The slaying of a Transportation Security Administration officer at Los Angeles International Airport showed how little is being done to control areas outside of the security perimeter -- and how tough it may be to do more.
As U.S. officials and lawmakers explore ways to prevent another firefight at an airport, they’re likely to run into practical limits on security upgrades while also reviving the debate on what restrictions Americans are willing to accept in exchange for greater safety.
“To some extent, it’s an unavoidable risk,” said Stewart Verdery, former assistant administrator for policy and planning at the U.S. Homeland Security Department. “We have an open society. You have malls. You have stadiums. You don’t normally screen 50,000 people going into a stadium for weapons.”
The Nov. 1 shooting began at a TSA checkpoint, whose purpose is keeping bombs and weapons off planes. No matter how far the initial line of defense is pushed outward from those vulnerable targets, the risk couldn’t be eliminated for the men and women on guard, said security specialists, consultants and a congressional committee chairman who oversees the TSA.
“The TSA is there to make sure it doesn’t happen on an airplane,” said George Hamlin, a former Airbus SAS executive who runs Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Fairfax, Virginia. “How do you set up a system to protect the protectors?”
TSA Administrator John Pistole said Nov. 2 the agency is discussing airport security issues “writ large” with Congress, including whether officers should be armed. The agency will study its policies and procedures to determine what can provide the best possible security, he told reporters in Los Angeles.
The agency was created after the Sept. 11 attacks to bolster protections against terrorists boarding aircraft. U.S. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, whose panel oversees the TSA, promised fresh attention to in-airport security during an interview yesterday on CNN.
“How we typically stop a lot of these things is through good intelligence,” said McCaul, who cited parallels between the Los Angeles incident and the Sept. 16 Washington Navy Yard massacre, in which a gunman with a history of mental illness killed 12 people.
The alleged Nov. 1 shooter, identified by authorities as Paul Ciancia, 23, left a note in which he wrote of wanting to kill TSA agents, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said. Ciancia’s family alerted authorities in New Jersey, and Los Angeles police visited Ciancia’s home the morning of the attack, McCaul told CNN.
Ciancia is accused of killing one TSA officer and wounding two other TSA employees and a civilian passenger, according to a criminal complaint filed Nov. 2 in Los Angeles federal court, and was shot by airport police.
The U.S. today obtained a search warrant for Ciancia’s mobile phone, which he left in the car of a roommate who drove him to the airport. Among other things, federal investigators want to search the phone for records, documents, applications or materials related to Ciancia’s views on the legitimacy and activities of the U.S. government, “including the existence of a plot to impose a New World Order,” according to the warrant.
Pistole, the TSA chief, is looking to expand the use of Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response Teams with stepped-up local law enforcement to enhance airport security, McCaul said. Having more law enforcement officers on display will help, even though it’s difficult to provide foolproof security, he said.
“It’s almost like an open shopping mall, so it’s very difficult to protect,” McCaul told CNN. “We are going to be reviewing this along with the director of TSA.”
While some of the best-known instances of airport violence have occurred outside the U.S., such as terrorists’ 1985 attacks on ticket counters in Rome and Vienna targeting El Al Israel Airlines, the U.S. hasn’t been immune. A gunman killed two people at the El Al counter in Los Angeles in 2002.
Richard Bloom, chief academic officer and professor of security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, said the apparent absence of a link to international terrorism in last week’s case raises questions about whether airports need safeguards for lower-level threats.
“As worried as we are about al-Qaeda or al-Shabaab or some other terrorist organization, maybe we need to recalibrate for the garden-variety unstable individual who can commit violent acts as well,” Bloom said.
Air-travel volumes underscore the challenge in trying to extend higher security levels beyond the checkpoints: About 815 million passengers flew in the U.S. last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
It’s hard to imagine how to add another layer of screening on top of the existing checkpoints, said former Homeland Security official Verdery, who worked at the agency during former President George W. Bush’s administration and is now a partner at Washington-based lobbying firm Monument Policy Group.
The trade-off implicit in post-9/11 measures was that check-in halls weren’t going to get the same level of scrutiny as would passengers, said Rafi Rahav, a former operative for Israel’s General Security Service, known as Shin-Bet.
“All the security measures since 9/11 are aimed at making sure that a terrorist does not get onto an aircraft, where he can cause the deaths of more than 300 people,” said Rahav, who now consults with U.S. airlines on security matters.
“The primary concern is not that one or three people will die in the terminal,” Rahav said in an interview. “The aim is to prevent somebody from penetrating onto the plane with guns.”
Arming TSA officers would be one step toward putting more firepower in officials’ hands to ward off an attack in an airport’s unsecured areas.
TSA employees at checkpoints are in high-stress situations and are subjected to thousands of assaults a year, said J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 45,000 agency workers. The power to arrest unruly passengers and arming some agency employees are among the options for providing better security at the checkpoint, he said.
“The sad truth is that our TSA officers are subject to daily verbal assaults and far too frequent physical attacks,” Cox said in a statement today. “A larger and more consistent armed presence in screening areas would be a positive step in improving security.”
Verdery, the former Homeland Security official, drew a distinction between those agents and law enforcement authorities. It would be prohibitively expensive to train and pay TSA employees like police, and also would introduce more firearms into a high-risk environment, he said.
Robert W. Mann, a former American Airlines executive who now runs aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York, said U.S. officials would have to weigh competing priorities in deciding to change airport security, or continue to accept the status quo.
“The question is whether we design around every black swan or do we design around the middle of the flock,” Mann said in an interview. “You can try to design everything around these one-off events, but I’m not sure that would make sense.”