Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 10, 2006

Aviation screening incident in Houston disputed

Filed under: Aviation Security — by Christian Beckner on July 10, 2006

The Houston Chronicle reported yesterday on a recent aviation security incident at Houston Hobby Airport:

The report states that a man with a Middle Eastern name and a ticket for a Delta Airlines flight to Atlanta shook his head when screeners asked if he had a laptop computer in his baggage, but an X-ray machine operator detected a laptop.

A search of the man’s baggage revealed a clock with a 9-volt battery taped to it and a copy of the Quran, the report said. A screener examined the man’s shoes and determined that the “entire soles of both shoes were gutted out.”

No explosive material was detected, the report states. A police officer was summoned and questioned the man, examined his identification, shoes and the clock, then cleared him for travel, according to the report.

A TSA screener disagreed with the officer, saying “the shoes had been tampered with and there were all the components of (a bomb) except the explosive itself,” the report says.

The officer retorted, “I thought y’all were trained in this stuff,” TSA officials reported.

The report says the TSA screener notified Delta Airlines and talked again with the officer, who said he had been unable to check the passenger’s criminal background because of computer problems.

This is a worrisome incident. I can’t think of any reason why someone would hollow out their shoes except as a trial run for the feasibility of carrying out a “shoe bomber”-style attack (or a real attack in conjunction with an ‘insider’ with non-screened access to the airport). The decision-making by the local police officer was highly questionable, suggesting that training of local law enforcement isn’t what it should be at this airport. Finally, there needs to be a phone-based workaround system for background checks in place for times when there “computer problems” – or if such a back-up system already exists, it needs to be used.

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