TSA seizes record number of guns from 2014 air travelers, including 94-year-old

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

10 things the TSA won’t tell you.

Air travelers caught trying to board a plane with a weapon included a 94-year-old man at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The Transportation Security Administration said that in 2014 it found more guns in carry-on luggage than ever before, a record haul of more than 2,200 firearms.

More than three dozen guns were seized from passengers flying out of the three airports in the Baltimore-Washington region in 2014, a substantial increase over the year prior.The annual budget for the federal Transportation Security Administration–the agency formed after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks to protect America’s aviation, mass transit, highway and rail systems—has risen from $4.8 billion in fiscal 2003 to more than $7 billion today.Security officers at US airports seized a record number of firearms – most of them loaded – from passengers’ hand luggage last year while screening nearly two million travellers a day.The Department of Homeland Security has issued a blistering audit of security weaknesses at JFK Airport that sharply rebukes the TSA for stonewalling demands for data and trying to keep it secret from the public.

Here’s a look at what the TSA described as a “homemade avalanche control charge” that was confiscated from a passenger at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport: “[A]ll those guns, and not a single one had anything to do with terrorism, and not a single one was a legitimate threat to aviation security,” reads one of the top anonymous comments on the TSA’s blog. “What a waste of tax dollars and time.” Other commenters wondered if the TSA’s touted 2,212 recovered guns included the bust of a gun-smuggling ring, allegedly including Delta Air Lines employees, through which at least 153 guns were smuggled onto planes flying through the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The inspector general’s audit was conducted between November 2013 and April 2014 and led to a 50-page report that identified weaknesses of the “technological infrastructure” of the airport and made recommendations on fixing them. And if you fly a lot, you’re probably feeling the TSA pinch even more than before: In July 2014, the TSA security fee, which is automatically added to airline tickets and pays for things like airport security, more than doubled, to $5.60 per one-way flight and $11.20 for a nonstop round trip. “People who travel frequently get hit the hardest…those fees add up,” says Mike McCormick, executive director of the Global Business Travel Association. TSA officers had an extremely busy year in 2014, screening more than 653 passengers (approximately 1.8 million per day), an increase of 14.8 million from 2013, and 1.7 billion carry-on bags.

The report focused on computer system vulnerabilities, including routers and servers; locked draws left opened; logs not properly maintained; lapses within the closed-circuit television and surveillance apparatus; and fire protection and detection, including a lack of smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in critical areas. The guns were found at 224 airports, up from 203 in 2013, with the most being discovered at Dallas/Fort Worth (120), followed by Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta (109) and Phoenix Sky Harbor (78) airports. In almost all cases when the TSA has found a handgun or other weapon, there was no nefarious intent, said TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein, but he said in each case the procedure is that law enforcement gets called and screening gets shut down. “The bottom line is always know what is in your carry-on and what you are checking in,” he said in a phone interview.

During the most recent 12-month period at BWI for which data is available — November 2013 to November 2014 — passenger volumes were down by about 0.2 percent compared to the same 12-month period the year prior. Airport officials predict 2014 total passenger numbers will reflect a similar change, slightly below or flat with 2013 numbers, at around 22.3 million passengers for the year. Every case resulted in a misdemeanor charge from airport police, said Michael Conway, spokesman with Detroit Metro Airport. “I can’t believe people can be that isolated that they don’t know that you can’t carry a weapon through passenger screening at an airport,” he said. “It just keeps happening and happening.” Any customer caught with a firearm at a checkpoint is arrested, questioned and cited, he added, and nearly every time that person misses his or her flight. In a similar incident a loaded .380-calibre firearm was found strapped to a passenger’s ankle after walking through a metal detector at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Inspector General John Roth charged that the TSA stonewalled his original request for certain information for more than five months by not promptly responding.

A typical fine for a first time violator for carrying an unloaded firearm is $1,500, and a loaded firearm is a $3,000 fine, Feinstein said, on top of local penalties. The local penalty includes up to a year in jail and fines up to $1,000. “Whenever we detect a weapon or firearm, we immediately notify local law enforcement,” TSA Michigan spokesman Michael McCarthy said. “Metro Airport police takes possession and pulls the passenger aside.” TSA officers in 2014 found an average of six firearms per day in passengers’ carry-on bags or on their bodies. In addition to firearms TSA officers also seized a variety of weapons or unsafe items, including an Mk 2 hand grenade at Los Angeles International Airport. Such lapses were marked by the TSA with a special security designation — known as “SSI,” for “sensitive security information” — requiring that they be redacted from Roth’s draft audit. The Terminal 1 checkpoint was shut while an explosive ordnance disposal team removed the grenade and transported it to an off-site location to be detonated.

Roth appealed to former TSA head John Pistole, noting that the data he sought to publicize had “been disclosed in other reports” and posed no real threat if it was highlighted in his report. A 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency, found a 26% increase in misconduct among TSA employees from fiscal year 2010 through 2012—and a significant portion of that misconduct involved theft. That information, Roth added, merely contained “generic, non-specific vulnerabilities that are common to virtually all systems and would not be detrimental to transportation security.” “My auditors, who are experts in computer security, have assured me that redacted information would not compromised transportation security,” he added.

In November, a woman was arrested at BWI after security agents discovered a loaded .38-caliber pistol and more than a dozen loose bullets in her carry-on bag. The TSA said its officers are required to call in explosives experts to determine if the items are real, and that can cause significant disruption for travellers.

Pistole referred the IG’s appeal back to “the head of the SSI program office — the very same office that initially and improperly marked the information” as warranting redaction. Weapons and properly packed ammo for civilians that are in checked luggage is typically OK, so long as the weapons are securely locked in a hard-sided container with TSA-approved locks and you alert the airline first and follow their procedures, which can mean extra paperwork and security checks. The TSA also uncovered an 8.5in knife inside an enchilada in Santa Rosa, California, and razor blades hidden in a Scooby-Doo greeting card in Newport News, Virginia.

As a result, Roth blacked out portions of his report, forcing him to appeal to federal legislators who oversee the TSA, in a bid to make the data public in his final report. Under federal law, anyone who tries to take a gun onto an airline flight as a carry-on item — loaded or not — can face criminal prosecution and a $10,000 fine. A year before that, a TSA employee pleaded guilty to charges that he regularly stole cash (totaling between $10,000 and $30,000) from fliers while screening their bags at the Newark Liberty International Airport.

A number of TSA agents have been caught stealing iPads, and passengers have recently accused agents of stealing everything from cash to jewelry—sometimes right in plain sight as the belongings were going through screening machines. The TSA notes that it has a “zero tolerance” policy on theft and says that the number of its employees fired for theft represents less than ½ of 1% of the people employed by the agency over the period in question. Still, the GAO concluded that the “TSA could strengthen monitoring of allegations of employee misconduct.” Travelers are sometimes a little sketchy and weird–and they prove it with the odd and sometimes illegal things they try to take through airport security. This makes sense, on some level: If you live in a place where you can carry a concealed weapon, you are probably used to always having your concealed weapon with you. (This is harder to explain if you have, say, a hidden gun or a knife stashed in an enchilada, both of which happened last year.) Of course, it is still something the TSA would really rather you not forget. Last year, a man tried to pass off “cocaine-chip” cookies as chocolate chip cookies at Newark; another stuffed 7 pounds of the white powder into goat meat chunks and tried to bring it into New York; and still another tried to hide his drugs in bags of custard mix and slide through JFK undetected.

The reason lies in TSA’s mission: Ross Feinstein, a TSA spokesman, notes that “TSA’s screening procedures, which are governed by federal law, are focused on security and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers.” If an officer happens upon what looks like drugs in someone’s bag, “TSA refers the matter to law enforcement,” Mr. But experts say that given their other priorities, TSA officers may sometimes look the other way even when they suspect drugs are present. (There have been reports of TSA officers leaving warning notes for passengers carrying marijuana, rather than turning them in, even though the officers could face punishment for taking that approach.) It’s ultimately up to law enforcement–not the TSA–to determine whether to initiate a criminal investigation for someone suspected of smuggling drugs through an airport, says Feinstein. The TSA’s security mandate allows screeners to open checked bags, and even to cut the locks on a locked bag; in all, about 5% of checked bags are opened during screening, says TSA’s Feinstein.

Travelers complain that TSA rummaging often leaves their luggage in disarray, with breakable objects broken and items spilled and—a big complaint at the holidays—presents unwrapped and haphazardly rewrapped. Indeed, many airport workers—including some baggage handlers, mechanics and others with access to secure areas and planes–aren’t required to routinely go through metal detectors or body scanners. In December 2014, for example, a ring of five men, including an airline baggage handler, were arrested on suspicion of smuggling guns through airports in Atlanta and New York City. The TSA ranks AITs among its “most capable technology.” But although the devices debuted in 2008 and are now in about 160 airports, only about 50% of air passengers in 2013 passed through those machines or other advanced security technology.

This sometimes happens when officials want to expedite the security lines, or when AIT machines aren’t available at the airport the passenger is flying from. The DHS says it relies on other information, screening methods and intelligence-gathering to check on passengers who don’t go through AITs; in all, it says, 85% of passengers underwent “enhanced screening” each day in 2013. And just in case you were wondering: It’s fine to bring grandma’s cremated ashes onboard (as long as you’re OK with her going through an X-ray machine), but that pie you baked for grandpa may require additional screening. While these rules seem strange, the TSA does have its reasons for them–typically related to how much of a threat the items present to the safety of passengers and crew. The cost of deployment was about $30 million, but the machines frequently required pricey maintenance, and the government has since pulled them from airports.

The TSA says it has recently improved its technology-procurement process, and that such changes helped the agency come in $100 million under its allotted budget in fiscal 2013. Safety is the TSA’s top priority, but the organization isn’t doing a good enough job in determining whether its safety initiatives are actually keeping us safer, according to government reports.

A report released in September 2014 by the GAO evaluated the TSA’s Secure Flight program, which helps identify which passengers are higher and lower security risks (TSA PreCheck is a part of this program). What’s more, the GAO complained that it took the TSA over six months to compile a list of such errors—and that the list itself was incomplete and contained mistakes.

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