Right-wing media have recently echoed or promoted Rep. John Mica's (R-FL) call for private firms to replace the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in providing airport security. But experts have said that privatized airport security had previously led to numerous security lapses, and private security firms were regularly criticized over lax hiring and training practices
Mica encourages airports to drop TSA screeners, hire private security
Mica encourages airports to drop TSA screeners, hire private security. Rep. John Mica (R-FL), who is in line to become chair of the House transportation committee, recently sent a letter to more than 150 airports encouraging them to opt out of using TSA screeners and hire private security instead. Mica reportedly wrote: “As TSA has grown larger, more impersonal, and administratively top-heavy, I believe it is important that airports across the country consider utilizing the opt-out provision provided by law.”
Right-wing media promote Mica's call for private security
Fund: Israelis use “private contractors,” but the U.S. “created this giant bureaucracy.” On the November 16 edition of Fox News' Hannity, The Wall Street Journal's John Fund stated: “The Israelis use private contractors and psychological profiling. We decided not to go that way. We went and created this giant bureaucracy called TSA.”
Napolitano asks former NM governor: “Would you abolish the TSA?” On the November 16 edition of Fox Business' Freedom Watch, Andrew Napolitano hosted former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R) to criticize TSA. Napolitano asked Johnson, “Does government even keep us safe? Or would private industry -- that obviously has a strong financial interest in keeping the planes flying and keeping us safe -- do a better job than the government does, and let us choose the level of scrutiny that we want depending on the plane we ride?” Johnson replied that “they would definitely do a more effective job ... and probably [be] a lot more safe.” Napolitano later asked Johnson, “Would you abolish the TSA?” Johnson said that “abolishing the TSA” is something that “ought to be looked into.”
Bolling hosts Mica to attack TSA and push for private firms to handle airport screening. On the November 16 edition of Fox Business' Follow the Money, Eric Bolling hosted Mica to promote private screening companies. Bolling asked Mica, “What don't you like about the TSA?” Mica replied, in part, “Not much right now. ... It's an agency that is totally out of control.” Mica later promoted private airport security, stating: “Most of the innovation and good operations have come from our private screening operations, but TSA has thwarted most of the attempts to convert to private screening.”
Special Report pushes Mica's attack on TSA. On the November 16 edition of Fox News' Special Report, correspondent Molly Henneberg reported on TSA's “very detailed body scanning machines” and “very through pat-downs.” She later quoted Mica saying that TSA has “ballooned into a huge bureaucracy” and aired a clip of Mica stating that “we need to look at this whole process. It's very expensive, and I don't think it's that efficient or effective.”
Washington Times calls for “stopping TSA.” In a November 16 editorial, The Washington Times compared new TSA security regulations to molestation and stated: “Many Tea Party candidates standing for election earlier this month promised they were going to 'take our country back.' Stopping TSA would be a good first step.”
But private security firms - including nation's largest - were previously plagued by security lapses and criticized over training, hiring practices
In 2000, nation's largest provider of airport security personnel paid $1.2 million in fines for hiring convicted felons as bag screeners. In April 2000, The New York Times reported that Argenbright Holdings, the corporate parent of Argenbright Security - then the nation's largest provider of airport security personnel, “pleaded guilty to two felonies and agreed to pay $1.2 million in fines and costs” after Argenbright hired 14 people to screen carry-on bags who been convicted of felonies. The Times reported that "[t]hree former managers for the company were also charged with felonies." In addition, "[a]ccording to court documents, two dozen screeners either never took the written test for their jobs or passed the test because the company falsified their results or provided them with the answers." From the Times article:
Fourteen people hired in the last few years to search carry-on bags at Philadelphia International Airport had been convicted of felonies including aggravated assault, robbery, theft and firearms violations, the government said today in filing charges against a company that provides security there.
Argenbright Holdings Ltd., the corporate parent of Argenbright Security Inc., which is the largest provider of airport security personnel in the country, pleaded guilty to two felonies and agreed to pay $1.2 million in fines and costs. Three former managers for the company were also charged with felonies.
According to court documents, two dozen screeners either never took the written test for their jobs or passed the test because the company falsified their results or provided them with the answers. Instead of the required 12-hour training course, Argenbright routinely showed screeners a 45-minute videotape, according to the United States attorney in Philadelphia and the office of the Transportation Department's inspector general. Six security screeners lacked high school diplomas but the managers falsified the records to show they had equivalency degrees.
AJC: 9-11 hijackers “exploited a problem experts have long raised about airport security: that private firms and near-minimum wage workers are responsible for keeping guns and knives off U.S. airplanes.” In a September 13, 2001, article (accessed via Nexis), The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the 9-11 hijackers “exploited a problem experts have long raised about airport security: that private firms and near-minimum wage workers are responsible for keeping guns and knives off U.S. airplanes.” From the AJC:
Terrorists who hijacked two of the four planes apparently sneaked through airport security checkpoints guarded by an Atlanta company that has been fined for security lapses in the past.
Atlanta-based Argenbright Security provided passenger screening security at airports in Washington and Newark, N.J. The hijacked flight out of Washington's Dulles International Airport slammed into the Pentagon, while the Newark plane crashed in western Pennsylvania.
Argenbright provides baggage claim security at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, but not checkpoint security.
The terrorists exploited a problem experts have long raised about airport security: that private firms and near-minimum wage workers are responsible for keeping guns and knives off U.S. airplanes.
It also provides passenger screening at the airport in Newark, N.J., where a fourth hijacked plane originated.
Company literature in Atlanta put the pay for baggage claim security at $6 per hour. The highest-paid job listed, commercial security, advertised pay at $7 to $8.50 per hour.
This summer, Argenbright was put on probation by the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation for employing more than 100 workers who failed to submit required criminal background checks. The agency also said the company continued to employ six workers after the state rejected their licensing applications.
Ashcroft accused Argenbright of “an astonishing pattern of crimes that could have directly jeopardized public safety.” The New York Times (accessed via Nexis) reported on November 9, 2001, that former Attorney General John Ashcroft accused Argenbright of “an astonishing pattern of crimes that could have directly jeopardized public safety”:
The federal government said a few weeks ago that even after Argenbright agreed to conduct better background checks on its workers, it continued to hire them by the hundreds without adequately examining their pasts. Attorney General John Ashcroft accused the company of committing “an astonishing pattern of crimes that could have directly jeopardized public safety” at 13 of the nation's largest airports where it screens passengers.
“Argenbright Holdings continues to violate laws that protect the safety of Americans who travel by commercial airlines,” Mr. Ashcroft said. “Our investigation shows Argenbright Holdings has hired predeparture screeners who have disqualifying criminal convictions, including convictions for theft, burglary and illegal drug possession, and that Argenbright Holdings made false statements about its employees' backgrounds.”
Miami Herald: “Passenger checkpoints around the U.S. are staffed by an army of minimum-wage workers, probably the lowest-paid security workers in the nation.” In a September 12, 2001, article (accessed via Nexis), the Miami Herald reported that "[t]he companies that staff airport security gates are hired by the airlines themselves, not by any law-enforcement agency, or even airport managers. Security contracts usually go to the lowest bidders, meaning that more experienced security firms that can attract trained workers are often underbid by mom-and-pop companies." The Herald further reported:
The result: Passenger checkpoints around the U.S. are staffed by an army of minimum-wage workers, probably the lowest-paid security workers in the nation, experts say.
The jobs are prone to high turnover and plagued by sometimes lackadaisical standards, aviation experts said.
“Basically, we are entrusting our front-line security to to an employee that is being paid the same as an employee that is making a hamburger at McDonald's,” said Charlie LeBlanc, managing director of Air Security International, a Houston firm that advises travelers.
AHL Services of Atlanta was hired by the airlines to run security checkpoints at both Boston's Logan Airport and Washington's Dulles Airport, where three of the flights originated. The company also handles security checkpoints at five terminals at Miami International Airport.
In April 2000, AHL and its subsidiary Argenbright Holdings Ltd., settled a criminal case with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia by paying a $1.2 million fine. Three AHL employees had faced felony charges of making false statements to the FAA regarding inadequate training, testing and background checks of employees who staffed the airport security checkpoints.
Experts say many needed reforms are resisted by airlines worried about high costs and long lines of frustrated passengers.
“The airlines are going to deny what I'm about to tell you, but they are in business for one reason - to make money,” said Billie H. Vincent, former FAA security director and president of Aerospace Services International. “Every time there is a new push to enhance airport security, they come up with alternatives that cost less money and are less effective.”
In November 2001, Argenbright Security allowed a passenger carrying multiple weapons through a security checkpoint. In November of 2001, passenger Subash Gurung was arrested after carrying multiple weapons onto an airplane at Chicago's O'Hare airport. Argenbright Security, who ran the security checkpoints, confiscated two knives but failed to catch the other weapons. According to a November 6, 2001 Washington Post article, the former Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta, called the incident “a failure of dramatic dimensions.” From The Washington Post (accessed via Nexis):
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta announced yesterday that United Airlines faced substantial fines and would have to retrain all of its baggage screeners at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after a man carrying several weapons got past a security checkpoint.
Subash Bahadar Gurung, 27, was arrested Sunday in Chicago on charges that the night before, he tried to bring knives, chemical spray and a stun gun onto an airplane. Screeners at an airport security checkpoint confiscated two knives he had on him, but they did not notice other weapons that were discovered by airline employees at the gate. Argenbright Security Inc. suspended eight screeners and a supervisor pending the outcome of an investigation.
“I consider the O'Hare case a failure of dramatic dimensions,” Mineta said at a news conference in Chicago yesterday. He said it underscored the need for the federal government to “take direct control of the security system.”
Argenbright Security reportedly fired workers after O'Hare incident, but only for violating ethics in their confiscation of Gurung's knives. Following the incident at O'Hare, Argenbright fired three employees for “violating company ethics while searching” Gurung. According to the Chicago Sun-Times (accessed via Nexis):
Two security workers and their supervisor have been fired for violating company ethics while searching Subash Gurung at their O'Hare security checkpoint and confiscating two knives that later turned up missing.
A fourth worker, stationed at the checkpoint's X-ray scanner, has resigned, but four other workers who were suspended after Gurung slipped by the checkpoint with seven other knives, Mace and a stun gun have been reinstated.
Argenbright Security would not explain the actions, but a source said the three workers were dismissed, not because they failed to find the other weapons, but for violating the company's code of ethics.
Asked what the workers did to violate the code, the source said he could only speak hypothetically. “Say, for example, a screener did their job correctly but hypothetically confiscated one of the items ... did not turn it over to law enforcement.”
A statement from Argenbright said the workers were fired for “reasons relating to the incident but not regarding screener performance.”
Miami Herald: “Argenbright also came under criticism in 1999 for security breaches that caused delays of Northwest Airline flights.” The Herald reported on September 13, 2001, (accessed via Nexis) that Argenbright “came under criticism in 1999 for security breaches that caused delays of Northwest Airline flights.” The Herald further noted that Argenbright “was also found to have committed dozens of violations of federal labor laws against its employees at Los Angeles International Airport, an administrative law judge ruled in February 2000.” From the Herald:
Argenbright also came under criticism in 1999 for security breaches that caused delays of Northwest Airline flights.
Argenbright was also found to have committed dozens of violations of federal labor laws against its employees at Los Angeles International Airport, an administrative law judge ruled in February 2000.
The violations included 40 suspensions and final warnings stemming from a strike by the employees in April 1999. The violations also include the disciplining of another union activist and threats, both written and verbal, against the Argenbright employees. Among other disciplinary action, Argenbright was required to remove warnings from files related to the strike and give suspended workers back pay.
Prior to TSA's takeover of airport security, government agencies repeatedly raised questions about security workers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in September 2001 (accessed via Nexis) that "[i]n 1998, the FAA Inspector General's Office made 173 attempts to improperly enter secure areas at eight airports. They were successful 117 times, records show." The AJC further reported that in a 2000 report, the General Accounting Office (GAO) “noted an unusually high turnover rate of airport security screeners -- averaging 126 percent annually for the nation's 20 busiest airports” and that "[s]creeners are being placed on the job without having the abilities or knowledge to perform the work effectively." From the AJC:
Government agencies have regularly raised questions about airport security workers.
In 1998, the FAA Inspector General's Office made 173 attempts to improperly enter secure areas at eight airports. They were successful 117 times, records show.
In a report last year, the General Accounting Office, the federal watchdog agency, noted an unusually high turnover rate of airport security screeners
averaging 126 percent annually for the nation's 20 busiest airports. The turnover rate at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport was the nation's second highest, 375 percent between May 1998 and April 1999.
The GAO found screeners typically earn minimum wage. “Screeners are being placed on the job without having the abilities or knowledge to perform the work effectively,” the GAO's report said.
Airport and security officials said that privatization led to security lapses. The Charlotte Observer reported in September 2001 (accessed via Nexis) that “privatization, airport officials and security officials say, is where problems begin.” The Observer quoted the Charlotte/Douglas airport director as saying: “If you want to do it right, security should be a federal function. ... The airlines bid it out. You know where that leads.” From the Observer:
At most airports, individual airlines are typically responsible for running security checkpoints and checking bags. In Charlotte, as elsewhere, airlines contract out to for-profit companies, because it's cheaper to pay private firms than to hire unionized security workers.
But that privatization, airport officials and security officials say, is where problems begin.
“If you want to do it right, security should be a federal function,” said Jerry Orr, Charlotte/Douglas airport director. “The airlines bid it out. You know where that leads.”
“The FAA needs to take it over,” said Mickie Elmore, spokesman for the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro. “There need to be tighter restrictions. The people who run it need to be trained.”
In a 2000 study, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that frequent turnover in personnel, the repetitive nature of the work and low pay that was often below that offered by fast-food restaurants led to mistakes by security workers.
The report recommended, at the very least, that the FAA begin requiring security companies to get certified to qualify for airport jobs. The report also warned that lax security made terrorist attacks likely.
The FAA has required screening checkpoints since 1973, and the agency's own figures suggest security efforts have gotten weaker over time: In a 1978 study, screeners missed 13 percent of dangerous items. In 1987, they missed 20 percent. Today, the FAA treats such test results as sensitive material, and for security reasons does not publish results.
Former Department of Transportation IG criticized hiring and pay practices of private contractors. In a September 19, 2001, Cincinnati Enquirer article, Mary Schiavo, the former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation who oversaw two audits critical of FAA airport security standards, criticized the hiring and pay practices of private airport security providers. The Enquirer reported:
At the local airport, like all domestic facilities, the tenant airlines are responsible for providing security checks for passengers, according to FAA regulations. The main local contract is through Delta, but Argenbright also supplies passenger screening services to United Airlines here.
Critics say this system is at the root of many security problems.
Most if not all airlines have turned to outside contractors for those services, and many of the jobs -- including screening positions -- pay wages at or just above minimum wage.
“Isn't it awfully obvious now that airline and airport security is also national security?” said Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation who oversaw two audits critical of FAA airport security standards. “And we're entrusting that security to someone who makes $6 an hour watching the X-ray machine 'cause of a system that rewards the lowest bidder.”
Argenbright suspended screener after passenger with explosives residue on shoe disappeared. The San Jose Mercury News reported in February 2002 (accessed via Nexis) that Argenbright suspended a checkpoint screener after a “passenger disappear[ed] into the crowd at San Francisco International Airport after explosives residue was found on his shoes.” From the Mercury News:
A loose phone wire, alarm buttons nobody pushed and outdated surveillance cameras contributed to Wednesday's security breakdown that let a passenger disappear into the crowd at San Francisco International Airport after explosives residue was found on his shoes.
On Thursday, United Airlines' security contractor, Argenbright Security, suspended the checkpoint screener blamed for turning his back on the mystery passenger.
And federal authorities revealed that they are investigating why the swab used to detect chemicals on the man's shoes ended up in a trash can along with dozens of other used swabs.
The swab contained the chemical RDX -- the same one used in the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, and that police found on a suspected Al-Qaida terrorist allegedly planning to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in 1999. The chemical is also found in fertilizer.
“We have alarm buttons; this is why you use them,” said Bill Adams, who manages the airport's emergency alert system. “Nobody picked up a phone. Nobody stepped on the pedal.”
That was just one of the problems airport officials revealed Thursday as they explained why it took more than an hour to start evacuating United's domestic terminal after the security breach started between 6:15 and 6:30 Wednesday morning.
Nearly half an hour was lost because neither the security screener nor a United Airlines manager who oversees each checkpoint triggered an airport-wide security alert, said airport spokesman Mike McCarron.
9-11 Commission criticized Argenbright over security screeners. A September 14, 2005, New York Times article reported the 9-11 Commission found “that a quarter of the security screeners used in 2001 by Argenbright Security for United Airlines flights at Dulles Airport had not completed required criminal background checks.”
Former FAA security chief: Argenbright “violat[ed] every security principle.” The Washington Post reported in April 2002 that Argenbright would “be pushed out of virtually all U.S. airports” and that “Argenbright came to symbolize the national problem of low-paid, undertrained security screeners after a series of high-profile blunders following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.” The article reported that “Last fall, government investigators reported that seven of 20 Argenbright screeners at Dulles failed a basic skills test and several more could not speak adequate English.” The Post quoted O.K. Steele, who was security chief for the Federal Aviation Administration in the early 1990s, as saying: “You've got a security company violating every security principle, so I think they got their just deserts.”