Is it safer to fly today than it was before 9/11? The short answer, according to a new documentary, is no.
Despite spending billions of dollars, creating a new government agency and creating numerous new security procedures, the makers of "Please Remove Your Shoes" argue that the flying public today is no safer from a terrorist attack than it was before Sept. 11, 2001.
"What we've got now is nothing but security theater, meaning all these bells and whistles that you see are only meant to make you feel safe," former federal air marshal P. Jeffrey Black says in the documentary. "I honestly think we were safer before 9/11 than we are now."
The central theme of "Please Remove Your Shoes" is that the Transportation Security Administration has grown into a massive government bureaucracy with too much money. The filmmakers argue it hasn't taken enough preemptive measures in fighting terrorists and that instead of addressing real security concerns, the TSA focuses on herding people through checkpoints as fast as possible and hires poorly-trained workers who dress up in uniforms and play cop.
"Our real security at the airport, while admittedly immeasurable, appears to be even worse than ever," Fred Gevalt, the film's executive producer, told ABC News. "Clearly something has to be fixed. We have given TSA sufficient time since their creation to establish their merit and they haven't. It's time to call for a rethink of the whole security system, and now is as good a time as any. We certainly shouldn't allow this farce to continue."
The 94-minute documentary is being released straight to DVD on July 1. There is no studio is behind it, with Gevalt personally funding it.
Gevalt and director Rob DelGaudio use six current and former federal security officials to tell the story of airline security before 9/11, the creation of the TSA and some of the problems they see now with the agency. Most of the arguments in the film have been made before and the accusations come from whistleblowers whose contempt for the agencies they say did not listen to them comes across clearly and harshly.
Gevalt says the TSA and other government agencies are filled with "laziness, waste, disregard for employees, citizens and above all nepotism."
In response to the movie and the whistleblower accusations, the TSA said it has "significantly improved aviation security following the tragic events of 9/11."
"We have full confidence in our highly trained workforce to use the latest intelligence, state of the art technology and other layers of security to keep the traveling public safe," said TSA spokesman Greg Soule. "The agency will continue to implement enhanced security measures to stay ahead of ever evolving threats."
The Federal Aviation Administration, which was also criticized in the movie, declined to comment, directing questions to the TSA.
Filmmaker Previously Sued the FAA
Gevalt is a Vietnam veteran who founded the Air Charter Guide, a listing of all the charter operators around the globe. He once successfully sued the FAA, arguing that the lack of regulations for fractional aircraft ownership programs gave them an unfair advantage against the commercial charter business.
Now retired, he initially began making a movie that suggested Americans have become too afraid of terrorism. But that quickly changed into a critique of the TSA.
"At a minimum, I hope to wake up the air traveler, who has put up with personal indignities and a very real loss of civil liberties since 9/11," Gevalt said, adding that passengers who are OK "falling into line and cooperating at the airport" are "actually enabling an abusive agency to expand its empire."
He said little has changed under the Obama administration, but Soule countered by saying that the TSA has improved on many of the issues presented in the documentary.
"TSA is a young agency, and many of the allegations raised in the film are past issues that have been long since addressed," Soule said.
Terrorists Are 'Sneaky'
"Please Remove Your Shoes" starts off in the pre-9/11 days, when the airlines were responsible for airport security, overseen by the FAA.
Steve Elson, a security special agent with the FAA, explained that his job was to covertly test the accuracy of screeners by trying to sneak guns, bombs and other items through the checkpoints. Screeners almost never detected items, with fail rates above 90 percent, Elson said.
He said the tests were insufficient because FAA testers followed certain agreed-upon rules about what size guns the testers would try to sneak past screeners.
"Terrorists aren't like that. They're sneaky," he said.
Fellow covert FAA tester Bogdan Dzakovic said the best airports only caught the explosives and guns 20 percent of the time.
"Usually the worse the results were that we had on any given project, the less we were tasked to test to see if they had improved," Dzakovic said. "Management simply did not tolerate any kind of dissenting opinion or even discussion about maybe we should do things better."
Has the TSA Improved Air Security?
After 9/11, the government moved quickly to create a new security agency, the Transportation Security Administration. The rest of the movie recaps the TSA's past mistakes, large growth in personnel and budget and, in the filmmakers' view, its inability to improve security.
"I helped create TSA and I've referred to it sometimes as either my bastard child or a monster that we've created, a bureaucratic monster," Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., says in the film. "It didn't turn out exactly the way I intended."
One aviation consultant who asked to not to be named because he has done consulting work for the TSA, conceded that the agency still has "a long way to go" but also pointed out that it has made major improvements.
"TSA's got huge problems. But it doesn't mean it's categorically unsafe," said the safety expert and former pilot. "I get on the airlines every week and I don't worry."
TSA Hiring Questioned
Franklin Puello spent 21 years in the New York Police Department, working undercover in narcotics and retiring as a detective just before 9/11. He joined the newly-formed TSA after the terrorist attacks and says he found an agency more concerned about the speed of screening passengers than about security, claiming that this showed in the agencies hiring practices.
"Our military and law enforcement background was a hindrance. They felt threatened that we knew too much, that we were too independent," Puello said. "They wanted really puppy dogs that they could train, malleable individuals, and that's why the recruitment is deplorable."
"When you put someone in a uniform with a shield, there is an expectation by the public that that person can protect them and function as a police officer," adds Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. "Not someone you simply dress up in nice pants, a nice shirt and a shiny badge and say let's play cop."
Isaac Yeffet, a former head of security for the Israeli airline El Al who now runs his own firm, Yeffet Security Consultants, said that "all of our aviation security is a joke, an illusion."
Yeffet has not seen the movie, but he said the TSA relies too much on technology and has a hiring approach of "we need bodies, not qualified people."
"Technology is good to help a qualified, well- trained human being. Technology can never replace a qualified, well trained human being," he said.
Air Marshals Face Challenges
Those who did have law enforcement duties, such as the federal air marshals placed on planes after 9/11, also ran in the problems.
Black said that his job as an air marshal was compromised by a rigid dress code that forced him to wear a suit and tie, even on flights to tourist destinations like Las Vegas or Hawaii.
"We boarded the plane before the passengers. When we got on board the plane and they saw us, they knew we were federal air marshals. They would shake our hand, pat us on the back and thank us for being on the plane," Black said. "If the passengers know who the air marshals are, so do the terrorists."
The message: You kill the guys with the suits first.
"We went to our supervisors and said this was making our job very difficult," Black said. "And of course their reply was: we need you to have a professional image on that plane."
'We Still Don't Have a System That Is Rational'
The only contemporary security issue addressed by the movie comes in a late reference to the failed attempt to blow up a jet flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
"It's the same old story. Failure to share information. Failure to turn raw data into actionable intelligence," said Brian Sullivan, a former FAA security special agent who retired before 9/11 and narrates the documentary. "Failures followed by senseless, knee-jerk reactions focused on the wrong people."
"Al Qaeda succeeded on 9/11 because people at the top levels of government valued their promotions and pensions more than the public trust, a situation by no means unique to the TSA," Sullivan adds. "The sad reality is despite huge expenditures and dangerously-expanded authority, we still don't have a system that is rational, effective and proportionate to the threat. We continue to sacrifice our resources and freedoms for nothing more than an elaborate façade of security."