Newark security lapse riles New Jersey legislators

By Mike Frassinelli
Star-Ledger staff
All it took to breach security at Newark Liberty International Airport on Sunday night, stranding thousands of travelers and entangling flights around the world, was a simple stolen good-bye kiss.

Descriptions by security officials who have seen the long-sought videotape of the breach suggest that the breakdown at Terminal C-1 was even more blatant Ð and to some, more disturbing Ð than originally thought.

It all started, they said, with a man apparently seeing off his girlfriend, trying to get one last kiss from her.

The revelations came as an outraged U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., pressed the Transportation Security Administration to release the tape.

On the tape, the man is seen embracing a woman, apparently his girlfriend, at the Terminal C-1 security checkpoint before she passes through passenger screening, according to people who saw the tape. The man, who was not a passenger, walks past a spot where a TSA security officer should have been stationed to move closer to the girlfriend.

While she holds up a rope Ð used to keep people who have not been screened from entering the secure area Ð he passes underneath and they walk toward the boarding area before disappearing, the sources said.

The mystery man's intentions might well have been harmless Ð the TSA says the man later exited the airport Ð but the simplicity of the breach was what made Lautenberg go ballistic.

"After viewing video of the security breach I am even more outraged by the lapse that occurred," said Lautenberg, who demanded that TSA release a copy of the tape to the media in an effort to get help from the public in finding the suspect.

Lautenberg's office was trying to release a copy of the tape late Wednesday night. The senator said that TSA had promised the tape Wednesday afternoon but as of late Wednesday night it still had not been released.

The relatively minor incident Ð which sparked such furor Ð showed that the security net at the airport still has gaping holes, more than eight years after a group of terrorists passed through screening undetected and commandeered a plane that eventually crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

On Sunday night, not only did the mystery man get past an officer supposedly watching the secure area in Terminal C, it turned out the TSA surveillance recorder at C-1 had not been working for six days.

"That's like having a fire truck with a flat in it and nobody bothers looking at it until the alarm goes off," Lautenberg said.

TSA agents also took too long to obtain a backup tape from Continental Airlines and failed to notify Port Authority Police of the incident immediately, various officials have said.

Lautenberg and New Jersey's other U.S. senator, Robert Menendez, Wednesday called for an investigation into the security breach. They also recommended that all airport terminal exit points be adequately staffed and all airport video cameras be functioning and immediately available to TSA officers.

That broken camera led to a domino effect of delays and missteps, and flights were grounded and Terminal C was locked down for nearly six hours.

"I can understand if something like this happened at a restaurant or a hotel, because they are not highly critical installations," said Dilip Sarangan, an electronics and security expert for Frost & Sullivan, a Mountain View, Calif., consulting firm. "But an airport?"

The TSA announced Wednesday that the security officer has been placed on administrative leave. The TSA also has stationed security officers in a more strategic location that allows them to better watch the exit corridors at Newark Liberty, and ordered that its security staff regularly check to ensure the video cameras are operating.

Lautenberg, who said that "heads will roll" over the incident, has scheduled a Senate Commerce Committee hearing later this month to look into the security snafu that paralyzed one of America's busiest airports.

Menendez said time is not a luxury when there is a potential for a terrorist attack.

He called for a better approach to airport security, saying there is a need to stay "10 steps ahead of the terrorists, not one step behind."

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