Whether it’s an overlooked gun or an unplugged metal detector, security breaches at U.S. airports still make daily headlines, reflecting the fact that improved airline security is a work in progress six months after Sept. 11. To get a sense of how security at America’s busiest airports measures up next to more vigilant international ones, MSNBC.com visited five key airports in five days. Traveling with a carry-on filled with perfectly legal items that experts told us should at least draw attention, we found out that when it comes to security, inconsistencies still abound.
The exercise took this reporter to Newark airport in New Jersey, Heathrow in London, Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv, LaGuardia in New York City and Logan in Boston.
Of the U.S. airports, we chose Newark because it’s one of the fastest growing, LaGuardia because it’s one of the most congested, and Logan because that’s where two of the Sept. 11 planes took off.
Overseas, Heathrow was a stop because it is the world’s busiest airport, with over 64 million passengers a year, and Ben Gurion because it is considered the gold standard for security, given its location in Israel, where terror has become a daily phenomenon — except on planes.
Although unscientific, MSNBC.com’s journey served as a revealing snapshot — not only of what’s changed since 9/11, but of the security challenges still ahead.
I traveled with a carry-on full of everyday items, from a laptop and cell phone to a curling iron, shaving cream, videocassette and protective lead-lined film bag that tourists might use. All of them are legal, but they can serve as hiding places for weapons or explosives, according to the security experts MSNBC.com talked to, and they should at least get a second glance from screeners these days.
But as we found out, they don’t always. And, in some cases, other basic security precautions also didn’t appear to be taken.
Hit or miss
Right from the start, there appeared to be a glaring omission: At Newark, the screener at the check-in counter didn’t ask the most basic yes/no security questions about the bag. Anyone who’s traveled will be familiar with the questions — “Has anyone unknown to you given you something to carry?” “Have your bags been with you at all times?”
When confronted by MSNBC.com, James Mitchell, the spokesman for the Transportation Security Agency, the new federal office responsible for overseeing all U.S. checkpoints, didn’t have an answer for why these questions might have been forgotten.
As for the technical screening process at Newark, I was asked to take the laptop out of its case, but the curling iron, videocassette and other items remained in the bag as it was whisked through the X-ray machine with no questions asked.
None of the items was checked by hand afterward, although other passengers, apparently chosen at random, were made to take off their shoes and open certain bags.
Just window dressing?
Security consultant Wayne Black, who runs his own Miami-based investigative firm, said that forcing passengers to remove computers from their cases before X-raying them is “window dressing.”
But what concerned him more, he said, was that the screeners did not look in the lead-lined bag, because X-rays cannot see through the element.
Mitchell minimized the incident, saying that some advanced X-rays can see through lead, but Black insisted the image would be “murky at best.”
The next stop on MSNBC.com’s journey was London’s Heathrow, and to our surprise — given the fact that IRA terror has been a part of British life for years — this airport proved even less stringent than Newark. Perhaps this was because I was a “connecting” passenger and had not been outside the airport. There were the usual passport and boarding pass checks, along with an X-ray and metal detector screening, but nothing more. No questions, no manual check of the carry-on bag, not even an extra glance at the laptop.
Under the microscope
The experience at Ben Gurion, however, was dramatically different. This airport is famous for its strict security, and it lived up to its reputation. When returning to London via Ben Gurion, I was stopped by a college-age female security guard.
She was pleasant enough but insisted on asking questions before I could even approach the ticket desk:
“Why were you in Israel?” she asked, eschewing simple “yes” and “no” answers, forcing me to have a conversation. “How long have you been here?” “Who bought your ticket?” “Where?” and “Where did you stay?” she wanted to know.
After answering, I was escorted with my luggage — even the bag to be checked — to an explosive-detecting X-ray machine. As everything went through, the laptop was singled out. “When did you last use this?” a man asked before testing it quickly with a special explosives-detection wand.
The eight-minute security check was efficient and in no way offensive or humiliating.
Back in the States, LaGuardia was the first airport to make me take off my shoes. There was also a random check at the gate, where our carry-on was opened. But again, the film bag was ignored.
Film bag gets a look at Logan
Finally, Boston’s Logan airport — the last stop in the five-day exercise — ended up being the most stringent of the three U.S. airports. My shoes and computer were taken aside after the X-ray process and checked by hand, as well as with an explosive-detection wand. Here, for the first time, a screener asked to look inside the lead-lined film bag. She found three rolls of film.
I was asked the usual U.S.-style yes/no security questions, but unlike at Ben Gurion, no one wanted to know why I was traveling.
But that may change at Logan. Security guru Rafi Ron, the former head of security at Ben Gurion, is now a consultant at the Boston airport. He says that technology is crucial to screening but that more needs to be learned about the travelers themselves: “And the best way to do that is to interview the passengers.”
Based on MSNBC.com’s experiment, it’s impossible to conclude that one airport is better than another — or that, overall, flying is safer now than it was before Sept. 11. But at least the ground rules have been changed, says Ron, a staunch supporter of federal oversight of airports.
Changes since September
There’s no doubt that much has changed at the nation’s 429 commercial airports in the past six months, and more changes are coming. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration issued new rules limiting carry-on bags and banishing even the daintiest manicure kits to the hold. Congress then overwhelmingly approved the Airport Security Federalization Act, giving birth to what will eventually grow up to be the largest federal law enforcement agency created since the end of World War II, the Transportation Security Agency.
Last month, the new agency pushed the airlines aside, taking control of all airport checkpoints and demanding that every piece of checked luggage be examined for explosives, just as it has in Europe for the past decade. By November, the first anniversary of the law creating the agency, all screeners will become federal employees, and an estimated 28,000 of them will be put on the federal payroll.
“The bottom line is that we’re getting away from budget-driven security,” said the TSA’s Mitchell.
Training still lacking
Still, recent events show that too much contraband is able to slip through. DOT investigators recently conducted field tests at airport screening checkpoints around the United States and hundreds of tests in other areas of airport security. The results were jarring: Guns got by screeners in more than 30 percent of the tests; knives went undetected in 70 percent of the tests and simulated explosives were undetected in more than 60 percent of tests.
Wayne Black says better pay for a crucial job isn’t enough. “We can pay screeners $1,000 an hour, but if they aren’t trained and they don’t know what they’re looking for, it’s pointless.”
Black recently sent the major airports a training video demonstrating a new .22-caliber gun that looks like a cell phone. “But none of the screeners have seen it yet,” he complained.
“What we’re doing now — searching the dirty underwear of Mr. and Mrs. Jones of Cincinnati, Ohio — it’s really just window dressing,” he said.
“We’re checking gym shoes and taking tweezers from ladies because we’re not trained properly. But what we really need to do is step back and look at the bigger picture.”
But taking too much time scrutinizing “grandma” and the proverbial “Mr. and Mrs. Jones” misses the point, according to Black, who suggests that educated screeners will have to start making some “judgments” about whom they’re looking at.
This sentiment, however, brings up one of the most difficult issues in the quest for safer skies: random passenger checks vs. some form of “profiling” that would enable the trained screener to pull aside people deemed potentially suspicious for closer questioning or searching.
Random searches vs. profiling
It was clear that while reporting for MSNBC.com, much of the way in which I was treated simply had to do with random selection. Why else was I pulled aside for a second gate check at LaGuardia? And why did I sail through the whole process at Newark, while two elderly women were frisked and forced to take off their shoes?
Such random selection has been popular in the United States, partly because profiling in even the loosest sense — examining passengers intelligently and briefly questioning them — has raised the ire of civil libertarians, who worry that the process could lead to “racial” profiling.
The Council for American-Islamic Relations has cited more than 80 instances in which Muslim passengers were singled out for extensive screening, or taken off flights, since Sept 11.
“Profiling is not an effective security measure, is potentially invasive of privacy and is likely to be discriminatory,” said Katie Corrigan of the American Civil Liberties Union.
But now that the terror threat is so real, security experts, and an increasing number of lawmakers, disagree. “Profiling does not relate to a person’s racial or ethnic background, so much as to other aspects of who he is,” said Ron, based on his years of experience at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, where profiling — or “behavior pattern recognition,” as he prefers to call it — is routine. “At the same time, I do not suggest to completely ignore the fact that if someone puts down his home address as a cave in Afghanistan, I would certainly relate to this fact, and not ignore it the way it is ignored now.”
The big picture
If there’s one thing the experts agree on, it’s that there’s no single approach, whether it be profiling or using the latest biometrics technology, that will cure today’s aviation security woes.
Part of the “bigger picture,” according to Black and other experts, involves linked databases. “There should be a seamless integration between flight computers and government computers,” Black said.
As it turns out, two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi, were on a government “watch list,” flagged by the CIA as potential terrorists and pursued by the FBI. But somehow their names didn’t get into the little-known Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System already used by airlines to spot potentially suspicious travelers.
The bottom line, insisted Ron, is that security needs to be just as much about screeners scrutinizing people, as it is about the technology checking their bags. “It’s not the weapon that carries out the attack, it’s the people who carry out the attack,” he said, “and if we want to avoid another 9/11, we cannot afford not looking at the passengers.”
Even if U.S. airports don’t follow every one of Israel’s leads, one thing seems clear: The eight minutes it took MSNBC.com to get through Ben Gurion’s “tight-as-a-drum” security was probably time well spent.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.