Accuracy in Media

A 9-year-old boy carrying a “Going to Grandma’s” bag, with a stuffed animal “Beanie Baby” hanging out of it, is pulled aside, told to take his shoes off, and searched. An 82-year-old man who can barely walk because of arthritis is told to stand and raise his hands and is patted down. Females undergo “enhanced” or “more intrusive” screening as their breasts, genitals, and buttocks are subjected to “pat-down searches,” even as hundreds of thousands of airport workers with access to planes undergo no screening whatsoever.

It’s time for our media to say “enough is enough” to what passes for security at U.S. airports. The new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should be asked whether the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), which is part of the department, really is setting “the standard for excellence in transportation security through its people, processes and technologies,” as it claims.

Typically, TSA officials appear in the media to reassure the public that the lines to get on planes are “manageable” and there are “short waits.” 

Charles Slepian, an attorney and aviation security expert, disagrees. “This has gone beyond anything I thought could take place in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s a degenerate abuse of government power.”

Rather than target children and grandparents, Srdja Trifkovic, a writer for Chronicles magazine and the author of a book on Islam, Sword of the Prophet, says that “Law-enforcement agencies at all levels should be freed from the irrational ban on ‘profiling.’ Not all Muslims are terrorists, but, for some years now, nearly all terrorists of concern to America’s national security and to the quality of life of her citizens have been Muslims.”

He says that it is “time to accept that ‘profiling’ based on a person’s appearance, citizenship, origin, and apparent or suspected beliefs must be an essential tool of the trade of law enforcement and the ‘War on Terror.'”

On June 20, 2004, Northwest Flight 327 landed at Los Angeles International Airport and was met by the FBI and immigration officials because of suspicious activities on board by 14 Arab male “musicians.” The FBI said that everything checked out fine and the Arabs were in our country legally. But it was later disclosed that they were in the United States illegally without valid visas. The suspicious activities were disclosed by Annie Jacobsen, who was on the flight and now writes a regular column, “Terror in the Skies, Again?”

Some experts say that the TSA is a failed agency whose actions have left the flying public no safer than they were before 9/11.

Following the August 24 downing of two Russian airliners, most likely by two female Chechen terrorists carrying concealed explosives under their clothing, the TSA began “patting down” travelers. “There are very sinister ways of hiding weapons or explosives on terrorists’ bodies,” said TSA’s Mark Hatfield. “We need to combat that threat.”

Harassing The Innocent

But there are serious problems with the TSA’s rationale for these hands-on searches. First, those being searched are selected mostly on a random basis because screeners don’t have the ability to do valid and rational profiling. The random nature of the approach dramatically diminishes the likelihood of ever detecting a would-be terrorist. Secondly, terrorists aware of the practice could bypass security procedures by carrying explosives in body cavities.

Canines have already succeeded in detecting drugs in body cavities, and have the highest probability of detection of all methods, according to Eric Grasser, editor of Airport Security Report. However, few airports use canines effectively, he says.

Slepian points out that the use of x-ray machines and explosive trace detectors (ETD) on humans would negate the use of pat-downs. But ETD’s are only used on objects, not people. The TSA is waiting on new ETD’s designed as portals that passengers can walk through.

In one of the more highly-publicized cases, real estate attorney Rhonda Gaynier said that she was given a “breast exam” by screeners in Tampa, Florida. She retained Norman Siegel, a prominent civil rights lawyer, to study the feasibility of a class-action suit against the TSA. “People should be outraged, fuming, doing something to change this,” said Gaynier. When she complained, four police officers were summoned, she was escorted from the gate, and had to find another flight. Gaynier filed a complaint with the TSA and issued complaints and protests, including one to the feminist National Organization for Women (NOW).

Sexual Harassment?

But when AIM spoke to NOW press secretary Jenny Thalheimer to find out what had been done about Gaynier’s complaint, she said that, “We don’t have a formal statement. It’s such a sensitive issue. It’s a difficult thing to weigh in on.”

Slepian says the public should be outraged. “You do not have to be abused to have security,” he says. “There are things that could be done that are not being done.” Some measures being used are “a mere substitute for real security,” he contends.

In response, in order to defend its actions, the government is telling people, “Better safe than sorry.” But Slepian says, “we’re not any safer.”

The so-called “enhanced screening” has sparked some 260 formal protests, mostly from women, but the number of outraged passengers is much higher, since some feel too intimidated to complain. “If they protest, they won’t fly, and if they protest strenuously, they’ll be arrested,” Slepian says, “We’re taking it, and it appalls me.”

In another case, Nicholas Monahan was arrested when he complained over the treatment of his pregnant wife whose breasts were touched by Portland airport screeners. “What did you do to her?” Monahan demanded when he found her crying. He was handcuffed and held in a jail cell for nearly two hours. The couple was also banned from the airport for 90 days and escorted off the property by the officers.

More than 1,000 people have been arrested at airport checkpoints since the federal government took over airport security in February 2002. It is now a federal crime to interfere with airport-screening personnel. Even a single word of complaint or disgust can trigger an arrest or bar a customer from a flight.

There is zero tolerance for dissent or for arguing in favor of one’s legal rights.

Other publicized cases include:

  • Heather Maurer, a business executive from Washington, said that a male screener gave her a full body pat-down and “lifted my shirt and looked down the back of my pants.”

  • Broadway star Patti LuPone said she was instructed to remove articles of clothing at a security checkpoint in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  “I took off my belt, I took off my clogs, I took off my leather jacket,” she said. “But when the screener said, ‘Now take off your shirt,’ I hesitated. I said, ‘But I’ll be exposed!’ When she persisted in her complaints, she was barred from her flight.

  • Melanie Higley, an American Airlines flight attendant for 18 years, was in tears after experiencing “enhanced screening.” “I felt like I was being molested,” she said.

The rationale given by the TSA for the pat-downs is further contradicted by other security failures. While the feds move in to fondle women’s breasts, crotches and buttocks, the 900,000 airport employees with access to ramps and airplanes are mostly not screened in any way. The only exceptions are in Miami, Denver and Minneapolis.

“If they were that concerned,” Slepian says, “They would be doing this to the airport workers.”  He describes them as a “suspect work force” due to allegations of drug use, immigration law violations, and theft. After the TSA took over airport security, it was discovered that the agency had failed to conduct adequate background checks and had hired known felons.

“It’s just a matter of time before something happens on the backside of an airport,” Grasser warns.

The Hidden Danger

While innocent citizens are treated like criminals, crime among the largely unscreened airport workforce continues to be the subject of scattered media reports. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in goods have been stolen, resulting in arrests across the country.

The ongoing problem of theft by airport employees is an indicator of a vulnerability to terrorism. In the case of the doomed Russian jets, an employee was bribed to let the women on board. Similarly an employee could be bribed to place explosives on an aircraft, or the employee could be a terrorist himself.

“Many times theft occurs in the belly of the airplane with the baggage handler inside the plane, and it’s impossible to see what they’re doing,” aviation consultant Douglas Laird said. “The same is true with TSA.”

Given the glaring lapses elsewhere and the lack of interest in screening airport employees, why is the TSA pushing the pat-downs? It’s all part of a show, Slepian says, pointing out that the TSA is always under pressure in the holiday season to show it can handle security threats and is being aggressively vigilant.

Federalization of screeners and creation of the TSA was pushed by Democrats. Republicans opposed it. To reach a compromise, both sides agreed to include a clause in the Transportation Security Act, stipulating that airports could eventually opt out of the program, reverting to use of private screeners, who would remain under federal supervision. The clause received little media attention, and few pointed out the waste of federal dollars associated with it. 

Politics As Usual

So Democrats and Republicans knowingly pushed a bill that they knew from the start would effectively waste hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, spent on hiring, screening, and training, when airports could effectively drop out of the program only two years later.

Meanwhile, in an area that has been highlighted by some news organizations, the TSA continues to be plagued by serious security lapses.

Back in March of 2002, USA Today had reported that, in 70 percent of all airport security tests, undercover government agents were able to sneak knives past airport screeners; in 60 percent of their attempts, they were able to slip simulated explosive devices past the system; and 30 percent of the time they were able to get guns through.

Embarrassing lapses brought to light by a variety of media “stings” cannot be attributed to birth pangs of the agency, but are now seen by some experts as endemic to it

Earlier this month, as part of an NBC investigation in Louisville, Kentucky, a field producer took a bag big enough to hold enough dynamite to kill hundreds of people and put it in the middle of the main terminal at the Louisville Airport. It sat unnoticed for more than an hour.

Last month, The Newark Star-Ledger obtained confidential reports indicating airport screeners missed one in four explosives and weapons that TSA agents attempted to sneak past the checkpoints in tests this summer. The paper also reported that thousands of checked bags were going onto planes at Newark Airport each day without being scanned for explosives and that checkpoints remained seriously understaffed. The airport, which was one of three used by the September 11 terrorists, had previously experienced staffing shortages and delays in implementing electronic screening of bags for explosives. Despite concerns about safety at the airport, Marcus Arroyo, director of security at Newark Liberty International Airport, got a federal pay bonus of $20,000.

Grasser says such reporting is valuable. “Lots of reporters are naturally lazy, they simply take the TSA press releases and report them without questioning or follow-up,” he says. “This is why the TSA keeps sending out these press releases congratulating themselves and assuring the people the system is good. It’s not.” But he says the media have to go beyond highlighting problems to offering solutions.

Slepian says, however, that if the media get too aggressive in reporting safety and security problems, companies involved with travel and tourism threaten to pull their ads and commercials from media outlets.

Grasser says the public’s interest is not served by describing security vulnerabilities in detail, but that the TSA “has got to own up to its failures.” He says, “I can’t count how many lies the TSA has been caught in over the past 3 years.” He adds that government officials who might want to leak information to the media, in an effort to warn the public about problems in aviation security, are thwarted by excessive branding of information as “secret” by the TSA.

Worst of all, these experts say, no one is being held accountable. Despite all the findings of the 9/11 commission, no one has lost their job and many who were part of the institutional failures have received promotions.

Michael J. Boyd, an aviation consultant based in Colorado, says we don’t have better security because the “new” people in charge are the same old bureaucrats from the Federal Aviation Administration.

To make matters worse, when whistleblowers like the TSA’s Bogdan Dzakovic come along, those in charge simply take their whistle away. Dzakovic, who testified at the 9/11 hearings, had warned of an aviation terrorist attack months and even years before 9/11. Neither Dzakovic’s advice, nor that of other former FAA security professionals from the “Red Team,” who covertly tested airport security measures, has been followed up on. Dzakovic remains effectively shackled to a desk stripped of his responsibilities.

A review conducted by AIM found other daunting weaknesses:

  • Former FAA Red Team member Steve Elson participated in a “sting” of an airport, in which an explosive material was smeared on someone’s belt buckle, clothing, luggage and lap-top. Despite being screened thoroughly, including with trace detectors, he was not stopped. Why? Because the explosive trace detectors do not recognize all explosive elements.

  • Italian aeronautics engineer Carlo Viberti of the Turin Cosmo Association has discovered that weapons, including guns, can be concealed from detectors if carried under Teflon or Nomex fabric popular in winter jackets, vests and a number of other items. He joined with Italian police in alerting the U.S. State Department, and other agencies, but received no substantive response.

  • During busy holiday travel, screeners can’t possibly check all the baggage that sets off alarms, given that the machines now in use have a 15-20 percent false-positive rate. In-line baggage checking helps the time constraints, but is only in use in about a dozen or so airports. To get an idea of how many baggage alarms are going off, look at the metal poles protruding above baggage screening machines. A flashing green light indicates a suspicious item has been detected.

  • Cockpit doors have been fortified, yet the surrounding bulkhead is not fortified. Pilots still need to exit in flight to use restrooms or to get food. Unlike Israel’s El Al Airlines, American carriers do not use a permanent double-door system, keeping cockpit door activity from view.

  • U.S. security officials have compromised with foreign airlines on the issue of receiving flight manifests. They now receive lists of passengers after the airplane door is shut and the plane is on its way. If a passenger is on the watch list, the flight must then be diverted.

  • The terrorist “watch list” is rife with errors. “Innocent people, even Congressmen turn up on these lists,” Grasser points out.

The controversies continue to mount. The TSA, in the words of a report from the House Appropriations Committee, is “seemingly unable to make crisp decisions…unable to work cooperatively with the nation’s airports; and unable to take advantage of the multitude of security-improving and labor-saving technologies available.”

So why isn’t Congress doing something about it? According to Slepian, who has had extensive communications with Congressmen about the problem, there is a fear of reprisal among those sitting on the Aviation Subcommittee. “They go along to get along,” he says, “If they complain too loudly they’re not likely to get projects funded for airports in their constituencies.”

“They would only take it so far and then they won’t fight. They won’t go public with condemnation,” Slepian says, adding, “They’re afraid to get involved. It’s all CYA [cover your ass].”

When Slepian encouraged Rep. Peter DeFazio, Ranking Democrat on the House Aviation Subcommittee, to sponsor a law requiring airport employees to be screened, “DeFazio almost got run out of Washington. He had to pull it out of a bill.”

“Industry is as active as ever lobbying and effectively delaying and preventing some security initiatives from being imple-mented.” Grasser says. He insists screening of employees can be done: “Heathrow Airport does it and has since 1990, right after the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 [in 1988]. It’s going to have to be done eventually.”

Slepian says that pressure now needs to be brought to bear on the executive branch: “The White House is fully aware the TSA is a failed agency swirling with people who are incompetent but nothing is done.” One thing they need to do is prohibit the “pat-downs” that have received some press attention. A Congressional hearing on this subject is likely and could lead to other necessary changes.

In addition to using the currently prohibited practice of  “profiling,” Srdja Trifkovic of Chronicles magazine argues for other tough measures. He says, for example, that new immigration legislation should be enacted “to exclude all persons engaged in Islamic activism from America.”

The Fifth Column

He says that, “Such activism should be defined as propagating, disseminating, or otherwise supporting jihad (in its primary sense of divinely sanctioned war against non-Muslims); discrimination against Christians, Jews, and other ‘infidels;’ discrimination and violence against women; the sanction of slavery, a poll tax, etc. Islam’s violent manifestations and its discriminatory scriptural message are inseparable.”

Trifkovic argues that, “Islamic activism should be treated as grounds for the exclusion or deportation of any alien, regardless of status or ties in the United States, and for the loss of acquired U.S. citizenship and deportation. The presence in this country of any visitor, resident alien, or naturalized American who preaches jihad, discrimination against ‘infidels’ and women, the establishment of sharia, etc., is inherently prejudicial to the public interest, inimical to social harmony, and injurious to national security.”

What You Can Do

Please send the enclosed cards or cards and letters of your own choosing to Karl Rove in the White House and John Roberts of CBS News. If you would like a copy of AIM’s list of the most underreported and buried stories of 2004, drop us the postcard requesting that, too.

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