N.J. senators call for immediate security upgrades at Newark Airport

Last updated: Wednesday January 6, 2010, 7:28 PM
State House Bureau

A security breach at Newark Liberty International Airport prompted calls Wednesday for either dismissing or prosecuting those responsible — a day after a security officer was placed on administrative leave for what U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg called “dereliction of duty.”

Lautenberg and Sen. Robert Menendez, both D-N.J. said the federal government should investigate “from the bottom levels” on up to determine how the Sunday-night security lapse occurred, who was involved and what training is needed to prevent future incidents.

They also demanded better accountability since security cameras that were supposed to be filming a secured section of Newark were not working when an unknown man walked into the area, causing the breach.

“Heads should roll, but you have to know what the cause is,” said Lautenberg, declining to offer specifics as he and Menendez appeared at Newark airport.

The security officer who allowed the breach in Terminal C was sanctioned Tuesday after he was initially reassigned to non-screening duties following the incident, said Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration.

The TSA also said it has modified the staffing and configuration at the exit lanes in Terminal C, though Davis did not offer specifics.

The man who breached security had not been found Wednesday, and the senators demanded that the TSA release the suspect’s image to the media and the public. A video that shows a “clear picture” of the man could help the investigation, Lautenberg said.

Menendez said the man apparently went to see a girlfriend who was screened by security. He was not.

“For whatever reason he wanted to see her, it’s not acceptable,” Menendez said. “That person should be found and prosecuted, number one, to understand fully his intention and, number two, to make sure there is a message sent that there is a consequence for breaching security.”

The TSA said it is conducting a “full review” and regrets the impact the Sunday-night incident had on travelers.

The breach, which happened one week after an attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound plane, grounded Newark aircraft for six hours and created a day-long backlog of delayed flights. After the breach, passengers were rescreened before they were allowed to board.

The TSA also has met with the Port Authority, which is responsible for the operation of the surveillance cameras, and “will work with them to ensure consistent performance and confirm operational readiness,” Davis said.

The Port Authority released a statement saying it appreciates the senators’ leadership on the issue and supports measures to improve safety and security.

“The flying public deserves the best security available and we will continue to work with the TSA and all of our partners to ensure that there is better coordination and stepped up security efforts in the future,” the statement said.

In a letter to the TSA, the senators called for a complete investigation into the breach, and requested that the agency ensure that a video surveillance system is continuously functioning and law enforcement authorities are in constant contact with each other.

Lautenberg and Menendez also called for the reinforcement of terminal exit points with “adequate personnel” who are trained to know that they are “glued to that seat” at all security checkpoints, and fully monitoring those who pass through.

“The human frailty is what you always have to be training against,” Lautenberg said. “People can get gun permits and licenses to own a gun even if they're on the terror watch list.”

Lautenberg said he has called for a Senate Commerce Committee hearing to review the incident, which left thousands of travelers stranded, some overnight.

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