Security analysts: Nearly impossible to harden ‘soft belly' of airports
by Brian Sumers
When a gunman opened fire Friday at a security checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport, many travelers wondered how it could happen at such a closely guarded facility. But many security consultants thought differently. They questioned why shooters don't enter airport public areas more often.
“When you have so many people concentrated in one place, you are going to have a high probability of an unlikely event,” said Harvey Molotch, a professor at New York University and author of “Against Security — How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger.”
“This was very mild compared to what happened in the past and what could happen. Anyone could mow people down in a shopping mall with a car, or put a bomb in a department store. There are so many ways of creating mayhem. It's all a testimony to how routinely safe and secure we are in the United States.”
LAX officials outlined plans Saturday to provide extra police presence, but experts questioned whether any security efforts could deter a lone gunman on a mission. So many elements of airport security, they say, are designed to ensure no one enters an airplane with a gun or a bomb. But on the other side of security screening, in ticketing lobbies and near checkpoints, airports are not much different from schools, movie theaters and nightclubs.
It is difficult to keep a shooter from firing the first rounds. The key, experts say, is to neutralize the intruder quickly. By most accounts, that happened Friday, with airport police locating the gunman within seconds and chasing him through the terminal. Officers eventually shot and wounded him.
Experts say it is important not to overreact. Many insist it's not prudent to arm Transportation Security Administration employees, and they say moving security checkpoints farther from airplanes likely is not necessary. Experts also say airport security could become more thorough, but that passengers probably would not accept the inconvenience.
All experts interviewed for this article said a scenario like the one that unfolded Friday could happen again.
“That's one of the unfortunate aspects of aviation security,” said Richard Bloom, a former U.S. intelligence operations manager and now a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “Even when you do everything right, something can still happen. What you try to do is minimize the probability.”
Jeff Price, former assistant security director at Denver International Airport, has a concealed weapons permit and said he is skilled with a weapon. But he said the risks of giving TSA screeners guns — even if just some of them receive them — probably outweigh the potential rewards.
“Up until now, there hasn't been an incident when someone was killed,” said Price, now a professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver. “From a risk management standpoint, there wasn't a need for it. But now let's play it out. Let's say you've now got 35 transportation security officers trying to pull out their guns and shoot this guy. If you want to hand someone a gun, you have to be very careful.”
Price said one concern with arming officers is the confined and chaotic area in which they work. “How easy would it be for someone to grab my weapon in a very crowded environment?” he said.
Bloom said one approach, short of providing weapons, might be to improve TSA morale and training. In doing so, he said, the officers may feel as if they have more authority. Price also said they could be trained in self-defense.
“Are we paying them enough?” Bloom said. “Are we training them enough? Does that kind of position have as much prestige as it should. If all you have is a rent-a-cop, you're probably going to get performance related to being a rent-a-cop.”
What is more likely, because of Friday, is that airport police may return to sitting in a booth at each LAX security checkpoint. Recently, the airport began allowing officers who were once stationed at checkpoints to roam, a senior law enforcement official said, because authorities believed they could be more effective if they patrolled the entire terminal. Overall, police staffing remained the same, the official said.
That approach gave officers more freedom to walk through ticketing lobbies, which was where the last violent attack at LAX occurred. In 2002, a man opened fire at the ticket counter for El Al, the Israeli airline.
Pushing out checkpoints
At some airports, passengers enter security twice. First, they go through detection at the front door of the terminal. Then they do so again to reach gates.
But security experts say that's not a feasible approach here. And they insist it would merely move the threat to another place, like the upper roadway at LAX.
One security expert employed by a major European airline said in an email that officials have long been concerned about the possibility of a major terrorist attack on the “landside,” or the part of an airport outside security screening. Another security expert called this area the “soft belly” of an airport.
“Authorities across the world are concerned about the possibility of landside attacks at airports because they get close to attacking one of al-Qaeda's preferred targets — aviation — without having to go through security,” said the official, who was not authorized by his airline to speak publicly.
“And an attack at an airport may well hit tourists and therefore damage tourism. Some airports screen the public entering terminals, or otherwise restrict access, but this is not really a practical option at busy airports with multiple entrances.”
Airports with multiple levels of security screening are generally in less developed countries, said Narayanan Srinivasan, professor of security and risk at Edith Cowan University in Australia. The system can make traveling especially inconvenient.
“This happens in countries where threats are high like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and in many countries in Africa and South America,” Srinivasan said in an email. “In some countries such as India, visitors and non-traveling public are not allowed in the lobby areas unless they pay a fee, thus attracting attention. In Sri Lanka during the height of their civil war, passengers were bused from about 15 kilometers away from the check-in areas after intensive screening for explosives and guns.”
The Israeli model
Israel is commonly considered to have the most thorough airport security screening procedures in the world, but most experts say the Israeli model would not work in the United States.
The Israelis take into account a possible breach of ticketing lobbies and checkpoints, with intelligence officials constantly scanning areas and looking for “bad guys,” said Avi Kirschenbaum, a professor at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in an email.
El Al, the Israeli airline, also employs extra security officers at LAX, and officials often pester travelers with questions about why they're traveling. The questions can be intrusive, some say.
But Kirschenbaum said the country's model probably cannot work elsewhere.
“Airport authorities — due to the high costs that security imposes on airport financial resources — have a disincentive to add additional security measures that will increase these costs if they are not required,” he said. “They are also cognizant that passenger flow is a vital key to their financial health, and putting additional security points along the way slows down through-put and thereby increases security-related costs.”
Molotch, the NYU professor, said he agrees the Israeli model can't be duplicated here, though for other reasons. Among them, the country is small, with about 8 million residents.
“Israel is a heavily militarized society,” he said. “It is also a very simple society. A vast majority of population — Jews — is trusted prima facie. So Israel, which is often thought of as the model, is not the model for a heterogeneous society like ours.”
That likely means American airport security will remain as it is now, Molotch and others said. In the short term, U.S. airports might deploy more police to checkpoints and lobbies. But it will be almost impossible to protect against a similar attack in the future.
“There are a constant series of events carried out by berserk people in this country and in many countries,” Molotch said. “There is no real rhyme or reason. As long as that's around, it's a problem.”
Suits claim Love Canal still oozing 35 years later
Love Canal, the infamous polluted neighborhood of Niagara Falls, may be repeating history. New residents say toxic pollution is also making them ill.
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — Thirty-five years after Love Canal's oozing toxic waste scared away a neighborhood and became a symbol of environmental catastrophe, history could be repeating itself.
New residents, attracted by promises of cleaned-up land and affordable homes, say in lawsuits that they are being sickened by the same buried chemicals from the disaster in the Niagara Falls neighborhood in the 1970s.
"We're stuck here. We want to get out," said 34-year-old Dan Reynolds, adding that he's been plagued by mysterious rashes and other ailments since he moved into the four-bedroom home purchased a decade ago for $39,900.
His wife, Teresa, said she's had two miscarriages and numerous unexplained cysts.
"We knew it was Love Canal, that chemicals were here," she said. But when she bought the house, she said she was swayed by assurances that the waste was contained and the area was safe.
Six families have sued over the past several months. Lawyers familiar with the case say notice has been given that an additional 1,100 claims could be coming.
The lawsuits, which don't specify damages sought, contend Love Canal was never properly remediated and dangerous toxins continue to leach onto residents' properties.
The main target of the lawsuits, Occidental Petroleum Corp., which bought the company that dumped the chemicals and was tasked by the state with monitoring the site in 1995, contends the waste is contained and that state and federal agencies back up those findings.
"Data from sampling over the past 25 years have demonstrated that the containment system is operating as designed and is protective of health, safety and the environment," said a statement from Glenn Springs Holdings, the Occidental subsidiary in charge of maintaining the site.
ALL TOO FAMILIAR
The latest case is all too familiar to Lois Gibbs, the former housewife who led the charge for the 1970s evacuation and warned against resettling the area. She recently returned to mark the 35th anniversary of the disaster.
"It was so weird to go back and stand next to someone who was crying and saying the exact same thing I said 35 years ago," she said.
Love Canal's notorious history began when Hooker Chemical Co. used the abandoned canal from 1942 to 1953 to dump 21,800 tons of industrial hazardous waste.
That canal was later capped, and homes and a school were built on top of it. But snow melt from an unusually harsh winter in 1977 seeped into the buried 16-acre canal and forced chemical waste into groundwater and to the surface, oozing into yards and basements.
Residents began complaining of miscarriages, urinary and kidney problems and mental disabilities in their children.
With Love Canal getting national attention, President Jimmy Carter in 1978 issued a disaster declaration that eventually led to evacuation and compensation for more than 900 families. The crisis also led to federal Superfund legislation to clean up the nation's abandoned waste sites.
Although complete streets were permanently bulldozed around Love Canal, those immediately north and west of the landfill were refurbished following a $230 million cleanup that involved capping the canal with clay, a plastic liner and topsoil.
Beginning in 1990, about 260 homes were given new vinyl siding, roofs and windows and resold at prices 20 percent below market value. The neighborhood was renamed Black Creek Village.
In addition to Occidental, defendants include the city of Niagara Falls and its water board and contractors enlisted by Occidental to maintain and test the site today.
An attorney for the city declined to comment on the pending litigation.
A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, while declining to address the lawsuits, called the area "the most sampled piece of property on the planet."
"The canal has not leaked," spokesman Mike Basile said. "The monitoring and containment system is as effective today" as when first installed.
But Reynolds and others say danger continues to brew beyond the 70-acre fenced-in containment area, pointing to the discovery of chemicals during a 2011 sewer excavation project. According to the lawsuits, crews worsened the contamination by using high-powered hoses to flush the chemicals through the streets and storm drains.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation concluded the contamination, 20 feet below ground, was an isolated pocket left over from before remediation and hadn't recently leaked from the canal.
The Reynoldses are unconvinced that the containment system ever really worked and believe chemicals have been spreading for years, noting their home is just outside the original emergency zone.
Around the time of the sewer repair, waste backed up into their basement, they said, leaving behind an acrid black residue that tested positive for dangerous chemicals.
Gibbs said that when she returned recently, she was surprised the containment site no longer is posted with "danger" signs and that someone house hunting in the neighborhood wouldn't know there are toxins there.
"It says private property," she said. "It's like a gated community for chemicals."
Fugitive CA rapist caught after publicized search
A citizen who recognized Dennis Michael McKenzie, 58, from photos in the media tipped off deputies, and a SWAT team took him into custody.
LOS ANGELES — A publicized search for a paroled rapist who authorities say cut off his ankle monitor and harassed the family of his 80-year-old victim ended Wednesday after he was spotted on a Palm Springs street.
A citizen who recognized Dennis Michael McKenzie, 58, from photos in the media tipped off deputies, and a SWAT team took him into custody, San Bernardino County sheriff's spokeswoman Jodi Miller said.
Police had asked for the public's help to find McKenzie, who disappeared from a Long Beach halfway house after getting rid of his GPS tracking device.
McKenzie's parole agent received a tamper alert Oct. 1 and immediately requested a warrant for his arrest, said Luis Patino, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation.
Over the past month McKenzie made more than 50 threatening and obscene phone calls from the Long Beach area to the victim's family home in the San Bernardino Mountains, Miller said. She said the victim's family discovered the threats, which were "graphic, very harassing" on a voicemail machine last week and alerted sheriff's officials.
The calls amplified the push to find McKenzie.
"This individual has been convicted of a rape. He's a mandatory registrant now out of compliance," Miller said earlier. "He's cut his GPS tracking device off, so there's a concern for public safety, and we urge anyone who might see him to call their law enforcement agency and report it."
McKenzie was convicted of raping the woman and sentenced to seven years in prison in 2006, according to state records. He had been found mentally incompetent and committed in 2004, according to court documents.
McKenzie was paroled in 2010 and released to a state hospital, Patino said. McKenzie remained under the supervision of doctors at the facility until March, Patino said.
Long Beach police Sgt. Aaron Eaton said McKenzie had been living in a halfway house since November 2011.
The California Department of State Hospitals cannot confirm whether someone has been a patient because of privacy laws, but the agency has a conditional release program that allows for outpatient treatment for mentally disordered sex offenders.
McKenzie was arrested in August and September for parole violations, Eaton said. Details on those violations weren't immediately available, but Miller said McKenzie was jailed for five days for one of the violations.
According to the state sex offenders' database, McKenzie's likelihood to reoffend was determined to be a low-moderate risk in December 2009 prior to his release.
Cops hailed for LAX takedown It could have been worse
The arrest of a crazed shooter authorities said killed one TSA agent and wounded three others at Los Angeles International Airport yesterday is being hailed as a somber victory for airport security officers who subdued the gunman before he could take more lives.
“It's tragic anytime anyone is killed, but it could have been a lot more tragic,” said Tom Nolan, a senior homeland security adviser, former veteran Boston police lieutenant and longtime Boston University criminal justice professor.
The suspected gunman, Paul Ciancia, 23, of Pennsville, N.J., was wounded in the firefight with police, authorities said.Ciancia was found to be carrying a hand-written note that said he “wanted to kill TSA” and “pigs” when he was taken into custody, they said.
“Logan airport is maintaining an appropriate level of security and is monitoring the situation in Los Angeles with our law enforcement partners in the intelligence community,” Massport spokesman Matthew Brelis said. “Our security is multi-layered and we tend not to talk about it in any detail.”
Nolan said airports across the U.S. take quick action after an attack like this, but the response is rarely evident to passengers traveling through.
“What happened at LAX could have happened at any airport in the country,” Nolan said. “We can't blanket airports with security because it would completely immobilize travelers.”
TSA agents, like those shot in California, do not carry weapons and depend on police officers in airports for protection against armed intruders, he said. The response from airport cops is well-planned and practiced. “But there are no fail-safe methods to make airports impenetrable and invulnerable to these kinds of attacks,” Nolan said.LAX Police Chief Patrick Gannon said the actions of responding officers were heroic.
“They did not hesitate; they went after this individual,” he said.
The murder of the unidentified TSA agent was the first such death in the 12-year history of the agency, founded in the aftermath of 9/11.
The attack disrupted 746 flights nationwide. The suspect was seen using a semi-automatic rifle.
Homeland Security workers routinely boost pay with unearned overtime, report says
by Emily Wax-Thibodeaux
Federal employees at the Department of Homeland Security call it the “candy bowl,” a pot of overtime money they have long dipped into to pad their pay even if they haven't earned it, whistleblowers say.
This practice, which can add up to 25 percent to a paycheck, has become so routine over the last generation that it's often held out as a perk when government managers try to recruit new employees, according to these accounts.
In a report submitted to the White House and Congress on Thursday, the federal Office of Special Counsel http://www.osc.gov/ (OSC) details what it calls a “profound and entrenched problem” at DHS and a “gross waste of government funds.” Based on the testimony of seven whistleblowers, the OSC concludes that the pervasive misuse of overtime pay in six DHS offices, including four within Customs and Border Protection (CBP), comes to $8.7 million a year.
At issue is Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime, known as AUO, which is meant only to compensate for urgent and unanticipated work like that often undertaken by law enforcement agents.
But Carolyn Lerner, special counsel at the OSC, an investigative and prosecutorial agency, said in an interview that many employees across DHS now consider the overtime pay their due. She said the whistleblowers' testimony suggests that the department's bill for these improper payments is running in the tens of millions of dollars a year.
“These are not border patrol guys chasing bad guys who can't stop what they are doing and fill out paperwork for overtime. We are not questioning that,” Lerner said. “These are employees sitting at their desks, collecting overtime because it's become a culturally acceptable practice.”
Over the past year, as federal cuts have torn through department budgets, the use and misuse of overtime has become a matter of increasing concern among federal managers, employees and unions.
Asked about the special counsel's report, a DHS spokesman said acting Secretary Rand Beers has ordered a department-wide review of how AUO is used and whether it complies with the law and other rules.
“DHS takes seriously its responsibility to ensure proper use of taxpayer funds,” said spokesman Peter Boogaard. “While many frontline officers and agents across the department require work hour flexibility, often through the use of Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime (AUO), misuse of these funds is not tolerated.”
In a written response to the special counsel's allegations, the CBP's assistant commissioner for internal affairs, James F. Tomsheck, said the agency would “work towards a unified and simplified agency-wide directive on AUO” and would show all employees a video to reinforce rules on proper AUO use.
Federal employees across a range of agencies are eligible to receive this kind of overtime pay, and each agency has some latitude to determine how to regulate it. The Office of Special Counsel said it had not received reports of abuses other than at DHS.
Some DHS employees routinely claim more than their “straight eight,” with two hours of overtime every day, recounted one of the whistleblowers, Jose Rafael Ducos Bello, who works as a supervisor for Customs and Border Protection, until recently in Washington.
“It's pickpocketing Uncle Sam,” Ducos Bello said in an interview. “Employees will sit at their desks for an extra two hours, catching up on Netflix, talking to friends or using it for commuting time.”
He estimated that 27 employees in the Commissioner's Situation Room, which is part of CBP, improperly put in for a total of $696,000. They ranged from managers, who received up to $34,000 each, to border patrol agents, who received $24,500 each, he said.
“It was such misuse that I felt I had a legal obligation to report. I will sleep better at night,” said Ducos Bello, a 24-year veteran of government employment. “It's like a father who has a son who commits a crime and has to report it for the health of their child's future.”
Another whistleblower, Jimmy Elam, a supervisory paralegal specialist for Customs and Border Protection in San Diego , reported that eight administrative employees at his location received a total of $150,000 of improper AUO a year.
“It happens day after day, year after year,” Elam said in an interview. “They are sometimes working, sometimes goofing off or just unaccountable completely. Whatever they are doing, they shouldn't be doing those extra two hours according to the law.”
Elam, who has worked at his office since 2008, said he had noticed the problem for years but that it began bothering him more after automatic federal budget cuts, known as sequestration, kicked in this year. He said he worried about employees losing work and programs being slashed while employees continued to get overtime payments.
“It's just wrong,” he said. “But everyone here condones it.”
Other whistleblowers raised concerns about alleged abuses at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in Houston and CBP's Georgia-based Office of Training and Development.
But the union that represents border patrol employees warned against taking a heavy-handed approach to overtime pay. Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents more than 17,000 employees, said that AUO has long been “promised, advertised and used by every single agent who's a non-supervisor.”
“Suddenly now the party line from the agency is this is not part of your base salary,” Moran said. “There's been a mentality shift in CBP about securing the border; now it's about securing the bottom line.”
He said there will always be people who misuse pay systems in any agency, but he argued that most of the money is well spent on patrol and enforcement tasks that protect the border and on support tasks such as bringing criminal defendants to trial.
Lerner said her office isn't questioning the need for legitimate AUO payments, but instead the widespread abuse.
“We recognize that many believe border patrol employees should be better paid,” she said. “But clocking overtime that shouldn't be there to begin with isn't the vehicle that should be used to boost salaries.”
Lerner said CBP offered assurances five years ago that it would end abuse of AUO. In a CBP letter issued in 2008 in response to a special council's report on allegations of AUO abuse at two CBP offices in Washington state, the agency promised to implement “an Agency-wide AUO policy directive [to] bring conformity to the policies and practices.”
But, Lerner wrote in a letter to the White House on Thursday accompanying the new report, “the lack of progress in implementing plans first outlined five years ago raises questions about the agency's willingness or ability to confront this important problem.”