WASHINGTON — Federal aviation officials, fresh from a furor over invasive new passenger screening measures, now face allegations that security gaps make it too easy for terrorists to pose as ground workers and to sabotage planes.
A veteran California airline pilot triggered the latest aviation security controversy by posting a cell phone video on YouTube to demonstrate how easy it is for catering, custodial and maintenance workers to swipe a badge on a scanning device and reach the tarmac.
But he wasn't the only pilot to speak up over the government's decision to let tarmac workers forego screening in metal detectors.
Last spring, a retired Northwest Airlines captain sent a letter to the White House warning that ground workers "have access to very vulnerable areas of the airplane" and could easily plant a bomb, McClatchy learned Tuesday.
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And the chief author of the law creating the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said in an interview that he believes ground workers should be required to pass through metal detectors, just as passengers and pilots do.
"I don't see why any person employed in the airport would have a legitimate basis to object to going through that screening procedure," said Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who will end his 36 years in Congress next week.
"Even upper-level TSA officials go through the security point," he said. "They take their belts off, their shoes off. They go through the metal detector. There should not be two levels of security at the airport."
TSA officials, however, stood by their current risk-based system that relies on background checks to ensure that workers aren't convicted felons and have no known links to terrorist groups before obtaining badges from airports to gain entry to secure areas. Ground workers are then subject to random screenings by mobile security crews.
"Crew members who have access to sensitive areas of both airports and airplanes are subject to multiple layers of security," TSA spokesman Greg Soule said. "All airport and airline employees are subject to a TSA-approved airport security plan, which includes thorough background checks, access control systems and random screening."
Oberstar said, however, that it appears that TSA officials were justified in stripping the whistle-blowing California pilot Chris Liu of his guns and from his participation in a federal anti-terrorism program for airing the video, which agency officials say exposed "sensitive security information." Oberstar said that Liu failed to fulfill his obligation in the program, which allows pilots to carry guns, to meet "a higher standard of performance."
The debate over the adequacy of security on the tarmacs has raged for years, intensifying after al Qaida hijackers rammed four U.S. jetliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside on Sept. 11, 2001.
Oberstar recalled that in September 2001, there were 17,000 access doors leading to secure areas of New York's JFK International Airport. The attacks led airport officials to weld or otherwise seal most of them.
Oberstar and Democratic Rep. Peter DiFazio of Oregon pushed, unsuccessfully, for mandatory screening of ground workers, and in 2007, Congress allotted $15 million for the TSA to test full screening of ground workers at seven airports.
TSA officials reported in July 2009, however, that based on the experiment, they felt that random screening was a more cost-effective approach because it was "roughly" as effective in identifying contraband items at much less cost. The Government Accountability Office reported that it couldn't verify that TSA used an adequate test methodology, which made the findings questionable.
Still unclear is whether the agency will employ biometric technology, such as fingerprints, to ensure that terrorists can't slip into secure areas with stolen credentials.
The retired Northwest pilot who wrote the White House, former Air Force Col. Hugh Sims, says he also was one of two flight school officials to tip the FBI in the summer of 2001 that al Qaida plotter Zacarias Moussaoui was taking lessons in flying a 747 jumbo jet, leading to his arrest.
Sims, who flew planes for the Air Force for 22 years and then served as a pilot and captain for Northwest for another 22 years, said he faxed a letter to John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, last March, but never heard back. McClatchy obtained a copy of his letter.
"What is being done to insure that the people servicing the aircraft prior to its next flight are not a security risk?" he wrote. "This is especially true of the people who clean the aircraft between flights, the caterers restocking the galleys or even the baggage handlers loading the cargo areas."
In a phone interview Tuesday, Sims said that weaknesses in screening of ground crews create "a gaping hole" in U.S. aviation security.
He said, for example, that ground workers could smuggle a fist-sized explosive device into a secure area and than pass it to a passenger who'd cleared security and was milling in the food courts or stores lining airport concourses. Or a custodial worker cleaning a bathroom alone could sabotage a plane, he said. Sims suggested that those employees be required to work in pairs.
"The airports are vulnerable," he lamented. "There's just no way to lock it all up."
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