Sword on Board

Sword on Board
Sword on Board 
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 
four-foot sword."

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 
issue known.

* 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.

Copyright National Review Online 2006-2007. All Rights Reserved.

Subscribe to InfoSec News 

Site design & layout copyright © 1986-2014 CodeGods