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Many warnings over airport security preceded terrorist attacks


From Mike Fish

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The watchdogs didn't just bark, they howled over and over again, warning of lax U.S. airport security that was an easy target for deadly terrorists.

Few took the warnings with any great sense of urgency. Few gave much thought to 767s being turned into guided missiles.

And so, it is now, in the tragic aftermath of September 11 that debate in Washington turns vigorously to ramping up security and in a bipartisan way leans on the government to take control of airport security.

"The reason is we never had a hijacking like that before," said Sen. Max Cleland (D-Georgia), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, explaining the newfound urgency. "When you penetrate the system four times in the space of an hour or so in three different airports. ... We're talking about Boston, Newark (New Jersey) and Dulles Airport (in Dulles, Virginia), for goodness sake.

"It was the front lines. And what we found is we didn't have security, we had a sieve."

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The surprise is not that airport security in the United States proved vulnerable -- only the degree to which it was exposed.

Security contractors, however, say that there is no proof directly linking failure by checkpoint screeners to the September 11 hijackings. Both officials for the airlines and security companies also maintain they function according to Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.

"We are in complete compliance with the FAA and all their security directives," said United Airlines spokesperson Chris Brathwaite. "Our policies are exactly what the FAA wants us to do."

But last year, in an almost prophetic warning, the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm, said airport security had not improved, and in many cases had worsened. Even though security screeners detect an average of 2,000 weapons a year, "the security of the air transport system remains at risk," the GAO said.

Between 1998 and 2001, the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, published at least five reports critical of security at the nation's major airports, focusing on the low wages paid screeners, what it called inadequate training of security workers and the rapid turnover of screening personnel -- an average of 126 percent a year in a study of 19 major airports.

"We've probably been lucky that there haven't been real determined, sophisticated efforts to breach the security," GAO associate director Gerald Dillingham said after the September 11 terrorist attacks. "All evidence suggests that there are large gaps in security."

Two presidential commissions -- established after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 and the mechanical failure that brought down TWA Flight 800 in 1996 -- as well as the Department of Transportation's Inspector General, have detailed dangerous flaws in airport security. Even the FAA's own tests documented the lax security.

At the time of the September hijackings, however, the FAA still had not completed putting in place a certification program for airport screeners, as mandated by the 1996 Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act.

Congress also did not rush to close the gaps in airport security. President Bill Clinton signed legislation last year requiring airport screeners and those with access to secure areas to be subject to a criminal history record check -- only the provision doesn't take effect until later this year.

A bipartisan commission chaired by former senators Gary Hart (D-Colorado) and Warren Rudman (R-New Hampshire) warned last February against the threat of domestic terrorism, saying "a direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century." The report slipped from sight after hearings on Capitol Hill, only to resonate following the attacks on New York and Washington.

"The bottom line is we really hadn't gotten hit by a terrorist act in this country," said Charles Slepian, a New York-based aviation attorney and outspoken critic of the FAA. "I was told by a member of the President's Commission on Aviation Security after the Pan Am 103 incident: 'Listen, you're well-meaning, but I can tell you the Congress of the United States will not change the rules until an American carrier taking off from a U.S. airport explodes over the United States.' "

The U.S. system of airport security has from its inception been widely perceived as flawed, with the FAA and the government passing the responsibility to the commercial airlines, which in turn bid the security work out to private firms.

"Here, we have our own government report, the GAO, pointing all this out and we did nothing," said Charles LeBlanc, managing director of Houston-based Air Security International. "We, as the flying American public, sat back and said it is OK. It took something to happen before people really started listening."

Part 3: Western European nations treat airport security differently than in the United States: Security personnel in Western European nations are paid a higher wage and face tighter training standards >>


•  GAO reports about airport security

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