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Undercover agents slip bombs past DIA screeners

2:42 PM, Sep 4, 2007   |    comments
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"It really is concerning considering that we're paying millions of dollars out of our budget to be secure in the airline industry," said passenger Mark Butler who has had two Army Swiss knives confiscated by screeners in the past. "Yet, we're not any safer than we were before 9/11, in my opinion."

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners failed most of the covert tests because of human error, sources told 9NEWS. Alarms went off on the machines, but sources said screeners violated TSA standard operating procedures and did not hand-search suspicious luggage, wand, or pat down the undercover agents.

"The good news is we have our own people probing and looking and examining the system," said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat in the 7th congressional who sits on the House Homeland Security and transportation committees. "The bad news is they're finding weaknesses."

After 9NEWS told Perlmutter about the undercover results, he requested a classified briefing from the TSA about the team. Four TSA and Homeland Security Department officials briefed the congressman last week.

"The bottom line is, we've got to plug those holes," said Perlmutter. "We can't have those kinds of problems because we want to have people who fly across this nation be as safe as possible."

In one test, sources told 9NEWS an agent taped an IED to her leg and told the screener it was a bandage from surgery. Even though alarms sounded on the walk-through metal detector, the agent was able to bluff her way past the screener.

"If they miss something that's obvious, often times that could happen, we will pull them off the line and retrain them," said Security Director Earl Morris at TSA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "That's how we audit and keep track of which people are doing a better job than others and how we keep this whole process so that it really is one that's legitimate and factual and actually is effective."

The TSA would not confirm the test results obtained by 9NEWS.

The covert testers who were at DIA are part of the TSA's Red Team. The Red Team was formed by the Federal Aviation Administration after terrorists blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people.

The Red Team tests about 100 airports nationwide every year, according to Morris. It halted testing after 9/11. Since it re-started testing in 2003, the Red Team has investigated security at approximately 735 airports. The team tested DIA once during 2006 and on February 12 to 14, said Morris. The agents act and think like terrorists to find vulnerabilities in the aviation security system.

The Red Team uses very expensive chemical simulates in the test devices that look, smell and taste like real explosives, except they do not explode. To the CTX bomb detection machines at DIA, they are real explosives, according to a former Red Team leader.

Sources told 9NEWS the Red Team was able to sneak about 90 percent of simulated weapons past checkpoint screeners in Denver. In the baggage area, screeners caught one explosive device that was packed in a suitcase. However later, screeners in the baggage area missed a book bomb, according to sources.

"There's very little substance to security," said former Red Team leader Bogdan Dzakovic. "It literally is all window dressing that we're doing. It's big theater on TV and when you go to the airport. It's just security theater."

Dzakovic was a Red Team leader from 1995 until September 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks, Dzakovic became a federally protected whistleblower and alleged that thousands of people died needlessly. He testified before the 9/11 Commission and the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the US that the Red Team "breached security with ridiculous ease up to 90 percent of the time," and said the FAA "knew how vulnerable aviation security was."

Dzakovic, who is currently a TSA inspector, said security is no better today.

"It's worse now. The terrorists can pretty much do what they want when they want to do it," he said.

TSA's Morris disagrees with that.

"We have a very robust program of which we are very proud, in which we utilize testing at all of our airports every single day," said Morris.

The security chief says he expects screeners to fail the Red Team tests because they are difficult.

"We could put these tests together so that we have a 100 percent success rate every single time," said Morris. "Then, they wouldn't be challenging, they wouldn't be realistic and they really wouldn't be stretching the limits and the imagination of the Transportation Security Officer."

Morris says the tests are designed to be tough so that officers can learn from their mistakes and successes.

"It's a test but it's also a learning experience," said Morris. "It's a constant audit that we put on there to see where our employees are and where we need to enhance the weaknesses."

Morris says other agents, not with the Red Team, test and train screeners every day at the nation's 450 airports and says screeners pass most of those tests. In those kinds of tests, he said Denver has done well in the past.

However, tests done by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2006 found widespread failures. According to the GAO, screeners at 15 airports missed 90 percent of the explosives and guns agents tried to sneak past checkpoints.

Also, a Denver woman who carries a Taser for personal protection, told 9NEWS she carried it on board airplanes last year six times. Her Taser shoots 500,000 volts of electricity. She says the TSA never caught it and stopped her.

Most test results, including results from the Red Team, are secret, classified as SSI or sensitive security information. Morris says they do not make them public because they could point out holes in the system.

"We're actually fighting a war on terror. Our intent is not to educate the public on how we do tests and what are tests consist of. Our sole objective is to prevent those who have intent to do us harm from being able to successfully complete their mission."

Sources who leaked the test results to 9Wants to Know say they were concerned about the failures and want security improved.

Morris says the screeners were told about the failures and the problems were fixed. He called 9Wants to Know's sources 'disgruntled and underachieving employees.'

"Anyone who violates the rule we have in place for divulging information that is sensitive and secret, that jeopardizes the security of this country is wrong," said Morris. "They're out of line, it's not acceptable and it's not appropriate."

Dzakovic, who testified that the FAA ordered the Red Team to "not write up our findings," said the TSA is also trying to hide its results.

"The last thing TSA wants to do is look bad in front of congress and in front of the public, so rather than fix the problem, they'd rather just keep them quiet," said Dzakovic.

Dzakovic says aviation security needs fundamental changes if it's going to improve.

"If anything of value is to be achieved out of this latest round of testing in Denver, congressmen need to go into the internal mechanics of how TSA operates in order to really affect change," said Dzakovic. "Because if they don't, next year there will be another round of testing, get them same kind of results and it's just a matter of time before potentially thousands of more people get killed."

While Morris said security can always get better, it's already excellent.

"We understand that security is not perfect in every aspect but we understand that we go about trying to be perfect every single day and we are doing a tremendous job out there and the public should feel comfortable flying out today and quite frankly, they do," he said.

Sources tell 9Wants to Know screeners failed the tests because they feel pressured to put passengers on planes quickly and say they are short-staffed. When the TSA took over screening at DIA in 2002, there were 1100 officers. However, there are only 750 today because Congress capped funding for employees.

Perlmutter voted last week for a bill that gives more money for aviation security, but the President said he'll veto the bill because it includes time lines on ending the war in Iraq.

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