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Lax airport security poses threat waiting to happen


The recently released report on airport security in this country would have been shocking if it had not been so predictable.

Federal investigators found that security is so poor at some U.S. airports that not only was it easy to evade security checkpoints, but it was easy to get a hand grenade past a metal detector.

The Transportation Department's Office of the Inspector General sent out investigators who were dressed "casually," who wore no identification, and who acted in ways "intended to prompt suspicion."

But did they prompt much suspicion?


They prompted so little, in fact, that they were able to get into "secure" areas in 15 out of 20 attempts.

Which is exactly what I did 14 years ago.

In 1979, I was a columnist in Chicago and got a call from a security employee at O'Hare Airport saying security there was a sham.

She operated X-ray machines and magnetometers (those arches you walk through) and said they often didn't work. She had been given no real training and she told me that if a bomb appeared on her X-ray screen, she would have no idea what it looked like.

Yet she checked thousands of passengers through security every day.

I printed her story and used her real name. Nothing happened. In the world of airport security, this is not unusual. Since there have been so few hijackings of U.S. planes on U.S. soil, officials believe that if it could happen, it would be happening.

So I went out to O'Hare and spent several weeks just walking around. I noticed -- as any terrorist would -- that airline employees never went through the magnetometers. They just wore little ID tags and were waved around the machines.

So I went home and put on a blue suit. I clipped my drivers license to my breast pocket. And I put on a pair of toy Delta Airlines wings, the ones that stewardesses give children.

Then I put a starter's pistol in my pocket. It couldn't shoot anything and was not technically a weapon, but it should have been detected in any airport with good security.

I went to the TWA entry gate at O'Hare -- going through Delta would have been too easy -- where two security guards were on duty.

I walked up. One guard looked at my toy Delta wings. "Hi, how are you?" she said.

"Have a nice day," I said.

And I walked right past "security."

1% As a follow-up, my reporting part

ner went undercover and got a job at an airport security firm. She found that the metal detectors and X-ray machines often didn't work and that her fellow workers were so bored they often didn't bother to look at the screens anyway.

After printing our results, we met with officials of the Federal Aviation Administration and even turned over findings that we had considered too dangerous to print.

We made several recommendations, including making airline personnel go through metal detectors.

Nothing was done.

Then, on Dec. 7, 1987, a recently fired airline employee walked aboard a plane at Los Angeles International Airport carrying a .44 Magnum handgun. After takeoff, he started shooting. The plane crashed and 43 people died.

A few days later, the FAA decided that all airline employees had to go through metal detectors.

It is now 1993, and investigators are still able to evade airport security and even get hand grenades past a magnetometer with no problems.

And that is the part of the report the Transportation Department will release. There were classified findings it did not release.

But is the FAA worried?


David R. Hinson, head of the FAA, minimized the findings:

"The vulnerabilities identified by the office of the Inspector General need to be placed in the context of the current threat to civil aviation in the United States and the current record of civil aviation security," he said. "Otherwise, they lead to overly alarming conclusions."

And he pointed out that there have been only 29 terrorist attacks in this country since 1988 and none involved civil aviation.

In other words, since it hasn't happened, it can't happen.

Which is exactly what they said about somebody putting a bomb in the World Trade Center in New York.

Nobody had ever done it. So nobody could do it.

Until somebody did.

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