Airport security breach examined

Monday, May 12, 2008
Star-Ledger Staff
A high-ranking federal security official at Newark Liberty International Airport has been disciplined for failing to report a significant security breach last month, government officials said.

On April 24, a Continental Airlines passenger inadvertently brought a knife with a four-inch blade through a Terminal C checkpoint and surrendered it to an airline employee at the gate, according to information confirmed by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's press office.

The supervisor in charge failed to immediately report the matter to superiors, a violation of TSA policy, according to officials who said the hub's top security leaders only learned of the lapse four days later after an inquiry from The Star-Ledger. Those officials spoke on the condition they not be identified, citing privacy laws.

Although security officials termed the violation serious, the supervisor received a written rebuke, rather than suspension or demotion, the officials said.

Barbara Powell, TSA's federal security director at Newark Liberty, declined to name the supervisor or discuss the discipline. But she said checkpoint screeners who missed the knife received retraining on X-ray machine procedures.

"I am disappointed about this. My team is disappointed about this," Powell said about the missed knife. "We want to catch everything, all the time."

Powell also said it was unacceptable she and her top staff were not quickly made aware a lapse had occurred so they could have assessed what -- if anything else -- needed to be done immediately to correct the situation.

"Reports must be wholly accurate, complete and timely," said Powell, who spoke only generally because of security protocols. "Corrective action has been taken against one individual."

TSA officials familiar with the incident identified the employee as Joseph Monahan, Terminal C's morning shift acting lead manager, the top agency official on duty there at the time. Reached on his government cell phone, Monahan said he had "no comment" about the incident.

One of the officials familiar with the discipline said it took the form of a TSA "counseling" letter, essentially recounting the incident and warning about potential consequences if troubles continue. But such letters -- which are not considered as serious as TSA "reprimand" letters -- can be removed from the file and do not include suspensions, demotions or terminations, the official explained.

Lara Uselding, a TSA spokeswoman, said in addition to failing to report the incident, the official failed to include the information on a daily listing of occurrences at the checkpoints.

While the supervisor neglected to follow TSA protocol, another agency official acted appropriately by letting screeners know the knife had gotten through and beginning remedial X-ray training in a timely fashion, said Uselding.

Last month's incident is the latest on a long list of breaches and security problems since TSA took over in 2002 at Newark Liberty, one of three airports used by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.

In December 2004, TSA personnel at Newark Liberty involved in a drill lost a bag containing a test bomb, which inadvertently made its way onto a plane bound for Amsterdam. In October 2006, federal undercover agents were able to sneak 20 of 22 fake explosives and weapons past checkpoints at Newark Liberty, according to federal officials.

Powell is the third federal security director at Newark Liberty, with the first having been ousted in March 2006 following a spate of security troubles.

Uselding, the TSA's spokeswoman, pointed out the agency has multiple safety layers -- such as fortified cockpit doors -- so if even an item like a knife gets through, a potential attack can be thwarted by the agency's "formidable system."

The spokeswoman also praised screeners at Newark Liberty, noting that although a knife got through on April 24, two guns were discovered in carry-on bags two weeks ago, leading to arrests.

Powell said that while thousands of prohibited items are caught by airport screeners, the knife is a stark reminder for staff of what's at stake.

"Of the thousands of items that we do stop, that one (knife) got through," said Powell. "Not one of us wants a reoccurrence of 9/11 at this airport."

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