By Jim Kouri
The security breach at Newark Liberty International Airport reported on Tuesday, although troubling to many, was not the first serious lapse in aviation security and it probably won’t be the last to occur in a multi-billion dollar government enterprise, according to security experts. They point to a government report that documents upwards of 25,000 breaches of airport security checkpoints since November 2001.
The Homeland Security Department had completed an initial study to validate the scientific basis of the Transportation Security Administration’s Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program; however, additional work remains to fully validate the program, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office in July.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations called a subsequent hearing to investigate airport security after reports showed there had been 25,000 breaches of security checkpoints since November 2001.
Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a frequent critic of the TSA, complained about the security breaches and called them “unacceptable.”
“We appreciate TSA in tracking and providing that data, but obviously, those are the ones we know about,” Rep. Chaffetz said at the start of Wednesday’s hearings. “The deep concern is, what about the ones we don’t know about?”
Chaffetz added that he was concerned that the TSA had not conducted threat-vulnerability assessments of most U.S. airports. Only about 20 of the more than 450 airports for which the TSA is responsible for security have been reviewed by the Homeland Security Department.
Originally, GAO reported that the TSA deployed a program that uses behavior observation and analysis techniques to identify potentially high-risk passengers, before determining whether there was a scientifically valid basis for using behavior and appearance indicators as a means for reliably identifying passengers who may pose a risk to the U.S. aviation system.
Specifically, TSA had not conducted vulnerability assessments for 87 percent of the approximately 450 U.S. airports regulated by TSA at that time. GAO recommended that TSA develop a comprehensive risk assessment and evaluate the need to assess airport vulnerabilities nationwide and a national strategy to guide efforts to strengthen airport security.
DHS concurred and said TSA is developing the assessment and strategy, but has not yet evaluated the need to assess airport vulnerabilities nationwide. GAO reported in July 2011 that TSA revised explosives detection requirements for its explosives detection systems (EDS) used to screen checked baggage in January 2010, but faces challenges in deploying EDS that meet these requirements.
Deploying systems that meet the 2010 EDS requirements could be difficult given that TSA did not begin deployment of systems meeting the previous 2005 requirements until 2009. As of January 2011 some of the EDS in TSA’s fleet detect explosives at the level established in 2005 while the remaining EDS detect explosives at levels established in 1998.
Also, TSA does not have a plan to deploy and operate systems to meet the current requirements and has faced challenges in procuring the first 260 systems to meet these requirements. GAO recommended that TSA, among other things, develop a plan to ensure that EDS are operated at the levels in established requirements.