Security breach at O'Hare

By Mary Wisniewski
The Chicago Sun-Times

CHICAGO — Uniforms belonging to U.S. Transportation Security Administration officers were left out in the open at an O'Hare Airport checkpoint last month, as were sensitive security information and a cashbox.

While the TSA said the items were in the area past security checkpoints and that no security was breached, an aviation security expert said it's a "serious" situation because uniforms could be stolen and used by people trying to get through security without being checked. Unsecured items were found at six O'Hare checkpoints.

"Regulations require them to keep [uniforms] secured," said Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation who sued the airlines over 9/11.

Since 2002, the TSA has been charged with guarding against terrorist attacks by screening people for weapons and explosives before they get on airline-operated planes.

Schiavo said stolen TSA uniforms present a problem because at some locations, TSA employees are waved through without having to show identification.

A Chicago Department of Aviation report dated March 14 at 1:38 a.m., which was obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, also reported two TSA radios with access to a secure channel were found unsecured at Checkpoint 8, as were unlocked break room doors at checkpoints 8 and 9. The officer filling out the report was told the Checkpoint 9 door had been broken for "a while."

TSA spokesman Elio Montenegro confirmed that the report was genuine. He said all of the items described were "within the sterile area," referring to the area passengers enter after the checkpoints. He could not say exactly where the various items were found.

Schiavo said it was "ridiculous" to think it's safe to leave uniforms unsecured if they're past the checkpoints. "If they took the uniform out of the sterile area, they could use it on another day," Schiavo said.

Montenegro said a person could not pass a checkpoint wearing just a TSA uniform. He or she would have to have a valid Secure Identification Display Area badge, he said.

He added that even if there had been a misplaced uniform, "it seems that immediate action was taken to remove the items."

Montenegro said the TSA works closely with local law enforcement, including the Department of Aviation and the Chicago Police Department. "When something is brought to our attention that needs improvement, we engage in discussion with them and take steps to improve security procedures," Montenegro said.

Cathal Flynn, a consultant and former associate administrator for civil aviation security, said he didn't see unsecured uniforms as a "serious vulnerability," though it's a "real nuisance having your uniform stolen." He said he doesn't think TSA officers get waved through checkpoints.

But Flynn agreed that the incident needed to be investigated. "People need to lock the doors," he said.

Unsecured items found at Checkpoint 1 included three lockers and two mini-lockers, seven TSA maroon sweaters and one blue uniform shirt, five TSA jackets and one pair of blue uniform pants, according to the report. The report said the items were placed in a garbage bag by a TSA manager, presumably after their presence was pointed out by a city aviation officer.

The report said the uniforms at Checkpoint 1 were "in plain view." Unsecured uniforms were also found at checkpoints 2 and 9.

"Sensitive security information" materials, documents and blotter reports were found unsecured at Checkpoint 3. Also cited for unsecured items were checkpoints 4a, where a cashbox was found, and 2.

The Chicago Department of Aviation declined to comment on the matter because it's "sensitive security information," said spokeswoman Karen Pride.

A 2006 Channel 5 report found that over five years, TSA employees lost 3,674 badges and uniforms nationwide. TSA employees at O'Hare lost the most ID badges, 189, along with 188 uniforms.


What could a bad actor do with a TSA uniform?

TSA spokesman Elio Montenegro said someone in a TSA uniform couldn't get into a secure area without the proper identification.

But Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said TSA officers in uniform are routinely "waved through" some security checkpoints. Some airports are stricter than others, she said.

With a stolen uniform, "you could do anything the checkpoint is designed to protect against," Schiavo said.

"You could have dangerous items on your person. You could be a person they don't want to fly. You could be a person who's not supposed to be at the airport at all," Schiavo said.

With access to an unsecured TSA radio channel, "you could monitor communications ... anything related to security," Schiavo said.

Copyright 2008 The Chicago Sun-Times

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