Jan. 5, 2010— -- A set of security cameras owned by Newark Liberty International Airport were not functioning properly Sunday night when a person was spotted walking into a secure section of the airport, setting off a security alert and shutting down the airport for hours, ABC News has learned.
Now, the responsibility to operate those cameras -- broken since Dec. 28 -- has become a point of contention between the airport and the Transportation Security Administration.
The security cameras, owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the airport's operator, were rolling but not recording, forcing the TSA to seek permission to use a second set of surveillance cameras controlled by Continental Airlines.
"The Port Authority-owned camera was not working," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who plans to hold hearings on this subject later this month. "The TSA was the one that was supposed to notify the Port Authority that the cameras weren't working."
The redundant cameras have been in place since the pre-9/11 era when, the airlines were responsible for their own security. Continental provided the tapes to the TSA as soon as the airline became aware the TSA wanted them. The inoperable cameras caused a two-hour gap between the security breach and when the TSA was able to confirm it.
Newark was one of the airports from which one of the four jets used in the Sept. 11 terror attacks took off more than eight years ago.
The Port Authority said it pays for the cameras but does not operate them or maintain them, adding that it's up to the TSA to inform the Port Authority when the cameras are not working properly so they can be fixed. The Port Authority said that on Sunday night the cameras were rolling but not recording, therefore rendering them useless in the effort to determine whether a breach occurred, and that the TSA did not inform the airport that the cameras were out.
"That's a huge problem," said a government source familiar with the investigation, adding that this is "one of the biggest problems that we've found through this experience."
The TSA, however, which has the primary governmental responsibility to secure the nation's skies, says it has no independent control of any surveillance cameras at any airport in the country.
"It is an odd system," Lautenberg said.
The revelation that the cameras were nonfunctional comes as the TSA investigates the Sunday security breach that brought the Newark airport's busiest terminal to a halt for more than seven hours.
The breach occurred at approximately 5:20 p.m. Sunday, when a man was spotted walking the wrong way through an exit door leading to the airport's Terminal C secure area.
The incident was captured on Continental's surveillance cameras, but it took TSA officials two hours to confirm the breach. The response might have been faster, one source told ABC News, if TSA had better access to the tapes, calling this a "sticking point."
At many airports, the TSA does have immediate access to surveillance tapes. In the case of Newark's Terminal C, Continental runs the terminal and TSA was forced to go through the airline to obtain surveillance footage for review.
Once Sunday's breach was confirmed by TSA after 7 p.m., security screening stopped as an attempt was made to locate the man who had passed through the wrong door. Moments later, it was decided to remove all passengers from Terminal C -- the airport's busiest -- so that officers could search the concourse and every passenger could be rescreened.
The TSA officer stationed at the exit door as been reassigned.
"The officer has been assigned to non-screening duties pending a review of the breach," the TSA's Ann Davis said. "TSA will look at all of the circumstances and make a determination as to what level of disciplinary action is warranted."
U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., plans to question the nation's top aviation security officials about this incident at a hearing Jan. 20.
"The TSA's failure to prevent someone from walking into a secure area of Newark Liberty Airport is completely unacceptable. This security breakdown was inexcusable, especially when our aviation system was supposedly on high alert," Lautenberg said in a statement. "TSA must immediately conduct a full investigation to determine what went wrong and make sure it never happens again so that air passengers feel confident every time they board a plane."
It took several hours to sweep the empty Newark concourse Sunday night. Passengers were allowed to go back through security just before midnight.
"We had to take action that unfortunately inconvenienced a hell of a lot of people," Davis said.
Continental says more than 100 flights were impacted, and though the operation is "looking good" today, there are still some international flights that were behind schedule Monday afternoon.
"We're going to look at the timeline to see how we could have done better," Davis said.
The offending man has still not been identified and has not been found. Surveillance cameras showed him leaving the airport 20 minutes after he breached the exit door. Nothing harmful was discovered during the security sweep.
These kinds of episodes happen on occasion, the TSA says. In the week that began Dec. 14, the agency says there were 37 incidents at airports across the country that involved a checkpoint closure, terminal evacuation or a sterile area breach.
Sunday's breach at Newark comes as the TSA implements new security procedures or passengers flying into the US from countries tied to terrorism, in the wake of the attempted Christmas day bombing of a plane headed to Detroit.
Passengers on flights arriving from Paris and Mumbai told ABC News they were frisked at their departure gates, and every piece of their carry-on luggage was searched.
"You had to take off your jacket, you had to take off your purse, they went through your purse and did the whole body thing," one passenger said.