Bombs Away! TSA Fails to Find Mock Bombs-Again

USA Today obtained a classified, Department of Homeland Security report and on Thursday revealed that Transport Security Administration (TSA) federal screeners at the airport in Los Angeles had missed fake bombs-hidden in carry-ons and tucked inside clothing of undercover agents-a whopping 75 percent of the time. In Chicago, the slip-through rate was 60 percent. USA Today’s security experts told the paper they were “stunned” by the failure rates. These experts must not read newspapers or watch TV.


Just seven months ago, March of 2007, undercover Red Team agents at the airport in Denver, Colorado were able to sneak “90 percent of the simulated weapons [they carried] past checkpoint screeners.” By example, Channel 9 News reported that screeners caught “one explosive device that was packed in a suitcase,” but screeners “in the baggage area missed a book bomb,” according to sources.

The Red Team is the government’s undercover, aviation counter-terrorist unit. It was formed nearly two-decades ago, after terrorists blew up Pan Am 103, also known as the Lockerbie disaster. My colleague at The Aviation Nation, Bogdan Dzakovic, a former Red Team member and current TSA employee, is quoted extensively in the Denver airport story. Because Dzakovic has whistleblower status (before 9/11, he warned Congress that terrorists could and likely would try to breach cockpit doors), he is one of the few TSA employees who can speak candidly to the press. Of the 90 percent failure rate, Dzakovic told Channel 9 News that he was not surprised. “There’s very little substance to security,” he said. “It literally is all window dressing that we’re doing [at TSA].”

USA Today’s security experts must have also missed an article than ran in the New York Post a year ago this month. What happened at the Denver airport-90 percent bomb-detection failure rate-had also already happened at the airport in Newark, New Jersey:


Undercover agents were able to smuggle prohibited items past screening checkpoints at Newark Liberty International Airport more than 90 percent of the time.

The tests were conducted Oct. 19 [2006] by Transportation Security Administration “Red Team” agents, who were able to smuggle through an array of fake bombs and guns in 20 of 22 tests at checkpoints through the hub’s three terminals, federal security officials told The Star-Ledger newspaper.

In that security-test fiasco, a source familiar with the results told the Post, by example, that “Newark screeners missed fake explosive devices concealed under bottles of water in carry-on luggage, secured underneath an agent’s clothing, and hidden under a leg bandage another tester wore.”

Is airport security getting any better? Not as far as explosive detection is concerned. On its website, TSA acknowledges that “IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] pose the single greatest threat to aviation. They are designed to do catastrophic damage to the aircraft.” Which is why another arm of the government is conducting all these Red Team tests: to determine if TSA screeners are mitigating this “catastrophic” threat.

USA Today got one thing right. TSA federal screeners are failing at a rate that’s not only appalling-be it at a failure rate of 60, 75, or 95 percent-but a failure rate that’s also considerably higher than when private security firms ran the show. “In the late 1990s, tests showed that screeners missed about 40% of fake bombs, according to a separate report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress,” USA Today also reported on Thursday.


Annie Jacobsen writes about aviation security and homeland security for a variety of newspapers, magazines and blogs. She is the author of the book, Terror in The Skies, Why 9/11 Could Happen Again.


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