By Annie Jacobsen
November 28, 2006
Earlier this year, a passenger at the Dallas-Forth Worth airport got a
four-foot sword on an American Airlines airplane. How in the world did a
sword that size manage to get through airport security? Who knows, but
it did, and there it was for a plane full of Los Angeles-bound
passengers to see.
A federal incident report recounts the story, and additional details
about the sword came to me from Steve Elson, a former FAA Red Team
member who, at the governments behest, used to sneak fake bombs and
weapons onto planes.
"A four-foot sword?" I asked Elson.
"A gentleman was on an airplane in Dallas / Forth Worth," Elson replied,
"and was trying to get an object in the overhead bin, but having
trouble. The flight attendant came up to help and there it was, a
The story is as absurd as it is horrifying. The "gentleman" passenger
fortunately wasnt looking to employ his sword, but the fact that such a
weapon made it past aviation security warranted a few questions for the
TSA. After all, were talking about a double-edged weapon as tall as my
"No comment," TSA spokesman Nico Melendez told me, adding, "Dont know
about it" -- a handy, unexceptional TSA response.
So I posed a few questions about the recent security debacle in Kona,
Hawaii. In case you missed that one, a TSA screener there accidentally
dropped a folder full of national security secrets in a passengers
checked bag. In an interview with KITV in Honolulu, the passenger, Joe
Langer, explained, "I went into my bag this morning, opened it up, just
like this, and I found a three-ring binder that I did not recognize."
The three-ring binder was the TSAs calibration record for its airport
bomb detection machine. On the folders cover, in bold letters, it read
"SSI -- Property of the TSA." SSI stands for "Sensitive Security
Information," and after passenger Lander discovered he was in possession
of such a thing, the 23-year veteran of the Navy told reporters, "It
makes me think, 'Hey, what kind of people do we have working at TSA?'
Where they just accidentally leave this in a bag?"
Its an interesting question: How exactly does a three-ring folder fly
out of a federal employees hands into a passengers bag? Our airport
bomb-detectors dont suffer from somnambulism or narcolepsy, but just
good old-fashioned, bureaucratic I-dont-care-ism.
Melendez was not forthcoming with any more information about the folder.
"We are looking into the facts of how this fumble occurred," he told the
public when the incident happened. But when I tried to gather further
information from him (right after I asked about the sword), he told me,
"We don't comment on personnel matters" -- yet another handy TSA
Whatever can be said of the TSA itself, some TSA employees do care about
transparency and security. An airport screener at Newark Liberty
International Airport leaked information to the press about how
undercover Red Team agents recently succeeded in smuggling an array of
fake bombs and guns past security.
These security breaches werent just a few cases of bombs sailing by a
sleeping screener -- the TSA failed 20 out of 22 times. So the TSA took
this failure seriously (United flight 93 left from Newark on 9/11 after
all) and initiated a hunt for the person who reported the failures.
Aviation domain SSI was now in dangerous, civilian hands, and the TSA
just cannot tolerate such violations.
"An investigation is standard when Security Sensitive Information has
been disclosed," TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis told the New Jersey Star
Ledger. To this end, the "TSA investigation team" was dispatched to
Newark, where employees were told that the leaker could face jail time.
New Jersey Congressman William Pascrell -- a member of the Homeland
Security Committee -- stepped up to the podium on the whistleblowers
behalf. He pointed out that the Newark investigation was really a
"witch-hunt to find out who revealed theres a problem." And New Jersey
Governor Jon Corzine told the press, "Its all about accountability. And
people dont want to be held accountable. Those statistics [a 90 percent
failure rate] were pretty stark." Yet the investigation continues.
To err is human. Thats why we teach our sword-sized kids not to accept
failure. The TSA has taken a different approach -- it denies that its
failings exist and tries to keep them hidden. The TSA's double standard
is clear: one TSA employee leaves SSI in a passengers bag and its
considered a "fumble"; a fleet of TSA screeners fail 90 percent of their
tests and its jail time for the employee who made the public-safety
* Annie Jacobsen is the author of the book, Terror in The Skies, Why
9/11 Could Happen Again. A graduate of Princeton University, she lives
in Los Angeles with her husband and sons.
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