Ex-employees raise concerns in film about air safety agencies

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; B03

A half-dozen former and current federal employees have turned to the big screen to raise concerns with the nation's airport security.

"Please Remove Your Shoes" uses the experiences of mostly former employees of the Federal Air Marshals, Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration to argue that FAA officials frequently turned a blind eye to significant security threats in the years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The workers say lawmakers compounded problems by reflexively establishing the TSA.

"We took the same organizational template and same counterterrorist template verbatim and reapplied it under a new label and new people and threw some more money at it," said Fred Gevalt, the film's producer and a longtime aviation industry observer. "But there are still some fundamental errors."

Gevalt said he and his team spent almost two years exploring the topic. He would say only that the film cost "six figures." It debuts Wednesday at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, less than a week after the Senate confirmed FBI Deputy Director John Pistole as TSA administrator.

Brian Sullivan, a retired FAA special agent who narrates the film, said the documentary -- although it has a heavily critical slant -- could help balance Pistole's early perceptions of the TSA.

"He's going to come on board and TSA management will give him briefings, but their presentations will be equally slanted in terms of putting the best foot forward," Sullivan said.

The FAA declined to comment on the film, and the TSA declined Gevalt's invitation to participate in the documentary.

"TSA is a young agency, and many of the allegations raised in the film are past issues that have been long since addressed," said agency spokesman Greg Soule. "TSA has significantly improved aviation security following the tragic events of 9/11."

The film's central focus is airport security, but it also chronicles the struggles it says are commonly faced by federal whistleblowers, including threats, demotions and reassignments to the graveyard shift for speaking out.

According to filmmakers, at least one of the workers on screen remains employed at TSA. "Raising issues and challenging management's position on security issues, it sidetracks your career," said Sullivan, who spent years alerting FAA officials and lawmakers of potential threats. He's upset by suggestions that the film is simply an airing of grievances.

"When I saw the two planes flying into the World Trade Center, I knew what it was instantly," said Sullivan, who retired from the FAA in January 2001. "I cried, I felt like throwing up. I criticized myself, I said, 'What the hell is the matter with me? Am I so inarticulate? Do I not know how to write or speak? . . . I've gotten over that. I know I did what I could."

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