Jones, in 2004 and 2005, teams of undercover federal investigators acting for the Government Accountability Office set out to smuggle onto commercial jetliners component parts that, once aboard, could be put together to make a bomb. There is nothing new in this scheme: The famous Bojinka plot, precursor to the 9/11 plot, called for just such action. Yet these mock terrorists marched past screeners equipped with x-ray machines and wands at 21 airports, every time. When confronted with these embarrassing results, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) dismissed the exercise as only “hypothetical”: “While random items commonly found under a kitchen sink could conceivably be concocted into an IED... we find it highly implausible,” the agency said.

In February of 2007, the TSA’s own undercover agents walked through the airport screening system at the Denver international Airport with liquid explosives packed in their luggage and IEDs strapped to their bodies. The machines went off but the screeners didn’t look through their baggage or pat them down. CBS in Denver reported its sources said “an agent taped an IED to her leg and told the screener it was a bandage from surgery. Even though alarms sounded on the walk-through metal detector, the agent was able to bluff her way past the screener.” Earl Morris, then the man in charge of security at the TSA in Washington, said at the time: “We understand that security is not perfect in every aspect, but we understand that we go about trying to be perfect every single day and we are doing a tremendous job out there and the public should feel comfortable flying out today and quite frankly, they do.” The test failures, he said, were caused by “disgruntled and underachieving employees.”

After spending at total of $36 million on the puffer machines, the TSA announced earlier this year that it was removing them because they were unreliable.

The shortcomings in the system go beyond human error. In the years following 9/11, dozens of explosive trace portals (ETPs) were installed in airports across the country, at a cost of $160,000 each. These “puffer” machines—so called because they blow air on passengers to dislodge explosive particles–were once celebrated as the “no touch pat down.” But in a Denver test by CBS in 2007, a network employee was sprayed with explosives and then walked through the airport’s three puffers without any trouble. After spending at total of $36 million on the puffer machines, the TSA announced earlier this year that it was removing them because they were unreliable. A report last month from the Government Accountability Office found that the TSA had not adequately tested the ETPs before buying them.

And what will take the place of the puffers? The “full body scanners” that everyone is talking about. Lieberman zeroed in on the wider use of these scanners in announcing his committee hearings, and even before the Christmas bombing attempt, the TSA had ordered 250 of them, at the cost of $170,000 each. Yet critics say that these, too, are highly fallible, and are certainly incapable of detecting explosives hidden in body cavities. 

The fact is that no one existing machine can detect explosives, says Brian Sullivan, a former federal air security agent in Boston who exposed the failings in the Logan security system before 9/11 (and was ignored by, among others, Senator John Kerry). In an email to me this past weekend, Sullivan said that a layered use of machines and procedures might end up detecting explosives. But he believes explosive-sniffing dogs are a far better bet. There are more than 300 dogs working for the TSA, but most sniff luggage, cargo, and terminals, and don’t play any role in screening  passengers.

Whatever happens in the wake of this latest bombing attempt will surely be affected by systemic problems in the federal agencies that regulate and oversee the commercial airline industry. The FAA has long been compromised by its cozy relationship with the airlines it is supposed to monitor, and the revolving door between the two is notorious. In 2008, FAA whistleblowers exposed a scandal in which cronyism between staff at the FAA and Southwest Airlines allowed Southwest to falsify hundreds of safety reports before they were caught.

The Transportation Security Administration, a post-9/11 creation that has been dogged by accusations of incompetence from the start, couldn’t even keep its own computer systems secure: In one of several scandals, a 2008 security breach was blamed on cronyism in awarding a contract for website design.  With people like this responsible for our safety, who needs terrorists?

Born in 1936, James Ridgeway has been reporting on politics for more than 45 years. He is currently Senior Washington Correspondent for Mother Jones, and recently wrote a blog on the 2008 presidential election for the Guardian online. He previously served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice; wrote for Ramparts and The New Republic; and founded and edited two independent newsletters, Hard Times and The Elements.

Ridgeway is the author of 16 books, including The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11, It’s All for Sale: The Control of Global Resources, and Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture. He co-directed a companion film to Blood in the Face and a second documentary film, Feed, and has co-produced web videos for GuardianFilms.

Additional information and samples of James Ridgeway’s work can be found on his web site,

This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.

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This story was published on December 31, 2009.