By Eileen Sullivan
Saturday, November 3, 2007
The Transportation Security Administration promotes its programs to ensure security by using undercover operatives to test its airport screeners. In one instance, however, the agency thwarted such a test by alerting screeners across the country that it was under way, even providing descriptions of the undercover agents.
The government routinely runs covert tests at airports to ensure that security measures are sufficient to stop a terrorist from bringing something dangerous onto an airplane. Alerting screeners to an undercover officer's timing and appearance would defeat the purpose.
But that's exactly what happened on April 28, 2006, according to an e-mail from a top TSA official who oversees security operations.
In an e-mail to more than a dozen recipients, including airport security staff, the TSA official warned that "several airport authorities and airport police departments have recently received informal notice" of security testing being carried out by the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration.
The e-mail from Mike Restovich, assistant administrator of TSA's Office of Security Operations, relayed an alert that described a couple who were testing security. The woman is white but has "an oriental woman's picture" on her identification card, it stated. "They will print a boarding pass from a flight, change the date, get through security (if not noticed) and try to board a flight and place a bag in the overhead."
Because the pair had altered the date on a boarding pass, the e-mail advised: "Alert your security line vendors to be aware of subtle alterations to date info."
The TSA inspector general is investigating the incident, and the agency would not discuss details of the case because it is part of an ongoing investigation.
TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe said, "We are confident in the overall integrity of the program. Tip-offs are not a systemic problem because we do so much testing."
Lawmakers are asking for more details on the incident as well.
"Any effort to undermine the integrity of covert testing of TSA's screening checkpoints is unacceptable," Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) wrote in a letter Thursday to TSA Administrator Kip Hawley. Thompson chairs the House Homeland Security Committee.