Airport check-in area with kiosks and a dome ceiling
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Securing Airports - Both Inside & Outside

With the large number of threats that exist today, there is no doubt the United States will continue to be a target for terrorist activity. The orchestrators of such threats select targets that will cause the utmost fear in the population, impose economic damage, and create a lack of confidence in the government. Despite additional threats since 9/11, U.S. airports continue to have severe deficiencies in security.

Five attempted terrorist attacks on airlines and airports in the United States since 9/11 highlight the importance of making airport security a priority. Recent incidents – the shooting at the Los Angeles International airport in November 2013, the missing Malaysian Airline Flight 370 in March 2014, and a teenager sneaking aboard a Hawaiian Airlines flight after breaching security perimeters in April 2014 – raise the questions of whether airports ever will be completely secure and what it will take to get there.

Current Security Efforts

According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), approximately 1.8 million passengers pass through U.S. airports every day. Although the TSA has implemented additional safety methods, some have failed – for example, the Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) program, which is supposed to prepare TSA agents to identify criminals and terrorists by observing the behaviors that may be a sign of fear, stress, and deception. After spending nearly one billion dollars over the past decade, Congress has determined that the SPOT program has “up till now” not proven useful nor effective.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in November 2013 that recommended limiting “future funding support for the agency’s behavior detection activities until TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence that demonstrates that behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who may pose a threat to aviation security.” According to that report, there is no indication that the 3,000 officers trained in behavior detection at some 176 U.S. airports are actually improving airport security at all.

Although there is a question of whether the TSA can prove qualitatively that the SPOT program works in the United States, a similar program in Israel serves as a best practice in airport security. In Israel, Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport faces more terrorist threats than other airports around the world. Israeli security officers use behavioral profiling similar to SPOT to analyze people and their behaviors.

After asking intrusive questions to elicit a response, officers target a passenger for further questioning and search if he or she exhibits guarded actions. The Israelis have been the model for establishing and maintaining security in many forms. Much of the airport’s security protocol combines comprehensive layers of due diligence, common sense, and consistency. Although the cost associated with maintaining a similar program in the United States is high, the benefits could outweigh the cost.

Law Enforcement Responsibilities

In addition to SPOT, the TSA has suggested the need for armed law enforcement officers to safeguard airport checkpoints in response to a shooting at Los Angeles International Airport. The TSA released a report to Congress in March 2014 focused on the safety and security of the TSA workforce and recommended how to prepare for and respond to an emergency. The recommendations, though, are dependent on the local authorities that currently provide airport security and have no costs associated with them.

That report particularly notes that local police officers, not TSA officers, should be the ones conducting the armed security details and recommends that more armed law enforcement officers be present at airport security checkpoints and ticketing counters. These recommendations include: mandatory training for all TSA officers on how to respond to and notify federal air marshals during an active shooter situation; mandatory biannual evacuation drills; the installation of panic buttons at airports currently without the alarm system; more security cameras; better equipment and technology; linking duress alarms to CCTV systems; and alternate local airport emergency phone numbers. All these safety efforts, though, come with associated costs.

Terrorists are still looking for a means to smuggle bomb-packed items and explosive-laden shoes onto airlines. Imaging technology has been an integral part of TSA’s security efforts at airports since 2008, when the TSA began using advanced imaging technology (AIT) that can detect a wide range of threats. AIT is another layered approach in airport security for detecting smuggled items or weapons. Because specific security measures vary from country to country, the nation must harden its security at home.

Breaches in Security

More than 25,000 security breaches – averaging nearly seven per day and more than five per airport per year – have occurred at more than 450 TSA-regulated airports over the past decade, according the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The breaches include everything from people who unintentionally leave a bag on a checkpoint conveyor belt to those who decisively evade security and board airplanes without proper screening. Following are some examples:

  • 14,322 breaches of secure entries, passages, or other access points to the secure side of the airport;
  • Approximately 6,000 breaches involving a TSA screener failing to screen or improperly screening a passenger or a passenger’s carry-on property; and
  • 2,616 breaches involving an individual getting past the checkpoint or exit lane without submitting to all screening and inspections (1,388 of these occurred at the airport perimeters).

Unfortunately, enforcement efforts must be effective every time, whereas a terrorist only needs one successful attempt.

The inside of an airport cannot be completely secure if the exterior is not secure. Most recently, a breach in San Jose led to the unbelievable survival of the teenage boy that flew more than five hours from San Jose, California, to Maui, Hawaii, in the wheel well of a jet airliner. The young man crept unobserved past all the perimeter security measures of San Jose Airport – a major U.S. airport. However, this is not an isolated case.

In December 2013, two major airport perimeter breaches took place: (a) Newark Liberty International in Newark, New Jersey; and (b) Sky Harbor International in Phoenix, Arizona. The breach at Newark exposed a failure of a $100 million system designed to protect New York City area airports. The Phoenix “fence hop” was the fifth in a decade at that airport.

The Perimeter Intrusion Detection System (PIDS) at Newark combines radar with video cameras, motion detectors, and “smart” fencing. The technology worked but the monitors also must report the intrusion alerts for them to be effective. In August 2012, the same PIDS failed in New York City, when a person swam three miles from a disabled jet ski and swam ashore near John F. Kennedy International Airport. He climbed a fence and crossed two runways – without the PIDS spotting him. When the exterior intrusion systems do not stop an uncalculated intrusion, interior airport security must be prepared for a calculated intrusion.

Balance Between Convenience & Security

Equilibrium is very important in today’s society because airport security must balance customer convenience with overall safety. The public stakeholders must decide what conveniences and civil liberties they are willing to give up in exchange for safety. No single tool, no single program will impede an attack. Airport security, like all other security, is successful in layers as no single technique can eliminate all threats. Even with security employees trained to be on the watch for and confront intruders, as well as police agencies patrolling the airport’s perimeter, no security system is infallible.

To address all these concerns, government agencies must be aware, remain diligent, and raise concern about the “insider” threat in which someone who desires to do harm has a “right of entry” to secure areas such as those in airports. Terrorists have used insiders to access overseas targets in the past and collect sensitive information to aid terror operations. Similar to a soccer game, people often remember security efforts not by the number of saves, but rather by the one that got by.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. He was also assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including as a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combatting human trafficking.

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