Security gaps at major US airport reminiscent of 2007 Sky Harbor troubles

PHOENIX - Before you fly, you are under constant surveillance. That includes when you park, check yourself and your bags in, and go through security. 

It is all designed to keep us safe, and post-9/11, you probably think everyone who gets near a plane is thoroughly screened, right?

New undercover video taken by a television station at Nashville's international airport may prove that theory -- wrong.

Inside the TSA

Investigative reporters with WSMV-TV talked with two insiders, both of whom formerly worked at the Transportation Security Administration.

The first one is Gerald Smith, a former TSA manager who was fired after he failed training. The second person is a woman who quit working for the TSA, but still didn't want to be identified.

When asked if the she thought the airport was secure, the former TSA worker said, "No".

"Who knows what these people are carrying in?"

Smith said, "There are flaws in the security system."

That Nashville station found there are thousands of employees, some with criminal records, who can bypass security with a simple swipe of a badge.

It's called "the back door."

"Anybody can have anything in their pocket or in their shoe, or concealed on them. Everybody should be going through the same scrutiny," said Smith.

It all happens overnight after 2 a.m.

Their cameras caught employee after employee, some with multiple bags, passing right into what's supposed to be the safest area in the airport.

No metal detector, no X-ray, and no scanner were used.

ABC15 Investigation: Sky Harbor Airport - July 2007

And if this seems familiar, that is because it is.

In fact, it's exactly the same gap in security the ABC15 Investigators first told you about five years ago that was happening right here at Sky Harbor Airport.

We exposed how, for four hours in the middle of the night, TSA shut down and airport security guards took over.

Our cameras caught people with purses, coolers, and suitcases all walking through security unchecked.

We also uncovered some guards who had a hard time staying awake.

Our investigation led to major changes at Sky Harbor Airport, requiring TSA to man checkpoints 24 hours a day.

That meant everyone had to go through the screening process – even workers.

Phoenix's Federal Security Director was also placed on administrative leave. He was eventually reassigned to a different city.

Same Director

His name is Paul Armes. And today, he is the head of TSA in Nashville.

 "Before he came, the cleaning people got screened. After he came, he gave them a badge, but they could just go around," said the former worker. "I think people complained, so he decided alright, we don't have to screen anymore."

 We asked Smith if he thought Armes was aware of it happening and he responded, "Absolutely he's aware."

After hearing what was happening in Nashville, we went back to Sky Harbor Airport to make sure nothing's changed.

We found TSA officers were still out at night checking everyone.

The TSA and Nashville Airport both released written statements: 


I n a statement, Emily Richard, spokeswoman for Nashville International Airport, said:

"Safety and security are the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority's highest priorities. We work within U.S Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration regulations and security directives, as part of a multi-layered security approach. Any deviations to these regulations or directives result in an investigation and possible civil penalties.

We have more than 5,500 active badge holders at MNAA. All airport employees, airline employees and TSA employees have authorization to use the card-reader access hallway. The first doorway has a proximity card reader that interrogates the badge for proper authorization. The second doorway also interrogates the badge plus each badge holder must enter a unique pin number to access the sterile area. This additional security measure prevents anyone from finding a lost badge and entering the sterile area. Employees who work for tenants in the concourses do not have authorization to enter the sterile area via the card-reader access hallway.

Multi-layered security approach:

1. TSA has approved the MNAA Airport Security Plan.

2. All badged employees have undergone criminal history records' checks by the FBI.

3. All badged employees have undergone a security threat assessment by TSA.

4. Badged employees don't get past security by using or "flashing" the badge. Every badge is interrogated as he/she passes the card readers and for the sterile area he/she must also enter a pin number.

5. All employees are subject to search by Law Enforcement Officers or TSA personnel.

6. The MNAA badging office

is required to track and audit all badges.

7. Lost, Stolen and Terminated badges are deactivated immediately and destroyed within 24 hours."

The TSA also released a statement to the WSMV-TV:

"Airport operators are responsible for developing and implementing a security plan which includes procedures to provide airport and airline employees with access to an airport's secure areas. TSA approves each airport's security plan and conducts comprehensive inspections to ensure compliance. As part of TSA's multi-layered security approach, all airport and airline employees undergo a security threat assessment prior to receiving credentials and access privileges. Employees are then subject to continuous vetting. Transportation security officers and inspectors are deployed on a random and unpredictable basis to screen airport and airline workers as they enter or work within the secure area. If employees fail to follow proper procedures in accessing secure areas, they may be restricted from future access, disciplined or subject to civil penalties and criminal charges."

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