Sunday, August 13

Sizing Up the People Who Tell Us to Take Our Shoes Off

August 13, 2006

In exercises by undercover government workers, and experiences with real passengers, screeners repeatedly failed to prevent weapons from being taken aboard airliners. And their ranks have shrunk since 2003 even as air travel has increased.

The Transportation Security Administration created two months after 9/11, had a rocky start — millions wasted in the rush to hire, reliance on dubious contractors, even an inability to pay people on time, according to several government reports.

Among the most serious problems that were discovered was that the agency hired hundreds of screeners with criminal records, in some cases for felonies as serious as manslaughter and rape. Reports of thefts soared as more bags than ever were inspected by hand.

The starting salary for screeners is less than $24,000, and some are hired without high school diplomas. People who do specialized work like reading X-rays are no better paid those who ask people to take their shoes off.

Yet the Government Accountability Office reported in April that investigators slipped bomb components past checkpoints at all 21 airports tried. The components could be combined onboard to make an explosive — the very strategy British authorities say plotters in England planned to use.

Private security experts say the airport screeners would be hard-pressed to stop sophisticated terrorists.