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"GAO investigators to target perimeter security at U.S. airports"


 
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Investigators to target security at airports
Inquiry may include perimeter snoops
By Lee Wolverton
The Fort Myers (FL) News-Press

  
Teams of federal agents could prowl airport perimeters next year as
congressional investigators scrutinize federal efforts to safeguard planes,
tarmacs and runways, a Washington official said Tuesday.

The federal investigation will focus on perimeter security technology,
background checks, training and planning - all topics in a 2004 report
critical of the Transportation Security Administration, the agency
responsible for security at the nation's more than 450 commercial airports.

"We're basically looking to see where TSA stands on the issues we raised in
our previous report," said Norman Rabkin, managing director of the homeland
security and justice team at the Government Accounting Office, the
investigative arm of Congress.

The GAO inquiry could include a special unit snooping undercover on airport
perimeters in search of security weaknesses, Rabkin said. He declined to
elaborate.

A recent investigation by news-press.com found gaps in perimeter security at
four of five airports in the region, including Southwest Florida, Tampa,
Orlando and Naples. 

Police rarely were seen and never confronted journalists who spent an hour
investigating perimeters at those airports. Authorities at Miami
International ordered journalists off airport property within 11 minutes.

Holes were found in fences at Southwest Florida, Tampa and Orlando. Fences
in some areas were crumpling, while many gates were secured only by rusty
chains and padlocks.

Deep flaws

The findings backed the claims of former federal investigators and pilots
groups who say perimeter security is among several deep flaws in the
nation's airport security system.

"The things you found are the very things we've been going to TSA with and
begging them to fix," said Gary Boettcher, an American Airlines pilot and
the president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association, a
Washington-based pilots group that has been critical of perimeter security.
"Airport security is nonexistent or minimal at best."

TSA officials say such charges are off base.

The agency has met the mandates set by congressional investigators in the
2004 GAO report, TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said. Those include requiring
fingerprint-based background checks and security training for all airport
workers and security programs from all airport vendors.

The checks and training are required at Southwest Florida International,
said Ruben Ramos, assistant federal security director at the airport. And
The Paradies Shops, an Atlanta-based airport retailer with a dozen stores at
Southwest Florida, long has had a security program in place with background
checks of employees, said company spokeswoman Bobbi Passavanti.

Further, the TSA and Federal Aviation Administration have helped pay for the
construction of perimeter access roads, the installation of electronic
surveillance systems and security fences at airports around the country,
Koshetz said. She cites $16 million in federal grants for state-of-the art
perimeter control surveillance and ground radar systems and exit lane
controls.

"We are progressively enhancing security," Koshetz said.

GAO steps in

Still, TSA's critics are heartened by the prospect of the GAO digging into
the subject of perimeter security.

They say that airport boundaries remain vulnerable, and that Congress for
years ignored repeated calls for a closer look. The request for the GAO to
revisit perimeter security came from incoming Democratic committee and
subcommittee chairmen.

The GAO expects to start work early next year and hopes to release a report
by the end of the year, Rabkin said.

Among the points TSA critics want the GAO to consider is what they call an
absence of accountability for perimeter security.

Established after the 9/11 attacks to oversee all airport security, the TSA
is most visible inside terminals, where screeners wearing white shirts with
the agency acronym emblazoned on the back steer passengers through metal
detectors, run bags through X-ray machines and keep watch for suspicious
behavior.

Perimeter security falls under TSA oversight, but is largely left to local
agencies, such as the Lee County Port Authority. TSA must approve a local
security plan, but authorities such as port authority police carry out the
daily task of guarding the perimeters.

"We are constantly working with TSA to assess where we are and how we are
doing," said Lee County Port Authority Executive Director Robert M. Ball.
"We're always looking to see what we can do better."

But local authorities working airport perimeters nationwide without unifying
guidelines produce mixed results, Boettcher said. He points to a June 14
security breach at Dulles (Va.) International Airport as an example: Federal
agents found 55 illegal immigrants working in a construction area on airport
grounds.

"One guy uses an ID to get in, and then a bunch of others follow him through
the gate without ever being checked," he said. "One airport might be tight,
the other might be completely lax. Perimeter security is all based on the
quality and attention of the local agencies. There's no standard. If that
doesn't change, perimeter security is never going to get better."

Perimeter security problems here were highlighted Aug. 8 when Jack Brems,
34, of San Carlos Park, sped through a steel security gate at Southwest
Florida 
International and led police on a wild seven-minute chase on an airport
runway. He is awaiting federal trial in the case.

The gate where Brems broke through since has been removed, replaced by a
fence and fronted by two 4,800-pound concrete barriers.

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