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DHS and TSA: Whoops, We Missed That 73 Airport Employees May be Terrorists

DHS and TSA: Whoops, We Missed That 73 Airport Employees May be Terrorists


Security theater closes another embarassing act, following failure to detect weapons at 95 percent of TSA checkpoints

In the wake of the tragic attacks on France, America is reevaluating its own security and the scrutiny is turning up some troubling oversights.  Among them, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated in a report [PDF] that 73 residents on the “Consolidated Terrorist Watchlist” were found to be working at U.S. airports in various unspecified capacities.

That could mean something as petty as working at a local fast food restaurant at an airport, but it could also mean people with suspected terrorist ties were in more sensitive roles such as security, luggage handling, or flight attendant positions.

The oversight, as Quartz nicely summarizes, was due to “two bureaucratic bungles—one caused by sloppy record-keeping, and the other by inter-agency red tape.”

The sloppy record keeping part is the fault of the oft-embattled U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a bureaucratic enforcement construct known in part for its friendly pat-downs and the questionable antics of some of its employees/ex-employees.  TSA officials admitted that among its “thousands of records” of airport employee rolls instances were found of “potentially incomplete or inaccurate data, such as an initial for a first name and missing social security numbers.”

Watchlisting guidance

[Image Source: The Intercept]

What’s more the TSA goes on to admit that 73 workers on the terror watchlist “were cleared for access to secure airport areas despite representing a potential transportation security threat.”

What makes the situation especially bewildering is that the TSA is blaming the incident, in part on an internal bureaucratic breakdown or “red tape” as Quartz termed it.  Specifically, the version of the DHS Consolidated Terrorist Watchlist that is given to various federal enforcement agencies (including the TSA) is incomplete.  It appears at least some of those that slipped through the cracks were on the unredacted list, but not the published version.

What makes this a bit stranger is a simple fact — the TSA is a part of the DHS!

TSA Seal

Basically the DHS (and TSA) report admits that there is so much red tape and convoluted procedures that the DHS Cabinet could not pass information directly to its child agency on terror suspects.  So it gave them the same generalized communique destined for non-DHS agencies.  Bizarre.

For those who are a bit hazy on what the DHS is, it was a recent Cabinet (department) created under the Presidency of George Walker Bush (R) in late Nov. 2002, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001.  The original premise was that the DHS would defend the homeland much as the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) (the umbrella under which the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and military sit) is tasked with defending the nation against overseas threats and defending American interests abroad.
DHS seal

The DHS’s role grew more specific in mid-2003 when it absorbed the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), an agency which covered border patrol and various immigration-related security services.  The net result was three child agencies under the command of the DHS:

The DHS also inherited the TSA, formerly a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

The DHS has at times drawn fire for its size, budget, and mixed track record.  The DHS employs approximately 240,000 Americans making it the third largest Cabinet of the federal executive branch [source].  With approximately 180 million Americans working in the U.S. (12.2% gov. employees; 87.8% civilian sector) those numbers mean that the DHS employs roughly 1 in every 750 American citizens in the overall workforce [source: U.S. labor force; federal workforce].

TSA grope

TSA: I did it all for the nookie. [Image Source: Getty Images]

The TSA in particular has been one of the biggest perennial sources of embarassment to the DHS.  TSA employees have been stricken with accusations ranging from sexual harassment to elder abuse.  Many have been fired amid wide-ranging accusations of misconduct and inappropriate behavior.  The agency has also been mired in accusations of wasteful spending that bordered on fraud and with exposes revealing how poor security has been in actuality, at times.

The agency has implemented some more well-received policies such as its “Pre” system which provides quicker security pass-throughs for frequent travellers with a proven track record.

Still, the recent report — combined with an even more security check — cost the job of the TSA’s acting chief Melvin Carraway.  Carraway was reassigned to a position within the DHS coordinating with U.S. state and local law enforcement.

TSA Chief

The scandals have cost TSA Chief Melvin Carraway his post. [Image Source: Telemundo]

Carraway’s “reassignment” followed a DHS security test which found that TSA agents missed 95 percent of fake weapons and explosive in a series of trials staged at dozens of America’s top airports.  So to recap, the TSA is struggling to figure out what airport employees might be terrorists — and having even more trouble figuring out if people are smuggling weapons and bombs into airports.  That’s not good.

As an addendum I will add that the “Consolidated Terrorist Watchlist” is imperfect and does not always accurately name actual terrorists. A number of sources have documented obvious mistakes in the list over the years, typically involving false positives — people misidentified as threats who really weren’t one.

Sources: DHS [report; PDF], [press release; TSA resignation]

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