The head of the Transportation Security Administration told lawmakers Thursday he stands by his plan to allow passengers to carry small knives onto planes despite a growing backlash against the proposal.
It’s unlikely in these days of hardened cockpit doors and other preventative measures that the small folding knives could be used by terrorists to take over a plane, TSA Administrator John Pistole told a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee.
On the other hand, searching for the knives on passengers or in their carry-on bags is time consuming, Pistole said. TSA screeners confiscate about 2,000 such knives every day, with each incident chewing up about two to three minutes, he said.
“I think the decision is solid and it stands and we plan to move forward,” Pistole said.
The policy, which goes into effect April 25, has sparked strong opposition from flight attendants, federal air marshals, some pilot unions, and even aviation insurers. In the hands of the wrong passengers, the knives can be used to harm flight attendants and other passengers, critics say.
Several airline CEOs have also expressed qualms. Delta Air Lines chief executive Richard Anderson said in a letter to Pistole last week that he shares the “legitimate concerns” of the airline’s flight attendants. US Airways chief Doug Parker asked the TSA administrator to reconsider his position.
Several members of the House committee also urged Pistole to drop the proposal, warning that if he doesn’t, Congress may take steps to block the policy change.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks there have been no incidents in which terrorists have successfully used sharp objects to take over a plane, which suggests the current policy of keeping even small knives off planes is working, committee members said.
“How does allowing sharp objects on board now accomplish maintaining the goal of having zero planes taken over?” asked Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. “I’m asking why now, and why do we want to go back?”
The lack of instances in which terrorists try to use knives to take over a plane underscores that their tactics have shift to using explosive devices instead, which what TSA is devoting its energies to finding, Pistole said. He noted that the proposed policy would mostly conform U.S. regulations with international standards, which were changed in 2010 to allow these types of small knives to be carried by passengers. Yet none has been used in a terrorist incident so far, he said.
Even though the agency is focused on new threats, “it doesn’t mean old threats don’t still exist,” Swalwell responded.
Pistole acknowledged that the knives could be used to injure people on a plane, but he said that’s not the TSA’s responsibility.
“It really comes down to the mission of TSA,” he said. “Is it to prevent disturbances by inebriated passengers on board? I don’t think so.”
There are already items on board planes that can be used to harm someone, “whether it’s in first class (with) a metal knife or fork, or whether it’s a wine glass or a wine bottle that they break and use,” Pistole said.
The agency is focused on identifying which passengers may have dangerous intentions rather than looking at objects that could be misused, he said.
“If we focus only on objects then we’re always behind the eight ball,” Pistole said.
Besides knives, the policy will also allow passengers to include in their carry-on luggage novelty-size baseball bats less than 24 inches (610 millimeters) long, toy plastic bats, billiard cues, ski poles, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks and two golf clubs. Items like box cutters and razor blades are still prohibited.
Knives permitted under the policy must be able to fold up and have blades that are 2.36 inches (60 millimeters) or less in length and are less than a half-inch (127 millimeters) wide. The policy is aimed at allowing passengers to carry pen knives, corkscrews with small blades and other small knives.
There has been a gradual easing of some of the security measures applied to airline passengers after 9/11. In 2005, the TSA changed its policies to allow passengers to carry on airplanes small scissors, knitting needles, tweezers, nail clippers and up to four books of matches. And in September 2011, the TSA no longer required children 12 years old and under to remove their shoes at airport checkpoints. The agency recently issued new guidelines for travelers 75 and older so they can avoid removing shoes and light jackets when they go through airport security checkpoints.
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Flight attendants, pilots, federal air marshals and even insurance companies are part of a growing backlash to the Transportation Security Administration’s new policy allowing passengers to carry small knives and sports equipment like souvenir baseball bats and golf clubs onto planes.
The Flight Attendants Union Coalition, which representing nearly 90,000 flight attendants, said it is coordinating a nationwide legislative and public education campaign to reverse the policy announced by TSA Administrator John Pistole this week. A petition posted by the flight attendants on the White House’s “We the People” website had more than 9,300 signatures early Friday urging the administration to tell the TSA to keep knives off planes.
“Our nation’s aviation system is the safest in the world thanks to multilayered security measures that include prohibition on many items that could pose a threat to the integrity of the aircraft cabin,” the coalition, which is made up of five unions, said in a statement. “The continued ban on dangerous objects is an integral layer in aviation security and must remain in place.”
Jon Adler, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, whose 26,000 members include federal air marshals, complained that he and other “stakeholders” weren’t consulted by TSA before the “countersafety policy” was announced. He said the association will ask Congress to block the policy change.
The Coalition of Airline Pilot Associations, which represents 22,000 pilots, said it opposes allowing knives of any kind in airliner cabins.
“We believe the (terrorism) threat is still real and the removal of any layer of security will put crewmembers and the flying public unnecessarily in harm’s way,” Mike Karn, the coalition’s president, said.
The new policy, which goes into effect on April 25, permits folding knives with blades that are 2.36 inches or less in length and are less than 1/2-inch wide. The policy is aimed at allowing passengers to carry pen knives, corkscrews with small blades and other small knives.
Passengers also will be allowed to include in their carry-on luggage novelty-sized baseball bats less than 24 inches long, toy plastic bats, billiard cues, ski poles, hockey sticks, lacrosse sticks and two golf clubs. Items like box cutters and razor blades are still prohibited.
There has been a gradual easing of some of the security measures applied to airline passengers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The new policy conforms U.S. security standards to international standards and allows the TSA to concentrate its energies on more serious safety threats, the agency said when it announced the change this week.
The policy change was based on a recommendation from an internal TSA working group, which decided the items represented no real danger, the agency said.
A TSA spokesman said the presence on flights of gun-carrying pilots traveling as passengers, federal air marshals and airline crew members trained in self-defense provide additional layers of security to protect against misuse of the newly allowed items.
Not all flights, however, have federal air marshals or armed pilots onboard.
The new policy has touched off a debate over the mission of TSA and whether the agency is supposed to concentrate exclusively on preventing terrorists from hijacking or blowing up planes, or whether it should also help protect air travelers and flight crews from unruly and sometimes dangerous passengers.
“The charter, the mission of TSA is to stop an airplane from being used as a weapon and to stop catastrophic damage to that aircraft,” David Castelveter, a spokesman for the agency, said. Pistole’s position is “these small knives, these baseball bats, these sporting items aren’t going to contribute to bringing an airplane down,” he said.
In era of reinforced cockpit doors and passengers who have shown a willingness to intervene, the threat from terrorism has been greatly reduced, Andrew R. Thomas, a University of Akron business professor and author of several books on the airline industry and security, said.
Rather, “acts of aberrant, abusive and abnormal passenger behavior known as air rage remain the most persistent threat to aviation security,” he said.
The International Air Transport Association recently reported that the incidence of air rage cases was way up, with an estimated 10,000-plus such events annually, Thomas said.
Adler, representing the air marshals, said aviation security is neither “terrorist proof nor psycho proof,” and both should be protected against.
TSA’s “primary concern, and their only concern, is to protect the cockpit to make sure the planes aren’t turned into missiles,” he complained. “Traveling Americans are expendable, disposable and otherwise irrelevant to air travel safety.”
The new policy has aviation insurers concerned as well.
“We think this move is a bad idea, and isn’t in the interests of the traveling public or flight crews in the aviation industry,” said Joe Strickland, head of American operations for Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, a leading global aviation insurer.
“Safety is the highest priority of every commercial air carrier, flight crew member and air traffic controller,” he said. “We don’t see how these changes support this priority.”
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A Muslim U.S. Air Force veteran who had trouble entering the country last year to visit his terminally ill mother was barred again Saturday from trying to return home to Qatar, the second time this month that he’s been prohibited from boarding a flight in Oklahoma City because his name appears on a government no-fly list.
Saadiq Long, an American citizen, told The Associated Press that he attempted to board a Delta Airlines flight at Will Rogers World Airport but was denied a boarding pass after the ticket agent contacted Delta officials. After that, Transportation Security Administration agents arrived.
Long said a TSA agent told him that he was “still on the list” and he would have to contact the FBI.
“I’m trying to be patient, I have my family here supporting me. I’m trying to hang in there,” Long told the AP.
A Delta spokesman referred questions to the TSA, which in turn referred questions to the FBI.
“It’s been an ongoing issue, but there’s nothing that we have to say about his situation,” FBI spokesman Rick Rains said. “We have talked with him and his attorney.”
Long said the FBI has not told him why he is on the no-fly list, and he declined to say why he believes he’s on the list.
“There is so much speculation,” he said. “No one has told me and it would just be speculation,” to comment on a reason.
He said he has been in Oklahoma City since late last year visiting his mother, who suffers congestive heart failure. After initially having difficulty entering the U.S., he was allowed in the country in November.
“It’s kind of getting to her now. She’s kind of depressed,” Long said, referring to his mother’s reaction to his flight situation.
Long tried on Feb. 6 to board a flight out of Oklahoma City but was denied a boarding pass then as well.
Long said he is talking with an attorney about alternative travel arrangements. He declined to say what those plans might entail.
“It’s probably best for me not to mention it,” he said.
However, he did acknowledge it’s “quite possible” that he will try again to board another flight to Qatar, where he lives with his wife and children and teaches English.
If allowed to fly Saturday, Long would have stopped first in Detroit, then taken a connecting flight to Amsterdam and later boarded a flight to Doha, Qatar.
A Transportation Security Administration screener has been arrested on charges he swiped iPads and other electronic devices from passengers’ luggage at John F. Kennedy Airport.
Port Authority spokesman Steven Coleman said Wednesday that 32-year-old Sean Henry, of Brooklyn, was nabbed in a sting operation using decoy bags in cooperation with the TSA.
Coleman says Henry was arrested after leaving work carrying in his backpack two planted iPads and other electronic devices. He says stolen items were also found in Henry’s home.
The 10-year veteran of the federal agency was arrested on charges of grand larceny and official misconduct. Information on his lawyer was not immediately available.
A Michigan woman dying of leukemia says she hopes her embarrassment during a Seattle airport security pat-down might change the way the Transportation Security Administration treats travelers with medical conditions.
A TSA spokeswoman said late Tuesday, however, that the agency had reviewed video from the security checkpoint where Michelle Dunaj was screened for weapons and determined that the agency’s procedures were followed.
Dunaj, 34, was making what she expects will be the last trip of her life on Oct. 2 as she traveled through Seattle en route to Hawaii.
The Roseville, Mich., woman thought she had prepared by calling the airline ahead of time, asking for a wheelchair, carrying documentation for her feeding tubes and making sure she had prescriptions for all her medications, including five bags of saline solution. But Dunaj said she received a full pat-down in the security line at Seattle-Tacoma Airport and had to lift her shirt and pull back bandages so agents could get a good look. She said everyone else in line got a look, too.
“My issue is: It was in front of everyone, and everyone was looking at me like I was a criminal or like I was doing something wrong,” Dunaj told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “It shouldn’t have been in front of everyone.”
Dunaj said a female agent performed the pat-down and asked her to lift up her shirt after feeling the tubes going into Dunaj’s chest and abdomen. Dunaj said her suggestion for a more private pat-down was dismissed.
“I asked them if they thought that was an appropriate location, and they told me that everything was fine,” she said.
She said another agent punctured one of the saline bags she was carrying, ruining it.
“I didn’t want to start getting upset and swearing and causing more of a scene or issue,” Dunaj said. “But it definitely wasn’t handled properly.”
TSA said in a statement, “At no point did a TSA officer open the passenger’s medically necessary liquids and the passenger was never asked to remove or pull off any bandages.”
The agency also said “at any point, any passenger can request private screening with a witness present.”
Asked to comment on Dunaj’s statement that she had asked for a more private pat-down, TSA Northwest Region spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said, “I cannot address that” and added that the “statement stands on its own.”
“We have determined that our screening procedures were followed,” she said late Tuesday.
Dunaj said that after her pat-down, she was asked to move along, as if she were responsible for holding up the line.
“I thought that was a little rude,” she said.
The TSA statement said “the passenger has not contacted TSA about her screening experience.”
“We work to make our screening procedures as minimally invasive as possible while providing the level of security that the American people want and deserve,” Dankers said in the statement.
Travelers with disabilities can call a TSA hotline with questions about screening procedures.
Dunaj did not immediately return a call Tuesday evening seeking comment on the TSA’s response.
She initially told her story on KOMO-TV.
She had no problems flying out of Detroit or returning to Seattle from Hawaii. She has been staying with a friend at suburban Bonney Lake in western Washington and planned to return to Michigan on Wednesday. She wasn’t looking forward to departing from Sea-Tac, although the TSA contacted her through KOMO and offered to have a manager help her through security.
Her friend Mary Rowe said Tuesday evening the experience has “been exhausting for her.”
“On the last trip of her life, she’s been totally bombarded with everything,” Rowe said.
Dunaj decided to make the trip after she was told she had three to four months to live. She doesn’t regret it, despite the hassles.
“Hawaii was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” she said. “Number One on my bucket list.”
She’ll enter hospice back home Oct. 17.
Transportation Security Administration officers at Boston’s Logan International Airport are alleging that a program intended to help flag possible terrorists based on passengers’ mannerisms has led to rampant racial profiling, a newspaper reported Saturday.
The New York Times reported on its website that in interviews and internal complaints it has obtained, more than 30 officers involved in the “behavior detection” program at Logan contend that the operation targets not only Middle Easterners, but also passengers who fit certain profiles — such as Hispanics traveling to Miami, or blacks wearing baseball caps backward.
The TSA told the newspaper on Friday that it is investigating the officers’ claims. At a meeting last month with the agency, officers provided written complaints, some of them anonymous, from 32 officers.
The officers said their co-workers were increasingly targeting minorities, believing the stops would lead to the discovery of drugs, outstanding arrest warrants and immigration problems, in response to pressure from managers who wanted high numbers of stops, searches and criminal referrals, The Times reported.
“The behavior detection program is no longer a behavior-based program, but it is a racial profiling program,” one officer wrote in an anonymous complaint The Times obtained.
The program, which has been billed as a model for other airports across the country, is intended to allow officers to stop, search and question passengers who seem suspicious. Specially trained “assessors” observe security lines for unusual activity and speak individually with each passenger, looking for inconsistencies in the passenger’s responses to questions and behavior such as avoiding eye contact, fidgeting or sweating.
Passengers considered suspicious can be taken aside for more intensive questioning.
At least one passenger has filed a formal complaint with the TSA. Kenneth Boatner, a black psychologist and educational consultant who was traveling to Atlanta on business last month, said he was detained for nearly half an hour as agents examined his belongings, including his checkbook and his patients’ clinical notes.
In an interview with The Times, Boatner said he felt humiliated, and that the officers never explained why they were singling him out, but he suspected it was because of his race and attire. He was wearing sweat pants, a white T-shirt and high-top sneakers.
“I had never been subjected to anything like that,” Boatner said.
The TSA said the program at Logan “in no way encourages or tolerates profiling,” and that passengers cannot be subjected to behavior assessments based on their nationality, race, ethnicity or religion.
“If any of these claims prove accurate, we will take immediate and decisive action to ensure there are consequences to such activity,” the agency said in a statement.
The TSA said it did not compile information on passengers’ race or ethnicity and could not provide a breakdown of passengers who may have been stopped on either basis through the program.
A newspaper says Transportation Security Administration officers at Boston’s Logan International Airport are alleging that a program intended to help flag possible terrorists based on passengers’ mannerisms has led to racial profiling.
The New York Times (http://nyti.ms/P2enzf ) reports that in interviews and internal complaints it has obtained, more than 30 officers involved in the “behavior detection” program at Logan say the operation not only targets Middle Easterners, but also passengers who fit certain profiles — such as Hispanics traveling to Miami, or blacks wearing baseball caps backward.
The program is intended to allow officers to stop, search and question passengers for behavior considered suspicious.
The TSA tells the newspaper that it’s investigating the allegations and says if the claims are true, it will take “immediate and decisive action.”
A judge has thrown out a suit against the U.S. Department of Justice and the government’s no-fly list, saying an Oregon federal court does not have jurisdiction over the agency that administers the list.
The suit, filed in 2010 by 15 men barred from returning to the U.S., seeks to either remove the plaintiffs from the no-fly list or tell them why they are on it and, in some cases, allow them to return to the U.S.
U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown agreed Thursday with an assertion from the Justice Department that her court lacked jurisdiction over the Transportation Security Administration.
Brown’s ruling left open the opportunity for the plaintiffs to successfully argue that an appellate court should have jurisdiction over the TSA. The plaintiffs, including Portland imam Mohamed Sheikh Abdirahman Kariye, have appealed the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Brown ruled for the Justice Department in two areas.
The department argued that the TSA is an “indispensable party” to the suit, whose absence from the lawsuit means the suit has to be thrown out. At the same time, the Justice Department argued that the TSA can’t be included in the suit because orders from the TSA can only be argued in appellate court. Brown agreed.
The Justice Department also successfully argued that the court didn’t have jurisdiction over the TSA’s policies and procedures.
Brown said in her ruling that her determination came down to whether the ACLU and the plaintiffs were arguing against the men’s placement on the no-fly list by the Terrorist Screening Center — which is run by the FBI — or arguing against TSA policies and procedures.
The Terrorist Screening Center would be subject to district court jurisdiction; the TSA is not.
“The overarching theme throughout (a plaintiff filing) is the inadequacy of TSA’s … procedures to have plaintiffs’ names removed from any No Fly List,” Brown wrote, “and not the placement of their names on such list, which is the only basis for district court jurisdiction.”
The Justice Department did not return a call seeking comment Friday afternoon. The FBI has said it needs secrecy to protect sensitive investigations and to avoid giving terrorists clues for avoiding detection.
In a separate suit, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals also rejected the argument that a district court had jurisdiction over the TSA’s policies and procedures while ruling that the Terrorist Screening Center was fair game.
The plaintiffs say the system of determining who should or should not be allowed to fly is broken, and has left people stranded as they travelled abroad.
One of the plaintiffs, Ayman Latif, is a disabled Marine Corps veteran and U.S. citizen who has been unable to return to the U.S. for his disability evaluation with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Born and raised in Miami, Latif is living in Egypt with his wife and two children.
The plaintiffs were specifically challenging the constitutionality of the no-fly list, saying it violates their due-process rights, and that the agency’s actions are unlawful.
Latif filed a challenge through the online Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, or TRIP, asking that his name be taken off the list.
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Duane Eleby, a suspected drug courier, was all set to sneak 10 pounds of cocaine through a security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport last February with the help of a former Transportation Security Administration employee and a screener.
Eleby, however, bungled the plan by going to the wrong terminal and was arrested after another TSA screener found the cocaine, which set in motion a series of undercover operations that led to Wednesday’s announcement that two former and current TSA employees had been indicted on federal drug trafficking and bribery charges.
A 22-count indictment outlined five incidents where the TSA employees took payments of up to $2,400 to provide drug couriers unfettered access at LAX over a six-month period last year. In all, seven people are facing charges, including Eleby.
“The allegations in this case describe a significant breakdown of the screening system through the conduct of individuals who placed greed above the nation’s security needs,” said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr.
Among those arrested and charged are Naral Richardson, 30, of Los Angeles, who was fired by TSA for an unrelated matter in 2010 and accused of orchestrating the scheme; John Whitfield, 23, of Los Angeles, a current TSA screener; Joy White, 27, of Compton, who was terminated last year; and Capeline McKinney, 25, of Los Angeles, also a current screener.
It wasn’t immediately known if any of the four had retained attorneys. Authorities didn’t say what post Richardson, who began working for TSA in 2002, once held.
Eleby was given specific written instructions by White last February to ensure his safe passage through the airport, according to the indictment. Instead of going to Terminal 6 where White, who was hired six years ago, was located, Eleby went to Terminal 5 where his plane was scheduled to depart, authorities said.
The plan, court documents show, was to have Eleby use a secure tunnel linking the two terminals after he was allowed through security by White.
Despite Eleby’s arrest, the smuggling scheme continued and federal agents set up a sting where informants were able to pass cocaine and methamphetamine through security checkpoints without further inspection.
In one case, after nearly 8 pounds of meth went through an X-ray machine, Whitfield and an operative met in an airport bathroom where Whitfield was paid $600 for his efforts, court documents show.
In another instance, McKinney let more than 44 pounds of cocaine pass through her security checkpoint, authorities said.
None of the drugs ever made it to their final destination, authorities said.
Randy Parsons, TSA’s security director at LAX, said the agency is disappointed about the arrests but that it remained committed to holding its employees to the highest standards.
If convicted, all four employees face a minimum of 10 years in federal prison. Whitfield, who has worked at TSA since 2008, and McKinney, a seven-year veteran, are under suspension, authorities said.
There have been a handful of other arrests of TSA employees since the agency was created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Last week, former TSA officer Jonathan Best pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute oxycodone for his role in a painkiller trafficking ring. Another former TSA officer, a former New York police officer and a former Florida state trooper have already pleaded guilty.
A 7-year-old girl with cerebral palsy was reportedly the subject of aggressive screening by Transportation Security Administration agents on Monday, causing her family to miss their flight, CBSDC.com reported.
Dina Frank was traveling with her family from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Florida. She is unable to pass through airport metal detectors because she walks leg braces and crutches, and instead must go through a pat-down procedure by TSA agents, according to the site.
Dina also has a development disorder, making the procedure frightening if not done with special care.
Her family reportedly asked the agents on duty to introduce themselves to make her more comfortable. But the agents proceeded aggressively, according to the site.
The inspection was especially traumatic for Dina and the family ended up missing their flight.
“They’re harassing people. This is totally misguided policy,” Dina’s father, Dr. Joshua Frank, told The Daily. “Yes, I understand that TSA is in charge of national security and there’s all these threats. [But] for her to be singled out, it’s crazy.”