A congressional report on the terrorist threat posed by airport “insiders” says the Transportation Security Administration, airport operators and airlines must do a better job of screening workers such as baggage handlers or cleaning crews for possible security threats.
It’s also treading depressingly familiar ground.
The report, released this week by the House Homeland Security Committee’s majority staff, cites several cases going back as far as 2008 in which aviation workers, former employees or contractors were recruited to fight for ISIS or other terrorist groups or engaged in efforts to smuggle firearms or other contraband aboard aircraft.
It says the nation’s approximately 450 airports remain vulnerable to insider attacks because they have not taken the steps necessary to properly check and periodically recheck employees’ backgrounds in a comprehensive way. It cites instances where security badges have gone missing. It also says most airport and the aviation industry have still not implemented “full employee screening” – or even agreed what that means. And it urged the wider use of biometric controls and better sharing of information among law enforcement and national security agencies.
And yet to Glen Winn, an instructor at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering who specializes in aviation security, the most shocking thing about the report is that it’s all been said before.
“We’ve been through this many, many times,” Winn said. “Following even the Pan Am 103 terrorist act in 1983, they wrote a beautiful report, and it was issued in 1989. Many subjects in this report were included in that report.”
Among them, Winn said, were the directive to national security and law enforcement agencies to share information more fluidly. Another was the idea that all aviation employees should undergo the sort of physical screening that passengers and flight crews must undergo before gaining access to planes, boarding ramps and tarmacs – a policy that would be difficult to put in place without great inconvenience and financial expense. Instead, many airports rely on random, periodic checks. The committee’s report suggests that’s not enough, or at least as it’s done at most airports.
“That report was right on in that the majority of employees at high-risk airports are not being screened,” Winn said. “Is it a shock? No, it’s been known for a long time.”
But if anything, the report already suggests that the enormous apparatus in place to vet and re-vet aviation workers is not exactly porous, and it notes some progress in tightening the perimeter. Under former Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson, workers who had badge access to secure areas were required to undergo fingerprint-based background checks every two years. The TSA is working with the FBI to deploy a system known as RapBack to do recurring background checks.
The Airports Council International-North America, an organization that bills itself as the “voice of airports,” took an aggrieved tone in its response:
“Despite our best efforts to provide the subcommittee with accurate and valuable information about the security measures currently in place, the report does not speak adequately enough to the significant progress airports, airlines, and TSA have taken in recent years to further enhance measures to mitigate concerns about the insider threat and provide for the safety and security of the traveling public,” the group said in a written statement.
Former TSA administrator Peter Neffenger also told the panel last May that employee screening has improved and become more effective. Neffenger has also testified on more than one occasion that providing security is a daunting task when even one lapse can lead to disaster.
“The big thing is that we have the threat, and it’s real, and people better pay attention,” Winn said. “It’s amazing to me: How many commission reports do we have to write?”