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Guns slip past airport screeners

U.S. agents sneaked weapons through twice; Rochester official says result is better security

By Steve Orr

Staff writer, Democrat and Chronicle

(February 6, 2004) — Screeners at Rochester’s airport failed to detect handguns concealed by undercover agents in two security tests last year.

The tests occurred when members of a U.S. Transportation Security Administration “red team” — agents who test airport security by trying to breach it — smuggled handguns through a screening checkpoint at Greater Rochester International Airport. News of the failed tests, first reported on Congressional Quarterly’s Web site, emerged amid Washington brouhaha over public disclosure of the test results.

However unhappy they might be that the result has become known, federal and local officials say the failures have led to better security.

“The purpose for the testing is to increase the screeners’ awareness and skills at detecting such things,” said Michael Broida, the Rochester site manager for McNeil Technologies, which operates the checkpoints at the airport.

Since the failed tests, Broida said, “there have in fact been measures implemented...and additional training given to our screeners. This is nationally, not just here in Rochester.

“People should be more confident, because it’s this type of internal testing of the system that makes us better.”

McNeil Technologies and its president, James McNeil, were at the center of the controversy Thursday. James McNeil revealed details of the test in testimony before a congressional panel in November. His testimony became news Thursday when it was revealed that the TSA has asked that McNeil’s testimony be edited to remove references to the Rochester incident.

Bob Nolan, a spokesman for Monroe County, which operates the airport, said Thursday that he was not very familiar with the matter, but assumed McNeil had been trying to make a “constructive” point when he mentioned the test results in his testimony. Nolan said he believed the security operation at Rochester’s airport was “rated very high in the success and the thoroughness with which they are doing their job.”

TSA officials in Washington declined to discuss the Rochester test and said that, as a matter of policy, they never release results of red-team testing or even confirm that tests have been done at a particular airport. “Obviously, we don’t want to advertise our weaknesses, and we want to protect the integrity of information that could be a blueprint for terrorists,” spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said.

She did say, however, that training and operating procedures, including methods of using hand-held metal detectors, had been amended as a result of the incidents. In his testimony, McNeil said that on two occasions, a female agent wearing a long skirt had passed successfully through the checkpoint with a small handgun strapped to her upper inner thigh. When the gun set off the metal detector, the woman explained it by saying it must have been the surgical staples from recent surgery, McNeil testified.

“We’ve improved our processes,” Clark said. “The redeeming point of this whole discussion is the fact that when we do test the system and identify the areas where there might be deficiencies, we’re able to go in and have a better-educated work force.”

The TSA, created shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, took over civil airport security in February 2002. In November of that year, newly hired TSA employees oversaw screening at all but five airports, including Rochester’s.

As part of a pilot program to have private-sector workers screen passengers and baggage, the TSA hired McNeil Technologies to do the work here. The Virginia-based firm had provided screening service for the Department of Defense but had never worked in civilian airport security.

Before the advent of the TSA, security-guard companies hired by the airlines had handled airport security here and at other airports. After the terrorist attacks, those companies were widely criticized for uneven performance and for low wages and high turnover of staff.

At Rochester’s airport, two out-of-town companies had provided security for years, and had an uneven record. As the Democrat and Chronicle reported in September 2001, the airport racked up 44 security violations between 1990 and 1996, more than any other upstate New York airport. Undercover federal testers had been able to sneak a fake dynamite bomb and another phony weapon through checkpoints.

In a more positive vein, airport security guards were praised in the summer of 2002 when they detected an unusual pattern of men of Middle Eastern heritage flying out of the Rochester airport bound for Yemen, carrying large sums of cash and suitcases full of thermoses, batteries and, in at least one instance, night-vision goggles. The guards alerted local and federal law-enforcement authorities, who determined the activity was suspicious but not improper.

Uploaded: 2/7/2004