Schumer And Whistle Blowers Reveal: New TSA Budget Leaves Key Aspects Of NY Airport Security At Pre-9/11 Levels
Whistle blowers join Schumer to report that because of budget cutbacks, security guards without TSA background checks guard NYC airport terminals at night, check passenger IDs and boarding passes, and handle luggage after it has been screened
Despite TSA personnel shortages in NY and nationwide, the new 2005 federal budget released this week includes no new money to hire more TSA screen
Joined by whistle blowers who work as passenger and baggage screeners for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International Airports, US Senator Charles E. Schumer today revealed that guards without government background checks are guarding airport terminals at night, checking passengers IDs and boarding passes, and handling luggage after it has been screened all because federal budget cutbacks mean there aren't enough TSA screeners with full background checks to do this work. Schumer said that the new 2005 budget released this week doesn't include any funds for additional screeners, and vowed to lead the fight for additional funding to ensure that airports in New York and across the country are protected by qualified personnel without criminal records as originally intended after 9/11.
"When it comes to airport security, the strategy still is to rob Peter to pay Paul and then just pray that it all works out in the end. That's not good enough," Schumer said. "We promised the public after 9/11 we'd check out the background of every person who protects them at the airport. In too many key airport security areas we still aren't doing those background checks, and we've got to step it up, now."
New York airports suffer from a shortage of TSA personnel, and the fact that the new federal budget has no money to hire new screeners means that screeners who did not pass stringent background checks will continue to perform key security functions at New York airports. Because of the TSA budget shortfalls, in November the agency removed all of their screeners from LaGuardia Airport between 11:30 p.m. and 4 a.m. and turned security over to guards who are not subject to the same criminal background checks mandated after 9/11. The new guards monitor passengers who arrive on late flights, guard terminals while passengers are still passing through and while the arrival areas are still open to drivers and the general public and according to the whistle blowers screen passengers and baggage for latearriving flights. Until the cutbacks, TSA screeners stayed at LaGuardia until the last incoming flight each day to monitor latearriving passengers, which is important because some passengers transferring between latearriving connecting flights have to leave one terminal to catch a flight out of another, and therefore have to be rescreened at the terminal entrance.
The lack of TSA screeners at night also means that airport employees who arrive at work late at night or early in the morning no longer go through security checkpoints, but instead can enter secure areas through doors activated by card keys. Airline pilots and flight attendants have complained that workers are allowed in and around aircraft without being screened for weapons, compromising the safety of the aircraft. The pilots also note that while they have not been issued card keys and must go through security screening checkpoints like any passenger, other airport workers have been given the cards and have unfettered access to airplanes and runways. Unlike ordinary airport workers, licenced commercial pilots have to undergo strict background checks in order to be hired for their jobs.
Schumer and the whistle blowers also said today that guards without the background checks also are also performing the prescreening security checks, checking passengers' governmentissued IDs to ensure that they are not fake and that the names on them match the names on the boarding passes. TSA screeners often do not check the ID against the boarding passes when you pass through security again. In the in initial months after 9/11, TSA personnel also checked IDs and boarding passes at the gates to the airplanes' entrance ramps, but they no longer do. All told, this means a key aspect of passenger security is left in the hands of unaccountable, unchecked security guards.
In addition, while the post9/11 airport security law requires all aspects of baggage screening to be performed by TSA personnel, the whistleblowers say that nonTSA personnel handle luggage after it has already gone through the bombdetecting Xray machines. This leaves an opportunity for someone to plant a bomb or chemical (or biological) agent in the luggage after it has already been screened. These personnel can also see the data that is displayed on the bombdetecting machines' screens, which is considered sensitive security information.
On Monday, the government's proposed budget for 2005 was released. While it contains an increase of $890 million over the 2004 funding level for the TSA, none of these funds are earmarked for new TSA screeners. Instead, the funds will go improve the quality and speed of screening operations through additional screener training, stronger management central management and control of screener performance, and new screening technology. Almost half the funds $400 million are proposed to be spent on to more efficient baggage screening equipment at the nation's busiest airports. Schumer said today that all these priorities are important and that he will fight to ensure that these parts of the budget are fully funded. And Schumer noted that because the new screening equipment is targeted for highvolume airports, New Yorkers who fly into and out of LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark Liberty Airports will especially benefit from these budget provisions.
But Schumer said today that all of the new technology in the world is of limited use if personnel without stringent background checks have access to planes or luggage after the screening equipment is used. And although all security guards are generally required to undergo some form of background checks, these checks are not as stringent as the federal checks TSA personnel must pass if they are done at all. On Tuesday, the New Jersey State Attorney General indicted a New Jersey firm that has guard contracts at Newark Liberty, LaGuardia, and JFK International airports. According to court documents, the company failed to do required background checks on guards and bribed officials to help them keep their contracts. The company failed to submit fingerprints of security employees for screening against state and national data banks of convicted felons, and 27 felons managed to gain employment with the company.
"The bottom line is that we promised to make sure airport guards pass the strictest background checks, and we need to put our money where our mouths are and get the job done," Schumer said.
Schumer was joined today by TSA screeners from LaGuardia and JFK Airports and representatives of the Metropolitan Airport Workers Association.