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Airline Security

January 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BEARDEN: Boston’s Logan Airport is where eight hijackers boarded the two Boeing 767s that destroyed the World Trade Center.

BRIAN SULLIVAN, Former FAA Special Agent: I sat here in this chair, actually, watching that television behind you as the planes flew into the World Trade Center. When it scanned across the screen that two planes came out of Boston, I was devastated. I started saying to myself, “Am I a failure?”

TOM BEARDEN: Brian Sullivan is a retired special agent at the Federal Aviation Administration who specialized in security. He says he frequently complained to his superiors about ongoing problems, without results.

TOM BEARDEN: Did it take 3,000 people having to die to address this issue?

BRIAN SULLIVAN: I’m sorry. I, uh, damn, it shouldn’t have, and I don’t know how strongly we’re addressing it yet. Why did it take 3,500 lives, the World Trade Center being obliterated, and the Pentagon being damaged?

Why did it take all that to finally get some attention? The answer is, because — I don’t know how to put this gently — everybody was in bed with one another. Whether it be the airlines and the lobbyists giving money to Congress, who were supposed to provide the oversight for the Department of Transportation, and the FAA. It was just a vicious circle.

And what would happen is every time there was an incident, whether it would be Pan Am 103 or whatever, every time there was something like that, there would be a hue and cry, “Hey, let’s fix the system.” Well, this should have been fixed 13 years ago, 20 years ago. It hadn’t been.

SECURITY GUARD: Take this and your ticket. Go down there and show your I.D. down at the bottom.

TOM BEARDEN: In the wake of the attacks, most aviation experts agreed that aviation security needed to be improved. But there is considerable disagreement between Massachusetts and federal authorities on exactly how to do that.

Immediately after September 11, Logan and its parent authority, Massport, were subjected to a storm of criticism. Newspapers were awash with stories about how the top jobs had long been filled by political patronage, that the people running the airport had little or no aviation experience.

TOM BEARDEN: Acting Governor Jane Swift set up a special taskforce to investigate patronage and make recommendations for the future. Businessman Marshall Carter chaired what has since become known as the Carter Commission.

MARSHALL CARTER: We’ve found that over the last ten years, where they’ve had three CEO’s without transportation and airport experience, that it has swung too far over on the political side of the pendulum.

We’re talking about, in part, patronage. We’re talking about filling jobs without a nationwide search. We’re talking about creating jobs for connected people. We’re talking about doing business with connected firms.

TOM BEARDEN: The report recommended a national search for a new aviation director and a new security director, both with professional experience. It also called for Massport to expand its rights as landlord to implement stronger security measures, and to ban all patronage hiring practices. The governor has endorsed those ideas.

But she also seized on a central premise in the report: Divided authority over security matters doesn’t work. Before 9/11, the airlines were responsible for screening passengers, but usually hired contractors to do the actual work.

At one point, there were four different security contractors at Logan. Airlines were also responsible for screening baggage and cargo. Airport owners like Massport were responsible for the physical security of the premises — keeping unauthorized people out of aircraft operating areas, doing background checks, and credentialing airport employees. The Federal Aviation Administration was in charge of the whole system, responsible for making sure all the regulations were being followed.

The governor says that piecemeal system failed. She wants one agency to dictate all security procedures at Logan, and she wants Massport to have the job.

GOV. JANE SWIFT: Certainly this is a different vision, a more advanced vision, than any other airport has proposed to date, I believe, to the federal government. And my job is to sell the Bush administration on why this works well with their vision of better security at our nation’s airports.

TOM BEARDEN: But having a local agency in charge of a system that includes federal employees cuts across a lot of bureaucratic boundaries, and those boundaries are still shifting. A new federal agency, the Transportation Security Agency, is in the process of taking over the passenger screening process. Eventually it will employ all of the 28,000 screeners in the nation’s airports.

SECURITY GUARD: You don’t have any sharp objects in your possession or in your bags, do you?

TOM BEARDEN: But Governor Swift wants Massport to be in charge of all aspects of security at Logan, including screening, and has discussed the idea with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

GOV. JANE SWIFT: I think that we have a long way to go in helping federal officials realize how much work has happened in the Carter Commission report, and it will take a lot more education, a lot more explanation. This is groundbreaking. He heard my argument. He agreed to have officials at the Federal Aviation Administration work with me, and I think he is fully cognizant of how strongly I feel about this.

TOM BEARDEN: But, he didn’t say yes?

GOV. JANE SWIFT: He didn’t say yes yet.

TOM BEARDEN: FAA Administrator Jane Garvey is a former chief executive of Massport.

JANE GARVEY: Well, we’re certainly prepared to work with Logan, and also to work with the governor to do what’s best for security. I think in terms of the proposal, we’d like to see what Massport is proposing. We’d like to take a look at what they’re thinking about, and I think what is important is for all of us, security is the goal here, and the highest levels of security. So we’ll take a look at what their proposal is.

TOM BEARDEN: Administrator Garvey also thinks centralized authority is important, but says having a local airport in charge of everything is unlikely. One reason Massachusetts officials are seeking more local control over security is frustration.

Current and former Massport officials say the FAA has long impeded their attempts to improve security because in their view, it was an invasion of federal turf that sometimes embarrassed the agency. Robert Wasserman was head of public safety for Massachusetts from 1988-1990.

ROBERT WASSERMAN: When I was here some years ago we had police officers from another airport who regularly came up here and went through all aspects of this airport– walking through doors, checking security, putting test items through– to see what worked and what didn’t. And we did that on a regular basis. The FAA was not happy about it, the airlines were not happy about it, but we were trying to make a point that we had to take this stuff much more seriously.

TOM BEARDEN: In retrospect, did they get the point?

ROBERT WASSERMAN: I think they didn’t get the point, and we had no legal authority to force it.

TOM BEARDEN: The man in charge of security at Logan when the hijackings took place, Joseph Lawless, told reporters he also tried to independently test the screening process, but says the FAA declined the offer.

TOM BEARDEN: Two former security chiefs at Logan told us they had tried to test the FAA screening system, and that the agency blocked them. Do you have any knowledge of that?

JANE GARVEY: It was not really a question of blocking Massport. What we wanted to do was to do joint testing. That’s actually something that we’ve done in other airports, and that’s worked very well. And the reason for that is because we regulate the airlines, and we wanted to make sure that in our goal as regulator for the airlines, that we had in place the right kind of protocols, the right joint testing so that it would work.

TOM BEARDEN: But Brian Sullivan says the FAA’s security protocols are ludicrous. He says the agency usually preannounces tests for screeners, and then sends ridiculously obvious test articles through the X-ray machines.

BRIAN SULLIVAN: You can have a gun encased in plastic, a dummy grenade, three sticks of dynamite wrapped with wire and a clock. I mean, they were very obvious. They would say the screeners would get, let’s say 85 percent, 90 percent success rate of the screeners finding these very obvious devices.

But what would happen is if a red team came out… Now, the red team was a special team within the FAA. that would do realistic testing unannounced — when they would come out, they would get incredible results like 90 percent success rate at getting things by the system.

JANE GARVEY: Well, I certainly would question that particular assessment, but I will say that as we move forward, we are working very closely with the Inspector General to make sure that the protocols are the right protocols. I think what we’ve learned post September 11 is that… Is that we do need to make some changes. That is absolutely true, and I think as we move forward, we’re going to be really seeing those protocols changing.

TOM BEARDEN: Governor Swift says she’s determined to force security improvements, even if the state lacks the legal authority to do so. After September 11, Massport tossed one contractor, Argenbright Security, out of the airport after repeated security breaches. The state police simply revoked the company’s state license.

GOV. JANE SWIFT: They no longer operate a checkpoint in Massachusetts’ airport, and that’s a significant accomplishment. We have shut down the operations at a checkpoint when security violations warranted it.

Did we technically… Did the state police and the security at Logan technically have that authority? No. We have to take very important steps to ensure people are safe flying through our airport, and that they feel safe. And that’s not a small feat.

TOM BEARDEN: Massport says it’s also determined to dramatically improve security technology. State police Captain Thomas Robbins is Logan’s interim security director.

CAPTAIN THOMAS ROBBINS: Nothing is off the board as far as far as I’m concerned. As security director, I want to make sure that I put the best technology out front, and, you know, it’s available, and it does its job.

But specifically right now we’re looking at two things. We’re looking at facial recognition, and that is… You may have heard, when people come in front of a camera, it compares it to a database of known terrorists, if you will, and it will tell you if you have a match. And the other one that I’m very excited about is something called a boarder guard.

What that does is check passports for their validity. If there’s any forgeries or false passport, it will tell you within three or four seconds, and that will also compare it to a terrorist watch list or database.

TOM BEARDEN: At the moment, Governor Swift and members of the Carter Commission are conducting a national search for a new head for Massport and a new security chief for the airport– people with an aviation track record.

And the governor seems determined to redefine Massport’s role in the security process at the nation’s 19th busiest airport, with an eye toward providing a blueprint for the rest of the country.