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by: Whit Richardson - Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I know it's an incendiary headline, but I believe it's warranted. It's amazing what politicians say sometimes.

Yesterday I watched a Congressional hearing on the TSA's Screening Partnership Program (SPP) in front of the House Committee on Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Transportation Security. Basically, the conversation was about new language in the FAA reauthorization act that could make it easier for airports to hire private companies to provide security screening services in lieu of the TSA.

My jaw dropped at what Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, had to say about private security companies and their role at airports. She asked TSA Administrator John Pistole, who testified at the hearing, if the change means all 450 airports in the country could attempt to privatize their security screening. When Pistole said that could "hypothetically" happen, Rep. Lee made the following remark: "So then my comment [is]: We are looking forward to returning to 9/11."

Watch it yourself here. Rep. Lee's comments are at 30:21.

Public-private cooperation when it comes to airport security is nothing new. Before 9/11, airports were tasked with hiring private companies to provide their own security screening. But even after the events of 9/11 lawmakers saw the need to not completely shun private security from the airports. At the same time lawmakers created the TSA to federalize airport security, they also created a pilot program that would allow five airports to have private companies providing security. This pilot grew into the SPP, a program 16 airports currently participate in.

I'm going to put aside my journalistic objectivity for a minute and use this space to editorialize. For a politician to claim that private-sector security officers are so inferior to their federal counterparts that their use at airports would lead to another terrorist act on the scale of 9/11 is ridiculous and stinks of fear mongering. Her comments are even more comical because we're talking about private sector security officers versus TSA's security officers, who Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) points out during the hearing are recruited by the TSA via advertisements on the top of pizza boxes and about the pumps at discount gas stations.

Am I way off base or do people agree with me? What would you say to Rep. Lee if you had her ear?

Whit Richardson
Managing Editor
Security Director News

by: Whit Richardson - Monday, January 16, 2012

If you didn't see the latest TSA-related news item about a woman's cupcake being confiscated because its icing surpassed the legal amount of "gel" that could be taken aboard a plane, you must be living under a rock.

The news item, which began in late December, is still making headlines all these weeks later. Last week, the TSA on its blog claimed the cupcake, which is actually inside a jar and called National Velvet, had a thick layer of icing that the TSA agent considered a "gel." The TSA's blogger wrote the following:

"In general, cakes and pies are allowed in carry-on luggage, however, the officer in this case used their discretion on whether or not to allow the newfangled modern take on a cupcake per 3-1-1 guidelines. They chose not to let it go."

The cupcake's owner shot back that it had three layers of cupcake, each with a medium layer of icing, according to CBS News.

How comical can this get? Well, the company that made the cupcake, Wicked Good Cupcakes in Cohasset, Mass., says business is booming since the story of its cupcakes being considered a security threat hit the airwaves. It told ABC News that its website visits went from 100/day to 3,000/day. The company has renamed its infamous cupcake "National Security Velvet."

Not to miss a good opportunity, Silver Spoon Bakery in Providence, R.I., is marketing The Compliant Cupcake. According to a press release, "This cupcake is made of moist vanilla bean cake and is topped with a dollop of the company’s signature vanilla bean frosting. Three ounces to be exact. Prepared for take-off, this cupcake comes in its very own one quart-size bag for proper adherence to the TSA 3-1-1 rule."

And, a hat tip to the TSA blogger for coming up with the "Cupcakegate" moniker.

-Whit Richardson

by: Whit Richardson - Friday, December 9, 2011

I wrote last month about the controversy in Dallas over the firing of Lisa Chambers, the director of Dallas County’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Now that the dust has settled, it appears Dallas County is looking for a new director of homeland security and emergency management.

However, judging by what happened last time around, I wonder how many applicants the county will receive.

by: Whit Richardson - Monday, December 5, 2011

A few TSA-related news clips making the rounds.

CNN has reported that TSA screeners at Norfolk International Airport in Virginia prevented a 17-year-old girl from bringing her leather purse onto her flight because it displayed an image of a gun—an Old West six-shooter, to be precise. A TSA spokesperson told CNN that replica weapons are prohibited because they can be mistaken for the real thing in the X-ray machine or by fellow passengers. "Security checkpoints may be impacted or closed because replica weapons like toy guns, novelty grenades, fake bombs and other items appear similar to the real thing when viewed through an X-ray machine," the spokesman said.

TSA screeners in Los Angeles discovered a stun gun in a passenger's possessions that was disguised as a pink Smartphone, according to the TSA blog. The comments on the blog post are interesting. Many people seem to think the TSA overreacted in taking the stun gun away from the passenger, which seems odd to me. One person said: "Big deal. My laptop is probably more dangerous than that stun gun." Another said: "Keep up the good work of stopping harmless items from getting on airplanes." Everyone seems to be a TSA hater.

by: Whit Richardson - Friday, November 11, 2011

I've reached the point where there is no longer separation between my work and private life. I am a security-honed machine. Last night I was trying to unwind by watching some back-episodes of Comedy Central and low and behold Jeffrey Goldberg was on the Colbert Report talking about the theatrics of airport security, per his article in The Atlantic (which I blogged about in an earlier post). Not sure how many of you are regular watchers of the Colbert Report (my guess is not many, but I hate to make assumptions), so here's the video for your viewing pleasure:

by: Whit Richardson - Friday, November 11, 2011

So just returned from a visit with the Randy Nichols, the director of safety and security at Bowdoin College up here in Maine. It's always great to sit down with a director, one-on-one, and really hear some of the issues he or she faces on a daily basis.

We discussed a variety of concerns including some of the hot topics like active shooters and IP camera systems, but when asked what his most significant concern was, the answer was alcohol. Now, I went to college, I remember how prevalent alcohol was for those of any age, but for some reason it never clicked that alcohol was such a direct security concern. Prior to his role as director, Nichols spent 27 years with the Maine State Police and said that nearly every incident he investigated, whether it was a car accident, assault or robbery, was directly associated with alcohol. And those concerns followed him into his current role. He said that all his officers are specifically trained in alcohol awareness, which makes so much sense, but it just had never occurred to me as a substantial part of a security training program. We all have our ah ha moments, I guess.

Nichols also discussed some unique initiatives he has developed for his security program including creating a career ladder for his officers. In order to move to the next level (and the next pay stage, I'm assuming) officers are required to be active in an ongoing community project. Nichols explained that while this initiative is required for career progression, officers can design their own program and choose how they want to be involved in the college community. For example, one officer is involved in the outing club and is working toward his wilderness guide certification, side-by-side with students. Nichols said this initiative gets officers directly involved with students and helps to break down the barrier between security and students. That is pretty much Nichols message as director: He wants students to feel like they can approach him and his officers and aren't afraid security is out to get them. To ensure students know who he is, Nichols meets with every incoming freshman in a small group setting during orientation.

In other interesting news, Bowdoin will be unveiling a new one card system which they will be activating over the winter holiday. To learn more about this, be sure to check out our January issue.

by: Whit Richardson - Friday, October 28, 2011

TSA is in the spotlight again. This time for an alleged gaping hole in airport security at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which was exposed by an investigation from Atlanta's Channel 2 news team.

According to the television station, a whistleblower who works for Gate Gourmet, the world's largest airline catering company, stepped forward to report glaring security breaches he witnessed at the airport. And he brought video to prove himself. The whistleblower, who remains anonymous, took video that shows back doors being opened to allow several people through without swiping their badges and insecure access to catering carts destined to be loaded onto flights (one video shows the whistleblower putting an unauthorized orange juice container into one of these carts). "If I were some crazy lunatic, or Osama bin Laden sympathizer, I can come in and put anything on this plane," the whistleblower tells the TV station.

Neither the airport or the TSA responded to Channel 2's requests for comment (not counting generic statements reiterating the strict security procedures in place), though Gate Gourmet did offer a statement that said the video "does not capture the full extent of the vigorous, systematic, and multi-layered catering access control procedures that are in place," according to the TV station.

Security consultants who watched the videos and were interviewed by the TV station were stunned by the oversights. "The back door of this airport seems to be wide open," Brent Brown, a corporate security consultant, told the station. "This is a big, huge, gaping hole in aviation security right here."

According to TSA meeting minutes dug up by the station's investigation, there has been ongoing concern that catering operations are a soft spot in airport security.

What do you think? Watch the video and let me know. Do you think the video shows serious security breaches? Do you think this is the status quo at U.S. airports? If a group of emplyees who know each other arrive at work at the same time, is each opening the door with their badge, closing it in the face of a colleague so that he or she can than swipe their badge?

Email me at to share your thoughts.

Whit Richardson
Managing Editor
Security Director News

by: Whit Richardson - Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The TSA yesterday expanded its behavior detection program to Detroit, according to a report in Bloomberg Businessweek.

The agency implemented a pilot program over the summer in Terminal A of Boston's Logan International Airport. Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport now joins the pilot.

The program employs TSA officers to ask passengers simple questions about where they're traveling, what they'll be doing there, etc., and watch their responses for signs of nefarious intent. Hence the term "chat down", as opposed to "pat down".

The program, which has been compared to the extensive questioning that airline passengers undergo in Israeli airports, is an attempt by the TSA to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to security and towards a risk-based approach.

by: Whit Richardson - Monday, September 26, 2011

The TSA catches a lot of flak in the media, whether for frisking a six-year-old girl or searching a woman's afro for weapons. I'll occasionally highlight the latest controversy or interesting news item picked up in the media in this blog under the heading TSA Watch. My purpose is not to pig pile on the negative or sensational press, but to keep track of the type of security-related news the mainstream media latches onto and, subsequently, the news most people hear.

For today's installment, let's return to Orlando, the site of this year's ASIS conference. As everyone returned from the trade show last week, a man was caught at Orlando International Airport trying to carry three guns -- two of which were loaded -- through a TSA checkpoint. Wow. For the record, the man claimed he had grabbed the wrong bag when he left his home. Another whopper of a statistic cited in the news story is that the TSA claims to have caught passengers at OIA trying to carry 46 guns through security during the past 12 months.

This news made me think of my own recent TSA experience. I have an admission: In my preparation for my first ASIS show, I grabbed my backpack that carries my laptop and digital SLR camera. It's the bag I carry at all times. Since I never know when I may need to cut some twine or open a well-sealed package, I carry a knife in my bag. As it turns out, I forgot to remove the knife, which I only realized once I was in my Orlando hotel room after having flown from Boston with it in my carry-on luggage. Not wanting to take any chances, I put the knife in checked luggage on the way home.

It just goes to show that no screening process is perfect. My bag was so full of computer cords, camera chargers and pens, I can understand how someone may have missed a knife, but I was still surprised when I realized what had happened. Thankfully, though, the TSA screeners in Orlando didn't fail to catch this man's three guns when his bag went through the x-ray machine.

by: Whit Richardson - Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, told Politico this morning that airline passengers may soon be able to keep their shoes on when they pass through airport security, a result of a move toward a more risk-based approach to security screening. She did say, however, that there was no end in sight for restrictions on liquids.

Read more from Politico >>