Investigation looks at airport-screener testing

ByThomas Frank, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- A federal investigator has launched a probe into whether security screeners at six airports have cheated on covert tests run by undercover agents trying to sneak weapons through checkpoints.

Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner said he is investigating whether screeners were tipped off to tests that determine how well airport workers find guns, bombs and knives.

The broad investigation follows Skinner's findings that screeners at airports in San Francisco and Jackson, Miss., had been told in advance of undercover tests in 2003 and 2004. Skinner is investigating "whether (screeners) at other airports received advance notice of any covert testing," Homeland spokeswoman Tamara Faulkner said Thursday.

The probe was welcomed by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Last year, he called for an investigation into Jackson-Evers International Airport in his home state after media reports of wrongdoing.

Cheating "weakens our security systems at airports," Thompson said.

Thompson said Skinner's office told him it was looking at six airports that it would not name.

Faulkner said only that Skinner "selected several airports" for the investigation, which should be finished by late fall.

The Transportation Security Administration "will do whatever we can to facilitate the investigation," agency spokesman Christopher White said. The TSA employs both airport screeners and agents who run undercover tests.

The tests aim to bolster security by analyzing screeners' ability to find weapons and requiring screeners who fail them to undergo remedial training.

A report from Skinner's office found that screeners in Jackson "received advance notice of covert testing" by TSA agents in February 2004. The screeners were tipped off by fellow TSA employees at the airport, who described the gender and race of the TSA agents, the type of weapons they were trying to get past screeners and where the weapons were hidden in checked and carry-on bags, Skinner found.

White said the tip-off came from Jackson screeners who were temporarily assigned to airports in Hattiesburg and Meridian, Miss., and saw covert agents there in early 2004. Those screeners "came back to Jackson and told their co-workers" what they had seen in Hattiesburg and Meridian, White said. The covert teams then did testing in Jackson.

The TSA has changed procedures so undercover teams no longer test several proximate airports at roughly the same time, White said. "We absolutely agree with the inspector general's findings. We've made assurances it will not happen in the future," he said.

The findings could undermine confidence in aviation security, Thompson said. "Many people who travel and assume that security is the best possible would be fearful knowing that the system has been gimmicked to look successful."

White said that covert testing is "very important" and that screeners' ability to find weapons is scrutinized in other ways.

Skinner's investigation into cheating at San Francisco found last year that officials from TSA and an airport security company tracked undercover agents with surveillance cameras and tipped off screeners before the agents got to checkpoints. The tip-offs were orchestrated in 2003-04 by the TSA's second-in-command in San Francisco after local news reporters ran their own security tests at the airport, Skinner found.

The practice was stopped in 2004 after a security-company employee refused to broadcast notices about the agents.

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