Red Team agents use disguises, ingenuity to expose TSA vulnerabilities

A TSA agent checks a bag at Midway International Airport in Chicago.

A TSA agent checks a bag at Midway International Airport in Chicago.

(Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

They are so expert at evading airport security that a former head of the Transportation Security Administration once hailed them as “super-terrorists” for their ability to smuggle weapons and other prohibited items aboard planes.

They are said to use disguises and false identities, and one recently managed to sneak fake explosives taped to his body past a TSA screener’s routine pat-down.


TSA: In the June 3 Section A, an article about TSA airport screeners’ failure to find fake explosives and weapons in 67 out of 70 tests said that the tests were conducted by undercover federal agents known as the Red Team. That term was used by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in a news release about the testing. But in a Senate hearing Tuesday, Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth said the tests were carried out by auditors in his office, and not by a Red Team. —
But they are undercover federal agents, known as the Red Team, working for the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, and their job is to test airport screening in an effort to expose security gaps and keep TSA screeners sharp.


In recent tests, the Red Team identified a weakness so glaring that the operators successfully concealed mock explosives and weapons from screeners 67 out of 70 times, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal reports.

That stunning failure rate – more than 95 % - was behind Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson’s decision late Monday to reassign Melvin Carraway, the acting administrator of the TSA.

Carraway, who has worked at TSA almost since its creation after the terrorist attacks in 2001, was moved to another Homeland Security office. The acting deputy director, Mark Hatfield, will run the agency for now.

President Obama in April nominated Coast Guard Vice Adm. Peter V. Neffenger to run the TSA. His next Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled next week, and he is likely to be grilled on problems at an agency that screens more than 1.8 million passengers and 3 million carry-on bags every day at U.S. airports.

In the meantime, Johnson, who was briefed on the Red Team’s findings two weeks ago, ordered the TSA to revise its standard procedures for screening and initiated a plan to retrain every screener and supervisor, in phases, across the country. He also ordered officials to retest and reevaluate screening equipment.

Johnson also vowed to meet with executives of the private companies that sell the screening equipment to prod them to fix the deficiencies found by the Red Team.


The latest problems at the troubled agency sparked immediate concern on Capitol Hill.

“Terrorist groups like ISIS take notice when TSA fails to intercept 67 out of 70 attempts by undercover investigators to penetrate airport checkpoints with simulated weapons and explosives,” Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has primary legislative and oversight jurisdiction over TSA, said in a statement. ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State militant group.

“We take this failure rate by TSA very seriously,” they said.

The Red Team inspectors blamed the lapses they discovered on a potentially devastating combination: inattentive TSA screeners and poorly designed or malfunctioning equipment.

After conducting a “series of covert penetration tests,” officials “identified vulnerabilities caused by human and technology-based failures,” John Roth, the inspector general at Homeland Security, said at a House hearing last month.

Officials declined to identify the specific weakness that the Red Team found, and the inspector general’s report was classified. The test results were first reported by ABC News.

Red Team inspectors have conducted more than 6,000 tests at airport checkpoints and other sites in recent years, and have repeatedly exposed shortcomings.

TSA managers consider their work a type of quality assurance, and the results help identify systematic lapses. When an inspector gets contraband by a checkpoint undetected, a manager is often informed so the screener can learn from the mistake.

They “are our folks who I would describe as super-terrorists because they know exactly what the technology’s capabilities are,” then-TSA Administrator John S. Pistole told lawmakers in March 2013 after Red Team tests had detected other problems.

They “know exactly what our protocols are. They can create and devise and conceal items that … not even the best terrorists would be able to do,” Pistole said at the time.

Pistole left the TSA in December to become president of his alma mater, Anderson University, a Christian college in Indiana. He could not be reached Tuesday.

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett