Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Anyone who has flown since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has stood in line for the new screening procedures implemented by the Transportation Security Administration and has probably seen a pilot or flight attendant be ushered by for "expedited screening."
But a TSA official acknowledged Thursday to the House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation that airport workers who do not normally work on board airplanes do not undergo any security screening.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) recounted a trip to a "major metropolitan airport," where he said he observed a security officer checking identification badges and then waiving airport employees past the checkpoint without undergoing any type of screening for weapons or explosives.
"I said, 'Well, isn't that a problem?' and they said, 'Don't worry; these people aren't getting on airplanes.' And I said, 'Well, how do you know they're not getting on an airplane if, once they go through here, they have an e-ticket and go to the gate? Or they've got a boarding pass that they actually got out front? I mean, how do you know they're not getting on an airplane?" DeFazio explained.
Stephen McHale, deputy administrator of the TSA, acknowledged not only that what DeFazio saw is routine at the particular airport in question, but also said that it is standard procedure throughout the country.
"Yes, it is true that workers who already have what's called a SIDA or Secure Identification Display Area badge can enter that area without going through screening," McHale admitted. "The SIDA is typically the 'air side' of the airport, and those employees are subjected to a separate and extensive background investigation, and they're granted that SIDA access as a result."
McHale said that once employees are issued a SIDA badge, they are "typically" not subject to additional screening.
"I think it's really just, frankly, a question of resources and risk assessment," he continued. "We know a lot about those individuals and, as a general matter, they are not getting on airplanes."
'I don't think McDonalds is doing background checks'
But DeFazio pointed out that he was not referring to airline or government employees, who are subject to extensive background investigations before they are granted access to secure areas of airports.
"These were...civilian employees going to their minimum wage jobs at McDonalds and elsewhere in this large terminal. That's what I observed, and they were not being screened," the congressman said. "I don't think McDonalds is doing background checks."
McHale said the TSA is updating its regulations on access to secure areas.
"We are changing the procedures to require background checks on all employees who have access either to the air-side or to the sterile areas of airports beyond the checkpoints," he explained. "They [pilots and flight attendants] have to go through security because they are working on the aircraft."
DeFazio seemed angered by McHale's response.
"We're subjecting the pilots and the flight attendants to it because we know they're getting on an airplane. But we also know that none of them are terrorists," he said. "But we're not subjecting these other people - who could be getting on an airplane - to it who we don't know virtually anything about."
Weapons could be smuggled into secure areas
The congressman argued that security personnel have no way to track the activities of those employees once they are inside the airport's secure perimeter.
"There's nothing to bar any individual getting a boarding pass and going to work that day," DeFazio said. "There's nothing to prevent those people from becoming passengers. There's no searching going on; they could be carrying in firearms."
DeFazio said he will never consider background checks an acceptable substitute for daily security screening.
"This is not satisfactory. I see this as an enormous loophole. I didn't think this was general policy; I thought this was a big mistake. Now, you're telling me it's general policy," he concluded. "I'm sorry I brought it up publicly, but now I have, and this is just extraordinary."
McHale responded: "We are trying to tighten this up as we can."
Employees subject to bribery, blackmail and coercion
Counter-terrorism and security expert J. Kelly McCann, senior vice president of the Kroll Protective Services and Training Group, told CNSNews.com that the policy "makes little sense."
He noted that the policy could be exploited by terrorists, who could blackmail or bribe an employee to carry contraband into the secure area, or even take the employee's family hostage to coerce his or her cooperation.
"The bottom line is that the safest way to do it - and, quite frankly, it wouldn't breed as much hate and discontent between entities - is that everybody goes through [screening]," McCann said.
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