(AP, ABC7) - U.S. airports are still vulnerable to terror attacks, despite billions of dollars invested in security enhancements since 9/11, a Republican congressman said Wednesday.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, led an inquiry into what he described as the Transportation Security Administration's security deficiencies. He cited government statistics of more than 25,000 security breaches at U.S. airports since November 2001 - an average of slightly more than five security breaches a year at each of the 457 commercial airports.
Orlando-bound passenger Jovaughnna Harris was worried when told about the numbers.
“I'm really nervous because I just never know who brings what on a plane,” he said.
“If people are going to break the rules that frequently and it's not going to get caught… that's really scary to me,” said another air traveler, Jen Bowman.
The TSA has said that number is misleading and represents a small fraction of 1 percent of the 5.5. billion people screened since the 2001 terror attacks. A security breach is broadly defined to include instances ranging from a checked bag being misplaced after it went through security screening to a person who was caught in the act of breaching security and immediately apprehended, the TSA said.
Testifying before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, the director of aviation at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, T.J. Orr, said the TSA is compromised by a "rigid attitude of arrogance and bureaucracy." Orr was critical of the lengthy amount of time it takes to get the TSA to engage on something like a security assessment of the airport.
Among the breaches since November 2001 are more than 14,000 people who have found their way into sensitive areas and about 6,000 travelers who have made it past government screeners without proper scrutiny, Chaffetz said.
Airline industry experts say the breaches are sign of an overwhelmed system.
“We propped up a system pretty quickly, it’s been up for a decade. Now is a chance to see if this is the best we can do,” said Geoff Freeman of the U.S. Travel Association.
The congressional interest comes amid the busy summer travel season and growing criticism of some of the TSA's screening policies, like security pat-downs for children and travelers in their 90s. The TSA has defended its policies, citing terrorists' persistent interest in attacking commercial aviation.
For instance, earlier this month, counterterrorism officials saw intelligence about some terrorists' renewed interest in surgically implanting bombs in humans to evade airport security like full-body imaging machines. The TSA and FBI are even testing this theory on pigs' carcasses to see how viable the threat is, said a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.
Since the 2001 attacks, the airport screening work force has been entirely revamped and billions of dollars spent on technology that's been deployed across the country. But despite all the enhancements, there have been lapses. Most recently, a cellphone-size stun gun was found aboard a plane operated by JetBlue Airways Corp. Officials do not believe the stun gun was intended for use in some type of attack, but the FBI is investigating how and why it was on the airplane.
Earlier this month, a Nigerian American was accused of breaching three layers of airport security while getting on a cross-country flight with an expired boarding pass. And last year, a teenager was found dead in Massachusetts after he sneaked onto an airplane in Charlotte and stowed away in the wheel of the jet.
Orr, the Charlotte airport's aviation director, was critical of the TSA's handling of the investigation into how the teenager was able to sneak onto the Boston-bound flight and said officials couldn't "prove or disprove" that there was a security breach.