TSA Draws Fire Over Breaches in Security

Times Staff Writer

Should the federal government lock up Nathaniel Heatwole for allegedly smuggling box cutters onto airliners -- or deputize him to help revamp airport security?

Like a hacker who prompts a company to improve its computer network, the self-appointed security whistle-blower won grudging admiration Tuesday from people who have complained that air security is inadequate. At the same time, the Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency charged with preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. aviation, took a direct hit to its reputation.

On Monday, federal prosecutors charged Heatwole with one count of violating a federal law against bringing a concealed, dangerous weapon aboard an airliner. One senior lawmaker suggested that the 20-year-old Maryland college student should be sentenced to serve with the TSA for his alleged series of security incursions, which officials said apparently included six successful efforts this year to smuggle box cutters and other banned items past airport screeners.

“I think this young man should be enlisted as an advisor,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. Heatwole “blew a whistle so [that] tomorrow, no one can blow up an airplane in the United States.”


Other lawmakers demanded explanations from the TSA and held out the possibility of a congressional investigation.

TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said the agency had changed its procedures to prevent another such incident. As for taking advice from Heatwole, Clark said: “Mr. Heatwole’s future will be determined by the justice system.”

Now staffed by white-shirted federal employees, airport security outwardly seems much improved since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought intense scrutiny to the system. But Heatwole’s alleged actions, which federal authorities said he undertook to highlight gaps in air security, revealed to the public problems that insiders knew persisted.

The Los Angeles Times reported in May that undercover agents were able to regularly sneak weapons and mock explosives past airport checkpoints staffed by federal screeners, and that the screeners complained of inadequate training. Two recent federal reports reached similar conclusions.


“You have formal tests done by TSA, and now you have a kid who wanted to show that it was easy to beat the system, and evidently did,” says Arnold Barnett, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who advises the government on aviation safety and security issues.

Heatwole’s alleged actions also showed that the TSA failed to connect the dots linking suspicious actions -- even when clues to those actions were laid right in front of the agency.

A Sept. 15 e-mail from Heatwole detailed what he had done, federal authorities say. But alarms didn’t go off until box cutters, matches, clay and a liquid he allegedly left on two aircraft were discovered last week.

The e-mail went to a customer service center where 38 employees of a TSA contractor each month handle 30,000 messages and phone calls from the public. Clark, the TSA spokeswoman, said the center’s procedures had been revamped so that information indicating a potential threat would be flagged and acted on right away.


But others said the lapse was an inexplicable blunder for a U.S. counter-terrorism system supposedly capable of using scraps of data to discern the intentions of would-be aggressors.

“The kid connected all the dots and handed it to them, and they still didn’t get it after five weeks,” said Brian Sullivan, a retired Federal Aviation Administration security agent and a strong critic of the agency. “The bottom line is TSA continues to promulgate the same facade of security we had before Sept. 11.”

The box cutters Heatwole allegedly planted have gotten the most attention, because box cutters were the weapons used by the Sept. 11 hijackers. Other elements of his alleged packages have more ominous implications, experts said.

Clay, a liquid and strike-anywhere matches are analogous to components of a bomb.


“Box cutters aren’t all that serious now because you have hardened cockpit doors and more federal air marshals,” said Cathal Flynn, a retired Navy admiral who in the 1990s headed U.S. aviation security.

“What this indicates is that the system is porous at the checkpoints with regard to scanning bags for improvised explosive devices,” Flynn said.

The TSA already has more than 48,000 screeners and an annual budget of $5 billion, but U.S. taxpayers may have to spend even more to narrow security gaps, Flynn says. By his own rough calculations, he estimated that $8 billion to $10 billion a year would be required to give Americans a level of security comparable to Israel’s.

With an estimated 1.8 million travelers a day passing through checkpoints at more than 400 U.S. airports, it is perhaps inevitable that some dangerous articles will get through. But testimony and reports to Congress indicate that the agency has lagged in providing on-the-job training to checkpoint screeners.


For example, a computer-based system that is supposed to sharpen the skills of screeners by randomly projecting realistic images of mock bombs and weapons on their X-ray machines is not yet in widespread use.

In interviews with The Times earlier this year, several screeners said that although they felt confident about their ability to find knives and guns, they were uncertain whether they could spot a cleverly disguised bomb in a cluttered bag.

Among other shortcomings, carry-on bags are primarily searched for guns and knives, not bombs, and little of the cargo on airliners is screened.

Despite the problems, things are improving, says Thomas Hartwick, a retired TRW executive who advises the U.S. on security. Even if more training and equipment are needed, he says, most of the system is stronger than before Sept. 11, 2001.