As Egyptian authorities investigate whether an airport insider may have planted a bomb on the doomed Russian airliner, U.S. lawmakers and aviation officials a raising questions about security at American airports, where they say dozens of current airport employees are under scrutiny because of possible ties to or sympathies with extremist groups.
An aviation security official told ABC News that surveillance video at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport is being scrutinized for someone with access to the plane on the airport ramp. While no official determination has been made, U.S. and U.K. officials have said they believe it’s likely a bomb brought down the flight last Saturday, killing more than 200 people. An ISIS affiliate in Egypt claimed responsibility for the attack.
The possibility of an insider threat is also of concern to U.S. aviation officials. Just last week, questions were raised at a congressional hearing about shortcomings in U.S. airport screening, including questions regarding background checks of employees and employee access to secured areas of airports.
“It’s no secret that people interested in harming America are coming up with creative ways to circumvent the existing security measures,” House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said at the hearing’s opening.
The Department of Homeland Security currently does not require 100 percent physical screening of workers with access to planes. In some major airports, workers only have to flash a badge to security screeners, don’t go through metal detectors as passengers do and their bags are not inspected. For pilots and crew, there are also special access lanes where luggage goes uninspected.
“Anyone who has access to the secure area or to the flight line must be fully vetted and physically screened to ensure that they aren’t bringing dangerous items or illegal items onto an airplane,” said John Cohen, former DHS undersecretary and current ABC News consultant.
A DHS Inspector General report published this summer said the Transportation Safety Administration failed to identify 73 people with “terrorism-related category codes” working for major airlines, airport vendors, or others in the airport.
“TSA acknowledged that these individuals were cleared for access to secure airport areas despite representing a potential transportation security threat,” the report says.
“They’re getting through our screening process and getting into secure areas of the airport and being awarded credentials,” Rep. Steven Lynch, D-Mass., told ABC News. Lynch serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security.
The IG report did not discuss individual cases, but it has been reported that in at least one instance an American who went to Syria to join ISIS and was killed there had previously worked for Delta Airlines as a cleaner in the Minneapolis airport.
The head of the TSA, Peter Neffenger, disputed the IG’s findings, saying none of the 73 individuals in question were actually on any terrorist watch lists.
“They had incomplete indicia in what’s called the terrorist information data-mart environment,” Neffenger told lawmakers. “But their information wasn’t sufficient to raise to known or suspected terrorist status.”
Still, the TSA said it’s taking steps to improve airport employee screening.
Rep. Adam Schiff, who has received classified briefings on the Russian plane crash, said he’s concerned about the “vulnerability” in the U.S. airports.
“Your defenses are only as good as the people that are surrounding those defenses,” Schiff, D-Calif., said. “If you can get around the metal detectors, if you can go through airport employees, either via corruption or placing your own people there, that’s a vulnerability and the U.S. – we have seen gangs smuggle drugs or weapons through aircraft [security] and if they can get guns and drugs on planes, it stands to reason that they could get explosives as well.”