Airport Workers Charged In Sweep
by Katherine Shaver and Allan Lengel, Washington Post
More than 140 employees at the Washington area's three major airports have been indicted on charges of lying about their identities or criminal pasts on applications to work near airplanes, runways and cargo, federal officials announced yesterday.
U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said the charges demonstrated that the nation's system of airport worker background checks needs tightening. He said the reviews -- done piecemeal by airlines, contractors, airports and private security companies -- too often let illegal immigrants, felons and others slip through.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that the Bush administration is comfortable enough with heightened security on airplanes using Reagan National Airport to lift post-Sept. 11 security restrictions on the airport's flight path and operating hours. [Details, Page A11.]
The indictments of the airport workers -- 26 of whom were employed at National -- do not detract from the enhanced security measures aboard airplanes, said Lenny Alcivar, a spokesman for U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.
"You're seeing continued steps to maximize the level of safety," Alcivar said. "Make no mistake about it, airports around the country have never been as safe as they are, but we'll continue to do work."
Federal officials arrested a total of 95 employees who worked at National and Dulles International airports. They include food service workers, baggage screeners and custodians. Forty-three other National and Dulles employees were under indictment but were still being sought.
Officials also said 10 workers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport were indicted on similar charges.
No one was charged in connection with a terrorist act. Most were accused of lying on applications to work in high-security areas. Authorities said the misstatements included supplying false Social Security numbers and failing to disclose felony convictions or pending state charges.
"What this investigation uncovered should be a wake-up call to every airport in America," Ashcroft said as he announced the results of the five-month investigation at an Alexandria news conference. "Americans deserve the confidence of knowing that the individuals working at our airports are worthy of their trust."
Since Sept. 11, federal authorities have conducted similar raids at a half-dozen airports, including Salt Lake City, Denver and Miami. However, yesterday's arrests refocused attention on security lapses at airports that are just minutes, and in National's case even seconds, from the White House, the Pentagon and other potential terrorist targets. Authorities noted that American Airlines Flight 77, which terrorists hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon, took off from Dulles.
FBI and Federal Aviation Administration officials have found no evidence that the Sept. 11 hijackers had accomplices among airport employees.
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said the arrests highlight how much airport security had deteriorated before Sept. 11 as well as the remaining gaps that terrorists could exploit.
"I think the concern the public should have is how inadequate airline and aviation security had gotten that we're now just discovering these things," Stempler said. "We all thought people with access to planes were somehow being checked, but apparently not to the extent they should have been."
Patricia A. Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the arrests bolstered her group's arguments that airport workers should have to pass through the same metal detectors and personal searches that flight crews undergo before entering restricted areas.
"I think it makes the point we've been trying to make that everybody who has access to a secure area of airports or airplanes should be thoroughly screened," Friend said.
Washington area airports, along with most others in the country, have no way of making sure that happens. Cargo areas, outlying gates and remote airport doors often are protected only by electronic locks that can be opened with a swipe of an employee's identification badge.
Congress ordered the new Transportation Security Administration to find a way to put ramp workers through security screening but imposed no deadline. Federal officials have studied the issue but taken little action because they are consumed with addressing issues for which Congress did set deadlines: getting thousands of federal baggage screeners in place by Nov. 19 and installing bomb-detection equipment in all airports by the end of the year.
Led by the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of Virginia, 11 state and federal agencies researched the employment histories and backgrounds of 20,000 people who have access to secure areas at Northern Virginia's two airports, U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said. The U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore said its investigation examined 15,000 security badge applications.
The Dulles and National investigation targeted 138 people for arrest yesterday, including nearly 30 accused of lying about criminal records, four wanted in state crimes and 12 charged with immigration fraud. If convicted, they could face two to 10 years in prison.
The investigation has not turned up anyone with ties to terrorist groups or the Sept. 11 hijackings, McNulty said. Many were illegal immigrants with falsified Social Security numbers, but a substantial number were U.S. citizens, he said.
"It's more of a preventive measure to avoid potential security problems down the road," said Allan Doody, special agent in charge of the Washington area U.S. Customs Service office. "I think the public wants to know that people who work at airports don't have criminal records."
John Magaw, undersecretary of transportation for security, said no one group should be blamed for the hiring foul-up because responsibility for the background checks is spread among several groups.
"It's the process we have to straighten out," he said.
Alcivar said Mineta will announce today that National's quieter, over-the-Potomac flight path may be restored as early as Saturday. Pilots will no longer have to use the direct path in and out of National designed to quickly detect any plane straying off course.
To help struggling airlines restore more flights, Alcivar said, National will no longer have a 10 p.m.-to-7 a.m. curfew on flights. Instead, it will return to its previous self-imposed nighttime noise rules limiting most flights to 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Larger planes, such as 757s, also will be allowed to return to National.
Only planes with 156 or fewer seats have been permitted since the airport reopened Oct. 4. He said the changes would not affect the post-Sept. 11 ban on business, charter and private aircraft using National.
"This is another part of our continuing effort to balance [residents'] quality of life and the economic health of the aviation and travel industry against the need to maximize security," Alcivar said.