Security breach prompts TSA to ratchet up review process

The Transportation Security Administration has altered the way it screens communications at its contact center as a result of a security breach last month, an agency spokesman said Monday.

Bags containing box cutters, bleach, matches and simulated bombs were found on two Southwest Airlines planes last month during routine maintenance checks, prompting TSA to order a search of every commercial plane in the country. An FBI investigation later revealed that a 20-year-old college student from Baltimore, Nathaniel Heatwole, had smuggled the items onto the planes five weeks earlier to test airport security, and then emailed TSA with detailed information about the location of the bags and how he could be contacted.

Last week, the chairman and ranking member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security sent Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge a letter asking for an accounting of Heatwole's communication with TSA and why the agency did not act or notify Southwest Airlines.

"Despite the fact that TSA was provided with the exact dates that the contraband was hidden, the flight numbers, and even Heatwole's name and telephone number, it appears that TSA did not provide this information to the FBI or to Southwest Airlines for over one month, and then only after the airline accidentally discovered some of the items," Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., and ranking member Jim Turner, D-Texas, wrote in the letter.

They also noted that DHS investigators were able to smuggle knives, bombs and handguns through Boston's Logan International Airport without detection during recent tests.

A committee spokeswoman said staffers calculated on Monday that government spending on aviation security outpaces spending on all other transportation security by a margin of 18 to 1. In other words, staffers calculate that for every $18 the government spends on aviation security, $1 is spent on maritime and land security, which includes truck, rail, bus, pipeline and port security.

"If we're spending that much, we're going to be a little more demanding," she said. "We need to put attention [on aviation security], but we're going to need to watch it and make sure we're spending it wisely."

TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser said the incident with Heatwole prompted the agency to immediately change how it screens communications. Under new procedures, employees at the TSA contact center in Arlington, Va., now flag all e-mails, faxes and voicemails that indicate any form of illegal activity. Those communications are batched together and reviewed three times a day by TSA employees with law enforcement backgrounds, Kayser said.

Kayser said the agency was reviewing emails, letters and other communications that "discuss not only threatening activity, but also discuss unlawful or potential criminal acts." He added that TSA welcomes congressional oversight and is constantly looking at ways to improve its security systems, such as through improved technology or training methods.

"Our system is stronger than it was on the day that this occurred and it will be stronger tomorrow than it is today," Kayser said.

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