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Rep. Issa Questions Security Procedures At Airport

Audio

Aired 8/13/10

Congressman Darrell Issa is asking the Department of Homeland Security to review its procedures following a recent security breach at Lindbergh Field. How did a man posing as a U.S. marshal and carrying a handgun get past the security check-point at the airport?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Despite the long waits in security lines at Lindbergh Field, it appears that security still isn’t tight enough. At least not tight enough to keep out a man whom the FBI accuses of posing as a U.S. Marshal so, Kent Davy, for those who aren’t familiar with the story, just give us a brief synopsis of the incident involving the accused, Gregory Denny of Hemet.

KENT DAVY (Editor, North County Times): Well, apparently in January, Mr. Denny who, I guess, has a history as a bounty hunter, put on a set of clothing that looked like a federal uniform, had a badge and some ID, went to his – the cousin, the wife of his cousin, apparently, and took her. Attempted to turn her in to the Border Patrol for deportation. When Border Patrol would not take her, then took her to the airport and attempted – or put her on an airplane bound for the Philippines to personally deport her. And came into the airport with not only his badge, allegedly, and uniform, but was also armed apparently at the same time.

PENNER: And he actually got past security…

DAVY: Got past security.

PENNER: …and got right to the boarding gate.

DAVY: Right.

PENNER: And this was at Lindbergh Field.

DAVY: At Lindbergh Field.

PENNER: Okay, well, the North County Times, your newspaper, reported on Monday that San Diego Congressman Darrell Issa requested an investigation into Homeland Security’s procedures. So how widespread is the concern that airport security generally has problems?

DAVY: Well, I – I’m not sure I can tell you how widespread airport security concerns are. Lots of people talk about airport security for all sorts of reasons. You’ve got odd things go on at airports like the story earlier this week about the steward who left his job suddenly through a chute on the gate. Part of this is Darrell Issa’s role as chairman – or minority – ranking minority member of the House Oversight Committee. Issa has started to make a fairly substantial career for himself being the number one thorn in the side of the Obama administration by turning around and asking for subpoenas and investigations and just all sorts of stuff, and this happens to be the latest of those iterations.

PENNER: Okay, well, let’s ask our listeners about this. Have you been to an airport lately? Have you gone through security? And how assured are you that you are safe, at least as far as any interlopers are concerned when you can get through security, of course, being thoroughly examined and you assume everybody else can. Are you confident about airport security? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. John, one of the issues that keep coming up has to do with how well trained are the personnel who staff the security areas. You know, they move the baskets through when you put your shoes in the basket, they scrutinize the monitors for contraband, they check ID, they check out who gets in without airline tickets, or doesn’t. What is your opinion of personnel here?

JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Well, you know, my opinion is that after 9/11 we made a rush effort to gear up and place people and we didn’t have a pool of trained folks to draw upon. There were all kinds of complaints in terms of who was being hired. This was not supposed to be another, you know, rent-a-security-guard scenario, just put someone in a uniform. And there’ve been questions in terms of background checks with some of the people involved, the manner in which many have handled passengers and then there are complaints from the passenger end. So in many respects, it’s a thankless job but one thing TSA has done is that in the midst of hiring these people, they have put people in various airports to engage in breaching security just to see where their weak points are. And I think that that’s a commendable action on their part.

PENNER: But it’s interesting, Bob, that the incident was revealed when the family of the woman that Denny escorted to the boarding gate area reported her phony deportation. The question is, you know, if they hadn’t come forth, would there have been any attempt to repair the security breach?

BOB KITTLE (Director, News Planning and Content, KUSI-TV): I don’t know that there would’ve been. But, you know, my experience, and I fly regularly, I’m going on a plane later this afternoon, I think the security has gotten better. I think the quality of TSA personnel is better. I think they’re better trained. I remember recently being in line to get to the gate and the TSA officer, the woman in front of me had an expired drivers license as her ID. He turned her away, told her she had to have, you know, a current drivers license or some other ID. So they seem to me to be rather stringent. In fact, I almost think it’s – they go overboard myself.

PENNER: Can you really go overboard in…

DAVY: No.

WARREN: No.

KITTLE: No, not in the eyes of most people but I think we’re spending billions and billions of dollars to address a threat that is not an everyday threat. I mean, my point is while we might—we might—have made the skies safer, I don’t know that the terrorists are going to try to create the same crime all over again. They’re going to look for other targets of opportunity.

PENNER: John.

WARREN: Well, I mean, you know, it’s as good as the last encounter. In December, at Christmas, we saw a situation in Detroit and then there’s a question of how do people get on planes and, you know, I think the whole security thing is ludicrous in many respects because a very well-trained martial artist without any weapons could get on a plane and devastate the whole place. So, you know, it’s a false sense of hope for the public and it’s a costly one.

PENNER: Well, let’s hear what Lathe from El Cajon has to say. Lathe, you’re on with the editors.

LATHE (Caller, El Cajon): Hey, how’s it going?

PENNER: Fine. How’s it going with you?

LATHE: Good. I was at the airport a couple of weeks ago. We travel back and forth from here to Detroit and to Chicago, and across seas as well. But what I’m seeing about the airport is of course they spend more budget now on the Homeland Security but that’s – the security line are packed. The only – Every time we go across the line at the security, we get extra check because our name is Middle Eastern, we’re Muslim. So we’re the only people that get randomly checked every time. And that doesn’t mean that it’s a safer airport, just not only the Middle Eastern that’s trying to get weapons across the security line.

PENNER: Okay. Well, thank you for that comment, Lathe. It’s – Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. We’ve heard this in the past, Kent, that there are certain people who look a certain way or a certain ethnicity and they get checked every time.

DAVY: I suppose in this environment that’s probably exactly what happens. I believe that it’s – and to some extent it’s a natural human reaction given the kind of world we live in with the kind of wars that we’ve been engaged in for the last seven years.

PENNER: Well, just last week a Presidential permit from the State Department gave a plan for a pedestrian walkway from a terminal building in Otay Mesa to Rodriguez Airport in Tijuana, gave that a major boost. The proponents say it will add to airport security because you can’t walk through that walkway without an airline ticket. Do you, John, feel that a cross-border air facility poses more security problems?

WARREN: I think no matter what they say there will be more security problems with this because people are going both ways. But I also understand that there’s a great economic issue here. There’s been a desire for a long time for us to take advantage of Rodriguez, there’s talk about once we develop this, in two or three years can we move into freight and cargo? And that they’re using their airport at 60% while we’re going to, you know, max out on this side. So I think in the long run, the dollars are going to outweigh the security issues, unfortunately, and I don’t think there’s any way they can control the security issues to the same extent that they do at the border. This is going to be privately owned and operated, as you’ve pointed out, and there are just many challenges there.

PENNER: But National Guard troops are now on the border to help detect illegal crossers and contraband. As this country focuses on protecting the border, is opening cross-border airport access a step backward, Bob?

KITTLE: Absolutely not, in my view. Airport security is more stringent generally than the border crossing at San Ysidro is. I don’t drive my car through the airport so it’s easy to inspect me and my bags. When I come north through the San Ysidro checkpoint into the United States, I’m driving an automobile. My – I’ve never had my car searched. They look for my passport and wave me on my way. I don’t look like a Middle Eastern personality either. But, you know, so I – I think airport security, the passengers who cross the border at the airport are going to be scrutinized better than those who cross the land crossing at San Ysidro.

PENNER: Well, we’re going to take a break now. We have many people who want to call us about airport security, and we want to hear from you so just hang on until after the break. Again, our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

PENNER: So we are at the Editors Roundtable welcoming back Bob Kittle, who is now with KUSI as a political analyst and director of News Content and Planning, and also with us, John Warren who is editor and publisher of the San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, and Kent Davy from the North County Times. He is the editor. So, you know, it’s kind of interesting, it does feel like Auld Lang Syne but we are engaging in a very fresh new topic and that is airport security. And before we go to the callers, I just want to bring up one other issue and those are the full body scanners that have attracted a lawsuit from a privacy advocate group. Is there too much focus, John, on technology and not enough, let’s say, what we were talking about, on the quality and training of personnel.

WARREN: I think the issue is twofold. We need to focus on both of them. Right now, the technology is moving toward the full body scanners. There are some of those in place. There are going to be many more. But people are concerned in terms of radiation exposure, privacy, all of those issues. But I think as terrorists become more sophisticated and people find new means of opposing the threat, that we’re going to see these expenditures made from a precautionary standpoint.

PENNER: Okay, thank you. And now let’s hear from Rick in San Diego. Rick, you’re on with the editors.

RICK (Caller, San Diego): Hi. I was with TSA. I was part of the original team that they founded after 9/11 in San Francisco. And I have to disagree with the statement that the earlier groups weren’t well-trained or that the quality wasn’t as good. It was right after the dot-com bust and I was working with a lot of people who had master’s degrees and Ph.D.s, and they took their jobs very, very seriously. So I don’t know – the gentleman who made that statement, I don’t know where his experience was but it certainly wasn’t here in California.

PENNER: Okay.

RICK: But my larger concern is there doesn’t seem to be a lot of attention paid to people on the front line who actually see what’s happening. We would routinely go to lunch and talk about all the different ways that we could smuggle weapons through if we were so inclined. And the statement was made earlier that the security is only as good as the last incident, and that is absolutely correct. The security, the people designing our security at TSA are responding to the last incident and not looking ahead at what else could be done. And if you were to go up and have a candid conversation with anybody working the lines at the airport and say in a hundred words or less, could you describe a way to get a bomb through here, almost all of them would tell you, yes, I can. Now they…

PENNER: Well, that’s kind of an amazing thing to hear and I don’t doubt you for a moment but it sure gives me pause. Let me have some wrap-up comments now from the editors. Kent Davy.

DAVY: Generals almost always are accused of fighting the last war and TSA and the federal government, to some extent, are fighting the last war as opposed to fighting the new war which is one reason to then question whether it makes sense to spend as much money with the techniques that we’re currently using as we are, saying, well, how ought we to plan for the next big event.

PENNER: Okay. John.

WARREN: I think the purchase of the body scanners that I just mentioned represents an effort to look forward as opposed to just looking back.

PENNER: Okay. And final comment, Bob.

KITTLE: Just a quick example of fighting the last war. A bomber got on a plane with some explosives in his shoes a couple of years ago. Forever after now we all go in stocking feet through the metal detector with our shoes, you know, inspected. That’s a classic example to me of worrying about something that really, with that was the last war.

PENNER: Okay, well, thank you very much, and thanks to Leo – to Rick who just called in and gave us that provocative information.

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