Jackson airport security probed



"I told them that I had other things I would be willing to talk about what I believe to be wrong and unethical (at the airport)," he said. "I just would like to see security be taken a lot more seriously, and I would like to see the screeners be able to have an environment where they would work without being in fear every day."

About a dozen current and former TSA employees talked with The Clarion-Ledger over two months about problems with TSA's operations under the leadership of Federal Security Director Larry Rowlett. A day after the Sept. 10 Clarion-Ledger article, 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson called on the Inspector General of the Department of Home Security to investigate the claims and called for Rowlett to be put on administrative leave pending the completion of an investigation.

Rowlett has not been suspended, and TSA officials have issued statements of support for him, citing his long experience in the Secret Service, including serving as resident agent in charge of the Jackson Secret Service office and a stint on the protective team for former President Reagan. He came back to Jackson in 2002 to head the newly formed TSA team.

Thompson, of Bolton, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said he knew investigators were in Jackson.

"We just want to get as much clarity on whether or not any of these things occurred," he said. "The traveling public is what we're concerned about."

INSPECTION TIPOFFS

Gilliam and other sources said they were routinely warned when the so-called "red teams" were in the area and given specific information about the inspections, down to detailed descriptions of what the agents looked like and what contraband items they would be trying to sneak through.

TSA personnel who do not have civil service protection can lose their jobs if they don't pass the tests. Airports that do not do well on the inspections reflect poorly on TSA managers at that airport.

Gilliam said he recalls an incident in early 2004 where screeners were told that a supposedly secret team would be trying to sneak a fake plastic explosive through in the sole of a shoe, similar to the method used by so-called "shoe bomber" Richard Reid in 2001. Gilliam said screeners were told even what brand of shoe to look for.

"When those shoes were set down on the conveyer belt to be X-rayed, we had been so thoroughly briefed ... we knew immediately it was what we were looking for," he said.

There are evidence tipoffs still occurring. The Clarion-Ledger reviewed an e-mail purportedly sent in July by Assistant Federal Security Director Sam Mitchell to all TSA top managers - including Rowlett - passing on details of a covert test that had recently occurred in Tupelo.

TSA spokesman Christopher White had suggested that warnings of covert tests might be passed along from one TSA employee in one airport to another, adding that TSA does not approve of the practice.

White did not return phone calls Friday seeking comment for this story.

ADDITIONAL PROBLEMS

While TSA investigators appear to be concentrating on whether rules were broken regarding "red team" inspections, current and former TSA employees say the problems at Jackson-Evers do not stop there.

Workers complain of a hostile work environment and the practice of Rowlett and his assistants of bending rules to please airlines and important passengers, including allowing dangerous items to pass through security checkpoints.

In an earlier statement, White said, "The TSA is not aware of any incident in which an individual has been allowed to travel with a prohibited item."

In January, TSA officials in Washington sent memos ordering local TSA officials to no longer allow Jackson Mayor Frank Melton to bring his guns aboard commercial flights. Melton had presented himself as a police officer to fly armed, but current and former TSA workers said he was not alone.

According to log sheets shown to the newspaper, dozens of passengers were flying out armed around the same time as the mayor.

Federal regulations allow law enforcement to bring guns aboard a plane, but only if certain conditions have been met, including verification by TSA that their credentials are legitimate. Those flying armed sign a special log book, giving their name, flight, badge number and agency.

According to the airport's log, armed passengers from federal agencies ranging from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Bureau of Indian Affairs pass through the TSA checkpoint with their weapons.

Among the local law enforcement listed on the log was Vicksburg Police Chief Tommy Moffett, who flew out of Jackson on July 21, 2005. Moffett said he flew out of the airport during that period, but he was not armed and doesn't know why his name would appear on the log.

'LOOKED WRONG'

Moffett said it is possible someone in TSA recognized him in the airport and called him out of line, although he said he does not recall that happening and said he never has attempted to bring a gun aboard a plane.

TSA workers are not the only ones coming forward with concerns about security at Jackson-Evers. Hattiesburg resident Russell Parkerson was at the airport earlier this month and watched an airport employee push an empty wheelchair down the exit lane, past TSA screeners, and into the terminal without being searched.

That's not acceptable, he said.

"I fly a lot, and I've sat there in airports where they make the pilots go through screening," he said. "It just looked wrong to me."

Parkerson said he is glad someone is looking into whether security procedures are being followed at the airport.

Thompson said he has been told TSA will investigate the claims.

"I've talked to (TSA Director) Kip Hawley about it, and he assured me that they would be looking into it in as expedient a time as possible," he said.

Gilliam said he has seen prior investigations, including one in 2004, into Jackson's TSA operations produce no results.

This time may be different, he said.

"I'm cautiously optimistic. There is a part of me that is like, 'I've been here before and I've been let down,' " he said.


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