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Reporter: Airport screeners 'never really looked' at bag

Greg Getrich
Greg Getrich  

Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.

(CNN) -- Reporters investigating airport security were able to smuggle contraband items onto 14 flights over the Labor Day weekend.

The New York Daily News reporters carried box cutters, razor knives and pepper spray aboard flights at 11 different airports, including those used by the September 11 hijackers. Security screeners did not find any of the contraband items.

Greg Getrich, one of the reporters involved in the investigation, joined Paula Zahn on Thursday to explain how he passed through security checkpoints.

ZAHN: Congratulations, you got a lot of attention with this. Describe to us how it is you were able to get all of these things on board these flights.

Reporters smuggle knives onto 14 flights 

GETRICH: We didn't attempt to get around security at all. We bought one-way tickets, which would have flagged us as security risks.

ZAHN: Immediately, you would think.

GETRICH: Right. Right. And in most cases, we were searched by hand at the gate, and sometimes after the X-ray machine.

ZAHN: Wait a minute, you would have this stuff in your carry-on bag? Would they not see it at all?

GETRICH: We each had one carry-on bag, and inside the carry-on bag, usually in an inside zipper pocket or at the bottom of the bag, were contraband items that had been banned by the federal authorities. Some of the items included a box cutter like this. So the bags...

ZAHN: You didn't try to conceal it? They were just sitting there in the pockets?

GETRICH: No. They were either sitting deep in the bag, underneath toiletries, files that we used at work, reporter pads, or they were in an inside pocket, near our tape recorder, near our pager, our cell phone. The bags would be hand searched, and usually, hand searching meant opening the bag and peeking inside, maybe removing a couple of items, swiping a couple of items with special swathes to see if there were explosives on them. But no one took everything out of the bag. Dulles came closest, in Washington D.C.

ZAHN: And how close did they get?

GETRICH: They removed most of the items, basically 90 percent of the items, but didn't open up one of the inside pockets. At least I couldn't see them open up one of the inside pockets; I was being wanded about three feet away.

ZAHN: In Dulles, when they found some of these items, did they simply take them away from you, or they never saw the box cutter?

GETRICH: No, they didn't see it. No, I can only assume they...

ZAHN: So they took stuff out of the bag, but they didn't get to this stuff?

GETRICH: Right, right, exactly. Some of the flights did not hand search us, Continental Airlines...

ZAHN: At all?


ZAHN: And was the bag X-rayed?

GETRICH: Yes, the bag was X-rayed, we went through normal security procedures, but we were not flagged for hand-searching.

ZAHN: Let me ask you this, you probably ... watch your stuff go through the X-ray machine. Could you pick it up on the picture?

GETRICH: No, it was very difficult. We X-rayed it ourselves at the newsroom. We X-ray all of the packages that come into our building. We wanted to get a photo of one of the bags that we ran in the paper, and it's very difficult to pick up the items.

All of the security experts that we spoke to said, especially items that are razor blades, that are small penknives that we were carrying, are very difficult to pick up with the technology that exists today, especially in the bags we had. Like I said, we had our cell phones, our pager. I had a tape recorder and a clock radio that I commonly bring when I travel. And all of that just looks like metal in the bag or electronics.

So a few times, we did go through the X-ray, and they would say "bag check," and they would come out and look at our bags, but they never really, really looked at our bag.

ZAHN: Had they looked at your bag and found the stuff, could you have been arrested? The stuff is illegal, after all, to carry on airplanes.

GETRICH: Right, we went into this knowing that we could be arrested. That is one of the potential fallouts. We assumed that the first time they found something, and we assumed they would find something, which they ended up not finding anything.

We assumed the first time they could confiscate everything we had, but if they noticed a pattern of the same person having items on then subsequent flights, we knew we would be fined or arrested, but it never happened.

ZAHN: What is interesting about your investigation, it comes just a little more than a month before this November 19th deadline that the feds have to train screeners, and I want to put up on the screen ... something the National Transportation Security Administration had to say.

While no one would come to talk about this, this is the statement they have issued -- quote -- "While these findings are certainly a concern, the reality is that the TSA security processes through the aviation system an average of 5 million passengers on 30,000 flights every single day. Since taking over responsibility for security on February 17, 2002, the TSA has confiscated 527 firearms and over 2.3 million items, such as scissors, pocket knives and box cutters."

Your response to that?

GETRICH: I'm sure it's true. The security experts that we spoke to essentially said that it's pointless to try to get these weapons off the planes, that they need to do other things, need to arm the pilots. They need to make the cockpits so you can't get inside. So if you have a weapon like this, there will either be someone on the plane with a bigger weapon, who knows how to use it, or you can't get in the cockpit, and then you won't be able to do anything with such a small weapon.

ZAHN: So what is the message to the flying consumer out there?

GETRICH: I think be aware of your surroundings, know what's going on and know that nothing can completely be safe. Everyone is more aware now. I think it's very unlikely, or more unlikely, that in today's climate if someone stood up on a plane with a box cutter that the passengers would not react. We saw what happened in Pennsylvania when they got phone calls on their cell phones and pagers. So you probably do need a bigger weapon, but the question is, what if several people get on board?

You never know what's going to happen. One of the flights we were on, there were nine, 10 people on. It was a jet, a commuter jet. And if you had a couple of people on with smaller weapons, you could still do some damage, I'm sure.

ZAHN: That's frightening. I'm sure you were pretty surprised that you got through security as easily as you did.

GETRICH: Yes, we were.

ZAHN: Greg Getrich, again, thank you for coming to talk about this investigation you covered over the Labor Day weekend.




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